SOME THOUGHTS ON THE REV. BILLY GRAHAM
By Dennis Daily
The death of the Rev. Billy Graham could not have come at a worse time in the history of this
country, if for no other reason than a major voice of moderation is gone. This is an era where there seems to be no middle ground. The stalemate in Washington – made worse by a rising time of posturing and name-calling – is the kind of intransigence that flies in the face of all that Dr. Graham had preached against.
Although he was traditionally aligned with the more conservative side of American society and politics, his constant call to follow the dictates of Christ … feed the poor, take care of the oppressed … seemed a more moderate and charitable course than the signals he may have been sending due to his association with prominent GOP leaders.
Dr. Billy Graham’s death is a huge loss. Even though, in his later years, he may have left the giving out of the message to others, he WAS here. Among us. Looming large. A call for charity and moderation.
A TRULY ECUMENICAL LEADER
As a kid growing up in a Catholic home in rural southern Indiana, I had an interesting way of looking at the Rev. Billy Graham. I remember in eighth grade telling one of the nuns at my school that Graham was what I thought of as a “Protestant Pope.”
Her retort was half scolding, half smiling. I am sure she understood what I meant. I also remember feeling good about sharing my positive feelings about Graham and his growing ministry with the nun.
Just the year before, on the playground, she had come up to me and asked me why I was singing a Protestant hymn? It was “In the Garden.” “Why do you know that song,” she asked. “My mother was a Protestant before marrying my dad and she plays all that stuff on the piano all the time,” was my answer.
“Start it again,” the nun said. I did. She sang alone with me. “Why do YOU know it,” I asked? “Same reason, she answered.” I guess when it had come time to share my feelings about Billy Graham with her, I felt I was safe.
A KIND OF QUIET AUTHORITY
Graham, from his earliest days, seemed to exude a kind of gentle authority, whenever and wherever he spoke. Even though I wasn’t sure that I should be watching … Catholic upbringing and all .. I could not wait until the next Billy Graham Crusade was on television.
One of the reasons was that I began to really love and admire the late George Beverly Shea. As a matter of fact, a long documentary piece I did on Shea, which I uploaded to YouTube shortly after his death, has gotten an incredible number of “hits” in the past few years.
Shea, of course, always seemed to be there when it was time to wrap up the crusade broadcast and really send the message home. With his deep, rich voice, Shea also demonstrated a lot of authority. In one of his final concerts, in his 90s, he belted out “How Great Thou Art.” The audience, tears running down their cheeks, reveled as the old master sang his heart out, never missing a note, in the praise of the Lord.
Shea had first sung the song in Madison Square Garden, at the 1957 Billy Graham Crusade. He sang it every night for 16 consecutive nights. He would sing it so many times over the years, in subsequent crusades and personal performances, that he lost count.
Shea may have sung live before more people than anyone else in history. I would like to think that that is the case. There is no reason to doubt that.
His contribution to the work of Billy Graham can not be calculated. Along with the late Cliff Barrows, Graham’s long-serving music director, Shea brought an incalculable number of people out of their seats and to the altar.
The next time you see an old film of a Billy Graham crusade, just look at the faces of people as Barrow’s music and Shea’s voice filled the auditorium. If you believe in the ability of music to be the “hand of God,” you have proof in what happened at each and every night at each and every crusade.
And, in many ways, that was Billy Graham’s secret. No fire-and-brimstone preaching here. No faith healing, with people being tapped on the head and falling backward into the arms of waiting assistants. No screaming and yelling and talking in tongues. None of that. Graham was as simple as his message … and as powerful.
Billy Graham told it as it was, whether people were ready to hear it or not. He was fearless and his attitude and delivery made others feel that way … fearless enough to conquer life’s problems, fearless enough to come forward and answer the call to come to the altar.
GRAHAM HAD INTERNATIONAL APPEAL
Just about every nation seemed to welcome the Billy Graham Crusades. He ended up preaching on six continents, in 185 countries at 417 separate crusades. His patented method of having a native fellow preacher stand beside him, repeating his words in the language of the people he was visiting, is an indelible image.
People who were interviewed after the crusades said that when Graham spoke through the interpreter, they still heard Graham’s voice and inflection. Even though Graham was not speaking their language, he essentially was – through his body language and soaring voice.
His message rang true wherever he spoke. It is no stretch of the imagination to say that Billy Graham actually DID speak in many tongues.
Graham’s longest crusade lasted 16 weeks. It was the 1957 event in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. He used that venue, where prize fighters had beaten each others brains out, to batter some sense into the attendees … gently. No doubt, some had warned Graham not to attempt a crusade in the Big Apple. That urban environment might not be the right place to spread the gospel. Crowds might be thin. It all might be a huge and costly mistake. But, Billy Graham knew the need and had faith in the outcome.
But, it is also safe to assume that attendance, or the lack of it, was the last thing on Graham’s mind as he prepared for the crusade. He was known for speaking to his audience, one-on-one. Had he walked away from New York City with but a single convert, that would have been enough.
THE CRUSADES SEEM ENDLESS
Billy Graham had begun his method of holding crusades … a new form of the old revival meeting … in 1947. The first venue was in, of all places, the Civic Auditorium in Grand Rapids, Michigan. More than 6,000 people attended. That was just the start. As his popularity grew and people sought out his message, the size and prestige of the venues grew.
Often has many as 5,000 locals would be enlisted to sing in a mass choir. By 1973, his international appeal guaranteed large audiences wherever he went. But, no one expected what would happen at the crusade that year in Seoul, South Korea. That crusade marked one of the high points – at least as far as attendance – of his ministry.
Before he left the city after the final session, more than 1.1 million people had come to hear him preach.
EVEN THE CATHOLICS WELCOMED HIM
Over the years, the coming of the Billy Graham crusades became important events in many cities. It was not unusual for many different denominations to assist in the publicity prior to the event. It became a “quiet” fact that whenever Billy Graham came to a city ALL churches benefited. It wasn’t just the Baptists who came to his services. Methodist congregations and even Catholic churches reported upswings in attendance in the wake of Graham’s crusades.
Graham always brought an awareness of the Gospel wherever he preached. Someone once quipped that Graham “could speak on a street corner in any small town, and someone would come forward.” He had that much charisma and ethical magnetism.
SO, WAS HE THE PROTESTANT POPE, OR NOT?
Billy Graham certainly was the default Protestant religious leader in America. Many others, over the years, came to the forefront … then either faded or self-destructed.
After Oral, Jim and Tammy, Jerry, Jimmy, Ernest and the rest had their day in the evangelistic sun, Billy Graham remained. Solid as a rock.
He was not a big dabbler in politics, while many around him became spokesmen for national civic causes, Graham left most of his rhetoric to the heavenly side of the issues. He could have possibly swung the election to Nixon in 1960 had he played the “religion card” against Kennedy. He didn’t. In his later years he told a reporter that he regretted any involvement in politics he may have had over the years.
His image of stability and bi-partisanship, though, won him a place on the dais and on the agenda at more than half a dozen presidential inaugurations over the years.
A SLIGHT CHANGE IN WORDING
Over the years, there has been but one real change in the way Billy Graham carried out his work. After the attacks of 9/11, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association started calling the mass meetings “missions,” instead of “crusades.” With an increased sensitivity of the Muslim community, it was decided that “crusade” had a negative connotation and the word was dropped.
THIS GRAND LEGACY OF BILLY GRAHAM
Everyone who preaches the Gospel today owes a debt to him. Every singer and musician and organist and choir director owes a debt to his organization and the men and women who planned and carried out all the background work that made his crusades such comfortable places.
Every denomination owes a debt to Billy Graham. He was an anchor and a solid foundation in a time when other evangelists had feet and lives of clay. He was the constant that made others proud to be preachers.
There is a great story about a small-town Baptist minister who is rehearsing his Sunday sermon. His wife walks into his office to tell him that she thought she heard a second voice coming from the room. “Oh, I was imitating Billy Graham,” he told her. She responded: “Just be yourself. Let Billy Graham do the rest.”
He may not have been the Protestant Pope but, in his own way, he lived up to one of the terms used in describing a Roman Pope: Pontifex Maximus … The Great Bridge Builder.
Whether it was his ability to bring religions together in cities where he spoke or his ability to bridge international gaps or language and culture and religion, Billy Graham succeeded in his mission.
America needed Billy Graham. He was among us much longer than most men. For that we are grateful. We need to be grateful. Billy Graham was one of the greatest messengers the Gospel ever had … and he walked among us.
Billy Graham gave this nation a kind of strong, continuum through some really rough times. Through Vietnam and Watergate, unemployment and White House scandals, riots and embarrassments, Billy Graham seemed to move with a certain ease a quiet, calming authority. It showed in his message and his voice and his smile. It was as if he were holding God’s hand while he spoke.
He holds God’s hand … again.
Dennis Daily writes from Indiana. He is also a columnist and longtime wire service re
ligion editor at United Press International (UPI)