Billy Graham was in the next room. That’s how close I was to meeting him. I was assistant news editor in the early 1990s at Christianity Today (CT) magazine, which Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry founded in 1956.
CT had sent me to a large gathering of Christian leaders, and at that meeting—one in which I found myself in awe (rightfully or wrongly) of the men I rubbed shoulders with—all of those men wanted to be next to, yes, Billy Graham.
I had seen Graham only one time before, in 1975 when I was 13 and he preached his second crusade in Jackson, his first Jackson crusade being in 1952 when he famously called out local segregated churches.
During that 1952 crusade, Graham said, “There is no scriptural basis for segregation,” Graham, adding, “The audience may be segregated but there is no segregation at the altar.”
During that 1952 meeting, Graham took immense heat from the most highly esteemed conservative Christian leaders in the state, including the fundamentalist preachers and leaders of Jackson’s most revered Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches.
Graham spoke to white Mississippians and they at least had to listen, while they could dismiss with disdain Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. When King was shot and killed at 6:01 p.m. on April 4, 1968, Graham was conducting a crusade in Australia, and he later said that, “I was almost in a state of shock. Not only was I losing a friend through a vicious and senseless killing, but America was losing a social leader and a prophet, and I felt his death would be one of the greatest tragedies in our history."
Indeed, in the years to come, Graham's Christianity Today would highlight a young Mississippian named John Perkins; that article helped launch Perkins into his international community development ministry, having founded Voice of Calvary Ministries and Church in Jackson and Mendenhall Ministries. Later, CT would feature a young man named Dolphus Weary, who would take the helm at Mendenhall Ministries and then become the first executive director of Mission Mississippi.
On and on Graham's influence goes in the Magnolia State. But I digress.
Even as I write this, Graham is being eulogized by the nation’s media, which has always held a peculiarly receptive stance to Graham. Ironically, these same media outlets now spurn the very movement that Graham and Henry helped launch—evangelicalism.
Once during a CT editors' meeting, back in the early 1990s, we all were given a historical document detailing the founding of the internationally-influential evangelical magazine. It described the early meetings that Graham the evangelist, Henry the tough theologian, and others including Graham’s father-in-law, L. Nelson Bell, who not only helped found Christianity Today, but also a magazine that eventually became World Magazine.
In founding CT in 1956, Graham said he wanted to "plant the evangelical flag in the middle-of-the-road, taking the conservative theological position but a definite liberal approach to social problems."
Graham and company felt that liberalism both within and without the Church in America was rampantly rising. An especially influential magazine based in Chicago, The Christian Century, was pushing the notions of a nonliteral Bible and less-than-unique Jesus Christ. Indeed, the great theologians of the first half of the 20th century all seemed to be liberal.
Graham and Henry, who both had been involved in launching Youth for Christ International in 1946—the first true national nondenominational youth movement for evangelicals—saw the danger. It was when Graham was a young preacher with YCI that newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst first took note of the young evangelist and ever-after sang Graham's praises in Hearst's newspapers.
Without a magazine such as CT that addressed culture and theology from an intellectual point of view, America's conservative Church (which then was called "fundamentalist") might eventually have been led astray, though God would have surely used other means to preserve it.
It was hard in the 1950s to conceive that the beloved United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Church of the United States denominations—among others—would largely cave to liberal scholars who eventually would infect their seminaries, and that these liberal schools would educate a generation of liberal pastors who would then fill church pews throughout American with liberal preaching. (Caveat: some in these denominations still stay the evangelical course.) But, of course, this happened, and to that extent, Graham and Henry’s efforts fell short.
But the fact is that CT became a massively important mainstream "go-to" magazine respected still by the likes of The New York Times, et al, and featuring pastors and theologians like J.I. Packer, John Stott, Henry, and scores of others. (Among the early contributors were F. F. Bruce, Edward John Carnell, Frank Gaebelein, Walter Martin, John Warwick Montgomery, and Harold Lindsell.)
“Thinking Christians” could read CT and process the key issues of the day with an eye for preserving the true message of the Gospel.
Graham often said that the magazine became much more intellectual than he had originally conceived and he reminded people constantly that he preached the simple Gospel—that Christ died for the sins of you and me, and that if an individual repented of his or her sins and accepted Christ, that person would be saved and spend eternity in heaven. No frills. No apologies. Graham was not a frequent writer in the magazine’s early days or thereafter, but he was its most covered individual.
It seemed that as Billy Graham went in the broader American culture, so went "evangelicalism," a word that gained much more gravitas due to CT and new seminaries such as Fuller Theological Seminary in California.
Today, the media mixes the terms “fundamentalism” and “evangelicalism” with blunt naivety and lack of precision. Fundamentalism was and is a movement that started in the first half of the 20th century and said/says we must pull out of the prevailing American culture, weave ourselves into a protective cocoon, and blast away at trends in music, art, and society as Christ-less and of Satan. Evangelicalism as originally presented by Graham and Henry and CT said and says that Christians must be in the culture, seasoning it with Christ’s presence, influencing the earth, not just securing fire insurance from heaven. We should go to the best universities and be the best in our fields.
Today, we see the fruits of this early evangelicalism. We see thoughtful Christians in every realm of society. As “grassroots” church members, we can look to these leaders to help us understand what is happening in science regarding such matters as creationism, evolution, and quantum physics and far beyond them; in arts with movements and trends that seem to mock faith; and, yes, in politics, where there have always been good men of faith who—inspired by Graham and Henry’s evangelical movement—have realized that Christians can’t abandon this all-to-powerful realm of influence.
Of course, along the way there have been many speed bumps, depending on which person you ask.
Graham’s crusades progressively became media savvy, recognizing TV's power to reach into the American mind and soul. Many Christian leaders in the South, and most of them in Mississippi, in the 1950s through at least the 1980s, said Graham had sold out; he had watered down the Gospel; he had aligned himself with U.S. presidents who were “anti-God." He had spent all of his time “evangelizing” and little to none of his time providing Christians with ongoing means to grow in their faith.
They even called him the "anti-Christ." Today such aspersions toward America's beloved preacher are hard to fathom, but ask any evangelical leader in Mississippi today who was a part of Mississippi’s main denominations decades ago, and they’ll tell you it was so.
Graham met with popes. He preached in Soviet Union. In both cases, he was accused of all-but-endorsing their world-views. He was too flashy, too made-for-TV, and too open-armed with this world.
The fact is, Graham simply believed that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was the most powerful, life-changing, earth-shaking force ever. He admitted that he wished he had memorized more scripture as a youth and that he’d had a chance to study more theology. And he did not back down from his core commitment to tell as many people worldwide the Good News.
Today, and in weeks to come, national and world leaders will rise up and call him great—and they will not do so out of some requisite need to say a "good word." They will do so because they know that Billy Graham was just that—great. He was a lighthouse amid dark waters until his final breath this morning.
Today, the millions of deceased who became devout Christians under the influence of Graham now welcome him in heaven. Wrapping my mind around that is impossible.
Today, we lost Graham, but his influence has outlasted any U.S president that he counseled, and that was 12. Many of us will sit down today and reflect not only on his greatness and impact, but also on our own spiritual and moral trajectory.
I certainly will.
And I must confess, I am also recalling peeking through a door at that meeting of evangelical leaders, straining to get a more personal glimpse of Graham than I had in 1975 when I walked down the steps at Jackson’s Veterans Memorial Stadium and "dedicated my life to Christ." That night in 1975, I saw him from 50 yards away, and he was just a man, but he was a man filled with fire and compassion for lost souls.
God used him to help set the course of my high school, college, and adult years. I fail in my faith so often. I am so needy. But I am Christ's in large part because of Graham.
Thank you, Rev. Graham, for influencing so many of us.
Thank you, Rev. Graham, for never wavering.
Thank you Rev. Graham. Thank you God.