When a person lives the kind of life that elicits multiple published biographies, sometimes only one of them ends up widely read. And when such a person lives to be over 90 years old, sometimes that a person fades in the world’s collective memory. Such I believe is the lot God has granted to Billy Graham. There is now an entire generation—literally billions of people across the globe!—who have never heard (maybe never heard of) Billy Graham preach. What a terrible shame considering millions testify to his electrifying spiritual power in proclaiming the gospel to the world, one city at a time. I remember a televised broadcast of a Billy Graham crusade when I was in college back in the mid-1990s. Even then, I noticed young people would stop and listen to Graham the elder statesman of the gospel. But I wonder if those who came of age shortly thereafter can look back to such an experience. Because when Graham was an active crusader for Jesus, it was common for every family to have a story about how they first heard him preach. In my own family, we share of the time my grandfather saw Graham on television in the early 1950s when his star status in American evangelicalism was first rising. “That man is going to be great!” my Granddad prophesied. And shortly thereafter God made him great. And my family never forgot it.
Graham’s greatness played out over a decades-long career. Just like other men of such acclaim, his character and message were not without enemies. But no one could deny his massive influence on innumerable souls, on the worldwide church (especially Protestant Christianity), and on world politics (especially the US Presidency). It is on these three domains that award-winning journalist David Aikman focuses in his very readable biography, Billy Graham: His Life and Influence (BG). As a former senior correspondent for Time magazine and author of numerous published books and articles, Aikman is eminently qualified as a professional to analyze and narrate Graham’s life. As a friendly acquaintance who was invited into Graham’s home to personally know the evangelist, he is qualified by his proximity to accurately and intimately record Graham’s story. And as a Protestant evangelical Christian, he is spiritually qualified to understand Graham’s heart from an insider’s perspective. Thus Aikman’s biography of Graham is perhaps the best book to introduce the hugely important historical figure that is Billy Graham.
After a brief introductory chapter describing the highlights of Graham’s overall influence, BG proceeds to narrate his early life. My experience with biographies is the “childhood and youth” section is treated as a necessary but unimportant part of the story. Thankfully not so in this book! I found the chapter on Graham’s youth interesting and connected to his adult life. Billy’s ordinary upbringing in North Carolina appears exciting to me because the seeds of his life’s work seem to sprout early. Growing up in a devout Christian home, Graham’s parents made sure he received an earthy education in religion and morals. Graham’s family of origin was not privileged, but neither was his family in want. Whatever typical Christian working-class white folks lived like in the 1920s, that’s what Billy’s home and childhood looked like. Aikman illustrates how Billy was a free-spirited child who got into a lot of harmless trouble, playing pranks and joshing around with kids and adults alike. The common thread in all this youthful horseplay was Billy’s universal likeability. Simply put, people loved young Billy Graham. His personality was infectious, and so he was popular with the guys and the ladies for all the right reasons. This dominant personality trait—likeability—would contribute later in adulthood to his unique success in disarming and winning over many critics. Before his conversion to Christ, Billy’s personality was a “common grace” trait. But when the Holy Spirit got ahold of him, that personality would be molded and sanctified for greater purposes than merely winning friends.
Graham’s conversion to Christ occurred at a local revival near his home in North Carolina. As is the case with most respectable yet unregenerate people reared in religious homes, Billy had little interest in hearing a traveling evangelist preach. But friends of the family who knew Billy convinced him to go hear what the preacher had to say. As the record shows, Billy wasn’t too impressed at first but he kept coming back day after day to hear more. Then the moment came when he responded to the gospel call on his life to give himself to Jesus and walk the “sawdust trail” to make a public decision for Christ. And the rest was history.
Well, not really. But God and his gospel really did get ahold of the young Graham. Almost immediately he began sharing with his friends and with the adults in his life about the spiritual change that had come upon him. From the start, Billy’s energy, friendliness, and feisty personality translated into a holy ambition that surpassed his peers who had been Christians for much longer. BG traces the story of Billy’s early preaching in high school, and at at Bob Jones University, Florida Bible Institute, and later Wheaton College. The reader learns of Billy’s international ministry as a Youth For Christ evangelist, ministering alongside his evangelist friend and partner: the gifted and articulate Charles Templeton. Templeton and Graham would eventually part ways, as the former pursued a prestigious seminary degree at Princeton where he eventually lost his faith altogether, while Billy stayed the course as an evangelist drawing larger and larger crowds for his crusades in city after city.
One aspect of BG that I appreciate is its merging of chronology and theme. For example, as he covers the period when Graham was still only a stateside celebrity in the early years of his ministry, Aikman describes and analyzes Graham’s theology and preaching in the context of the McCarthy era’s anti-communism and interprets it alongside Graham’s fundamentalist Christian upbringing. But Graham began to evolve as a preacher and a theologian, which transformed his ministry. When he ventured to England and began meeting evangelical Christians who were not fundamentalists, Graham came under the influence of charismatic believers. As he talked and prayed with these new and exciting friends, Graham testifies to a richer experience of the Holy Spirit, a sort of anointing he says empowered him and his ministry to greater holiness, zeal, effectiveness, and blessing. As the 1950s faded into the past and the 1960s brought racial unrest to the forefront in America, Aikman shows how Graham’s views began to align more publicly with civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Never a segregationist when it came to conducting his crusades that were attended and staffed by many races, Graham came to see the gospel he preached had implications for racial reconciliation. And into the 1970s and 1980s, Graham’s approach to communism softened as he traveled to Soviet-bloc countries that invited him to preach unhindered. At the time, Billy received much criticism for his willingness to preach to America’s communist enemies. The critics, including many serving in high positions in the federal government feared Graham would be used for propaganda purposes. Even his wife, Ruth Bell Graham, sometimes objected to Billy’s forays into countries whose governments were hostile to America and democracy. But Graham’s insistence on preaching wherever he was invited to speak freely was eventually vindicated as a risk worth taking. Historians connect the fall of the Soviet Union and communism in Eastern Europe to the fruit of Graham’s visits behind the Iron Curtain.
One of the most significant and downright unique features of Graham’s ministry was his access to every US President from Truman to George W. Bush. To many he was a spiritual adviser and confidant, and to a few he was a close friend. It would be tempting to assume that Graham leveraged his relationship with leaders of the free world into a prophetic role—something like the Old Testament prophets speaking to Israel and Judah’s kings. Aikman is very careful to emphasize that Graham saw himself as an evangelist and not a prophet. In fact, Graham had opportunity to speak as a “man of God” to the powers that be at several key historic junctures, particularly during Nixon’s Watergate scandal and Clinton’s marital affairs. But he chose the road of consoler and adviser to the presidents instead of prophet and confronter. This desire to be liked and maintain influence in the halls of power had mixed results and revealed some of Graham’s weaknesses as a judge of character. Aikman argues that Graham could have been God’s instrument to confront Presidential sins which could have altered the history of the world in the 20th century. Conversely, the author theorizes that Graham’s chosen role of pastor rather than prophet to the presidents kept the White House door open in subsequent administrations. It is hard to imagine the evangelist publicly rebuking Richard Nixon and then being invited into the private quarters of George and Barbara Bush. Thus there were clearly benefits and drawbacks to Graham’s strategy (that may have had significant history-altering consequences) in dealing with America’s presidents.
This strategy of consoler and adviser to our nation’s Commanders-in-Chiefs evolved quite naturally into an unofficial but nonetheless real national role for Graham. Aikman makes this connection explicit in his narrative. Because Graham functioned as private consoler to the executive head of America, that head would understandably call on Graham first to be consoler to the national body. And so Billy became something of a National Consoler, a role that a majority of Americans seemed to readily bestow upon him. What were his duties in this role? Showing up at large-scale tragedies such as the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center bombings to give sermons on the promises and comforts of the gospel. Speaking at high-profile funerals to deliver gentle and hopeful eulogies. Being the spiritual and religious face of the nation when the American people needed a reminder of their Christian heritage. Graham revealed his ability to shoulder the job each time when called upon to serve as he ably answered the troubling questions America struggled with. Why does God allow evil and suffering? Does God still love us? Is there any hope for healing, restoration, and salvation? Graham, the closest thing to America’s Pastor, rose in times of trouble and doubt to offer words of blessing and hope.
The legacy of such a man is bound to be immense. But most biography readers who want to learn about great men of history seldom ask what happened to the family. Although the family story can never be definitively written as time marches on, Aikman does not leave this stone unturned. He concludes Billy was a good husband and father, even though the extended absences and duties that preoccupied Graham’s mind and heart took a significant toll on the happiness and future well-being of his wife, children, and even grandchildren. Billy’s wife Ruth was a capable and independent woman in her own right. She raised their five children on the family homestead for long stretches without Billy’s assistance. She served the children face to face, and also was Billy’s most loving, trusted, cherished, and frequent adviser as they connected via phone calls when he was off crusading for God. But regarding the children, Aikman hints that Billy’s lengthy trips fostered an ache for intimacy in his children. All the children married very young in adulthood, some even as soon as they were able to leave their parents’ home. Most had subsequent marital trouble and several divorced. Over the years a tolerance of divorce may have developed in the Graham extended family. (Perhaps this contributed in some way to the scandalous affair and fall from pastoral ministry of his grandson Tullian Tchividjian that unfolded after Aikman’s book was published?) But on the whole, Graham’s legacy to his family was positive. He and Ruth were able to disciple their children in the Lord and point them to Jesus the Savior. Each of them is now heavily involved in some kind of Christian ministry. Considering the family legacies of other famous American evangelists such as Billy Sunday, it is clear that on the whole God heard the prayers of Billy and Ruth, and blessed the labors of their hands.
I’ve learned not to say things like, “There never will be another Billy Graham.” Church history is replete with outstanding men and women who served in spectacular and faithful ways. Twentieth century evangelist Billy Graham is clearly an example of such a one. But if there is one thing I know about people who appear irreplaceable, it is that God raises up his servants in each generation to accomplish his mysterious purposes. History may never again see another evangelist with the expansive worldwide reach and unique access to political leaders as did Graham, but with God all things are possible. And God seems to delight in surprising the world with his gifts of great men and women who serve his purpose in their generation. The world doesn’t need more people who idolize reverential figures like Billy Graham. It needs more people–men and women, boys and girls–with the humble and ambitious heart of Billy Graham to serve the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Reading Christian biographies such as this one by David Aikman is a good place to start to cultivate such godly humble ambition.
[Disclaimer: Author David Aikman has become a friend of mine. I consider it a privilege to know him as a brother in Christ. He provided me a free copy of this book simply as a gift, with no expectation that I post a review of it.]
Brief biography of the author
Authorized biographical documentary. Billy Graham: God’s Ambassador (Parts 1 & 2)
A classic Billy Graham sermon on Forgiveness: