Billy Graham

by Robert W. Christman

William Franklin Graham, Jr., Billy Graham to the world (Billy Frank to his grade school friends and teachers), was born November 7, 1918, four and a half years after my father. Billy died February twenty-first of 2018.

My father liked Billy. He read his books and was a charter subscriber to Christianity Today, a magazine founded by Billy’s father-in-law, L. Nelson Bell, in which Billy had a hand. In response to my father’s donations to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, he also received Decision magazine, which he did not like as well. We both listened with relish to his sermons on the radio, and when we got a television set, we tuned in every
evening during his weeklong “crusades.” Both he and I did have trouble with Graham’s decision theology, but as Billy was an avid reader of the Bible (and it showed), it seemed to us that his flaws were mollified by the grace of God. As with his altar calls, so with his inevitable appeals for monetary support, and even with his photo-op meetings with political and religious leaders, we were not altogether put-off by what we did not like.

With the termination of his earthly pilgrimage, I turned to his autobiography, Just as I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), which Billy wrote when he was in his seventies. I was interested especially in the early chapters for I wanted to know what molded him. I also wanted to see how, late in life, he appraised those foundational influences and early experiences. What I discovered was that from early on he was both childlike (good) and childish (not so good). The childlike quality was the beauty of his faith. The childishness seemed connected to the narrow scope of his biblical interest: conversion, not spiritual growth.

Billy Graham’s faith was in Jesus Christ, Savior of the world. Every sermon was a testimony to Jesus Christ and him crucified. This is his legacy. But in the way of a child he was fascinated by big numbers, especially the count of those who gathered to hear him, and the number of those who registered their positive reaction on his terms. In step with those numerical obsessions was a career-long interest in people of high status and
repute. Yet, there is great strength in numbers and great power in prestige, and both throw open the door to temptation. (Think of king David and the woman next door.) He could easily have concluded that that he was exempt from the strictures of the Sixth commandment. By the grace of God, his good reputation was not sullied.

There was something childish about his prayer life. Like his friends and associates, Billy Graham prayed often and long. But if we take him at this word, his petitions, though related to the success of his ministry, regularly took shape within the bounds of his plans: God was to assert himself within the parameters of Billy’s understanding (size and influence) as if God’s plans could not be wildly counter intuitive. The way of the Lord with the Jews (and Gentiles too) as Paul delineates it in Romans 9 to 11 challenges and offends human reason. But like my seminary class on Romans, Billy seems not to have included it in his studies. Even though he was an exemplary reader of the Psalms (five a day), and even though the Psalms, like Isaiah and the other prophets, are full of divine contradiction, he showed scan appreciation for God’s great judgments upon humanity, his saints first of all. Yet a growing understanding of them can satisfy the deepest yearnings of the soul when they are set, as God sets them, beside the outpourings of his grace. They meant very much to St. Paul, himself an evangelist, who after delving into them cries out:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor.
Or who has first given to him that he might be repaid.
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be glory forever Amen.
Romans 11:33–35

We can see the same limitation in the understanding of baptism that informed Billy Graham’s youth and kept him in its grip into old age. Herein he relates his three-baptism history.

In accordance with their Presbyterian covenant theology, my parents had presented their infant son for baptism by sprinkling in 1919 at Chalmers Memorial Church back home. I had never questioned the validity of that solemn act of commitment on their part, born of a heart’s desire to have their child identified with the household of faith.

Years later as a youngster, after studying the catechism, I was “confirmed” in the faith by
declaring my personal allegiance to the Lord. That background contributed to my checking “Recommitment” when I went forward in the Mordecai Ham meeting; that, I feel, was the moment when I truly put my trust in Christ as my Savior and was born again. In Florida I had become convinced that I should be baptized by immersion, and had arranged quietly for Dr. Minder to do that. It was an adult act following my conscious conversion, and it signified my dying to sin and rising again to new life in Christ, as Paul described it in Romans 6.

But preaching in Southern Baptist churches raised a problem for me. Cecil Underwood pointed out that for Southern Baptists to invite preachers from other denominations—especially Presbyterians—into their pulpits was like defying a sacred tradition… He thought that if I did not want to have a row with the deacons, I would be wise to be
immersed under Southern Baptist auspices… In late 1938, therefore, Cecil Underwood immersed me in Silver Lake, with people from the church on the shore to witness the ordinance (Graham, Just as I Am, 55-56).

Every facet of this understanding of the Sacrament is a thousand times easier to understand than Luther’s, for it never rises above human thought. It sits happily on the brain and brushes off all assistance proffered by the believing heart. What reason-happy teenager or commonsense square shooter of any sort cannot understand it?

The faith of Billy Graham was shallow. But it was not weak. It was narrow but not wrong. Thus he could be, and was, a very specialized instrument in the church.

God grant that many who were warmed by his message carry its life-giving truth to their graves. And God grant too that many whose faith was nurtured by his earnest preachment may find their eyes opening to the whole counsel of God. In these days we need this more than ever.