Evangelist Billy Graham, one of my few heroes, almost made it to 100! He died on Wednesday, just months shy of his centenary birthday. Unfortunately, I believe, the public will not remember him as he really was because of the prominence of his son Franklin, who recently spoke in Waco. Franklin is a leading spokesman for the new version of the so-called “Religious Right” that many of us view as less generous than the Graham we remember.
I grew up in a home and church that revered the elder Graham. During my childhood and youth in the 1950s and 1960s he was the gold standard of a great Christian “man of God.” And he was widely regarded as one of the most influential and admired men in the world during those years and into the 1990s when he retired.
I had the privilege of seeing and hearing Graham preach in person twice — once when I was 12 and again when I was almost 50. He was the same preacher both times even though old age was taking its toll on him the second time.
The first time was in Omaha, Nebraska. My family drove five hours just to hear him preach at the old Ak-sar-ben dog-racing stadium. I have vivid memories of sitting for hours in the bleachers waiting for him to arrive. We wanted the best seats “in the house” so it was worth the wait. I was spellbound.
The second time was in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was teaching at an evangelical liberal arts college nearby and went to the Humphrey Metrodome (now replaced by the new Viking stadium) in downtown. The crowd gathered to hear Graham speak numbered well over 60,0000, including thousands outside the stadium watching on large-screen televisions.
Graham’s message was always clear and simple and avoided getting bogged down into denominational differences or even controversial social and political issues. Yes, he hung out with politicians and entertainment personalities, but his motives were pure as the driven snow. He wanted to share Jesus with them.
Billy Graham was “Mr. Evangelical” when evangelicalism wasn’t yet the Republican Party at prayer. He practically defined what it meant to be an evangelical Christian for much of the latter half of the 20th century. Together with a few lesser-known individuals he led a movement out of rigid, narrow, dogmatic fundamentalism and into the light of a broader, more generous and ecumenical conservative Christianity.
But being “conservative” was not Graham’s main concern; his main concern was spreading the gospel and sharing the love of God with everyone. By all accounts he loved people and was kind to everyone. Unlike many television evangelists, he didn’t succumb to the temptations of power, money or sex. He followed a self-imposed rule of never being alone with any woman but his wife. True scandal never touched his ministry.
There are thousands upon thousands of people alive today, around the world, whose lives were impacted by Billy Graham. He was a force of nature, a modern prophet, a model man (husband, father, leader) and the person I think of first and foremost when I picture what it means to be “evangelical.”