Billy Club

A simple, happy message helped him become the nation's favorite preacher. Thanks to a Popsicle-slick PR machine and a talent for dodging tough questions, we've forgotten what Billy Graham is really all about.

The Power, the Glory, the Simplicity

Graham's hallmarks are a deliberate and constant simplicity ("I preach to people very much like everybody is a child or a teenager," he told the Indianapolis Star in May) and a reassuringly positive message ("God loves you, God loves you, He loves you, He loves you") delivered with absolute conviction. "He has a marvelous voice, a tremendous fluency with prose; his enunciation is perfect, and he speaks with tremendous vigor," notes Shea. "He has a sense of the drama that engages people in this process of salvation and brings them up to the front."

The drama works because he doesn't ... er ... get bogged down in the details. "A thousand years went by, and no Christ," he once declaimed. "Two thousand years rolled by, and no Christ." He kept going until, in the dramatic pause after 7,000 years, a friend hissed, "Shut up." The friend later explained, "According to Archbishop Ussher's chronology of Genesis there have been but six thousand years since Adam was created." Graham just grinned. "I was going to at least ten thousand years, because that was good preaching!"

A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s
A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s
A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s
Archive Photos
A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s

Good preaching is cosmic in scope, cataclysmic in consequence. But it's also as reassuring as falling back into bed when you're woozy with the flu. Asked about her husband's rocklike faith, Ruth Graham once observed, "Of course he has doubts, but not for long — because he never really entertains them."

He did hold a sleep-over one night, though, back in his college days. His friend and classmate Charles Templeton — who tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Graham to attend Princeton's top-flight seminary with him — was beginning to question the fundamentalist approach. "The arguments you make, Chuck, no, I don't know how to answer them, I can't answer them," Graham reportedly responded. "But wiser men than you and I will ever be, they have already encountered and examined all those arguments, and they have concluded that the Biblical record can be completely trusted."

Still, Templeton's questions kept Graham awake that night. Finally, sheets hot and tangled and his head whirling, he resolved the dilemma by deciding that when he preached, it wasn't Billy Graham speaking but God speaking through him. Certitude settled soft as a cape around his shoulders, and, with full evangelical powers reborn, he began to disdain "the so-called intellectuals." "I don't care what any scientist says. It doesn't make the slightest difference to me," insisted Graham. "The Word of God is enough."

The famous theologian Reinhold Niebuhr finally braved a public criticism. He challenged Graham's 1957 Madison Square Garden Crusade (which yielded the all-time high for souls saved, 61,148 by one account) for promising new life, not through dark nights of the soul or painful daylight struggles but by signing a decision card. This approach, said Niebuhr, ignored the "ambiguity of all human virtues, the serious perplexities of guilt and responsibility ... which each true Christian must continually face."

Graham responded, "If I tried to preach as he writes, people would be so bewildered that they would walk out." In his autobiography, he wrote, "Brilliant writers such as Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr really made me struggle with concepts that had been ingrained in me since childhood.... The new meanings they put into some of the old theological terms confused me terribly."

He preferred bold outlines, stories with obvious morals and a Jesus who was, as he assured Frady, "no sissy. I have seen so many pictures of Jesus as a frail, sad-faced weakling with a soft, almost feminine figure, that I am sick of it. You can be sure he was straight, strong, big, handsome, gracious, courteous.... His nervous system was perfectly coordinated with the rest of his body. He would have been one of the great athletes of all times. Every inch a man! I can believe in that Christ! I can follow that Christ!"

The same certainty seeps through all Graham's sermons and publications. "There can be no real conflict between the facts of the Bible and the facts of science," says the BGEA Web page, "since God was the Author of both." Even life after death isn't much of a mystery: "Yes, we will recognize our loved ones in Heaven," says Graham, "and they will recognize us." The booklet for the St. Louis Crusade's Operation Andrew (named for the disciple who evangelized his brother, Simon Peter) even has fill-in-the-blanks after Scripture verses: "What happened when you received God? I became one of God's ____ (children)."

Is there anything wrong with going to the core of the Good News and staying there, avoiding the muddles at the edges by taking it all, quite literally, on faith? "There is a blessed simplicity in Jesus, in the Gospel, in Buddhism, in all the great traditions," remarks Belden Lane, professor of theological studies at St. Louis University (and an expatriate from the same Southern revival tents that formed Graham). "In conversions of any kind, when you come to a point of profound change, there is a deep sense of having recovered the simplicity of things. But part of moving beyond that is recognizing the new complexities that emerge; asking yourself how this new way of ordering your life affects your family, your political involvements, your social engagements...."

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