Whether or not you agreed with his politics or inclusivist theology, nobody can deny that Billy Graham’s ministry was well known across many continents.
Rev. Billy Graham’s passing on 21 February this year reignited international debate across all platforms over the measure and the message of the man. For some, he was a tireless campaigner for equality, social justice and the gospel. For others, he represented homophobia and bigotry, being known as a friend and adviser to disgraced former president Richard Nixon and refusing to back down on his anti-same-sex marriage stance.
It is easy to dismiss both the lionising and the lambasting as simply a split between Christians and non-Christians, but the truth is more nuanced. He was a controversial figure even amongst evangelicals.
Billy Graham’s influence, along with a team that included fellow-workers George Beverly Shea and Cliff Barrows, reached a peak in the 1940s and 1950s with his international crusades.
Many people say hearing him marked a turning-point in their lives, and many pinpoint the moment of their conversion to one of his famous rallies — especially at the famous Harringay Arena in 1954, when over a 12-week period nearly 2 million people heard the message — or during Billy Graham’s Hour of Decision broadcast.
Steve Clifford, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, said: ‘History will recall Billy Graham was one of the most influential men of his generation. I was profoundly influenced by his life and ministry from afar.
‘Beside a lake, in large auditoriums and through broadcasts, or watching him on TV, one could not help but be impacted by his passion for God, his commitment to the truth of the gospel and his life of integrity lived under intense media scrutiny’.
Dr Billy Graham was also greatly respected for his commitment to end segregation — at one point personally bailing out Martin Luther King — as well as his friendship with the late Rev. John Stott, leading to the founding of the Lausanne Movement for world evangelism.
Dr Graham was also invited on several occasions to meetings with HM Queen Elizabeth II, who as a young monarch met with him first in 1955 and invited him to preach at Windsor Chapel in 1956. Whether his evangelism influenced the Queen’s known faith is unknown, but it is clear his ministry was warmly welcomed by the monarch. In 2001 she awarded him an honorary knighthood.
Yet there was also controversy. Some Christians were sceptical over the methods of the ‘call’, which seemed to show swathes of conversions at each event, not all of them in evidence in churches for long. One woman who was present at the crusades recalled how an entire church of professing believers ‘went down to show support in front of the press. My friend urged me to come down, but I refused. I was already a Christian. It wasn’t honest to pretend to be answering a call’.
There was criticism levelled at him in the US, over the way in which he seemingly endorsed unpopular figures such as Richard Nixon, a Republican, despite Mr Graham being a registered Democrat. He spent much of his life having to deflect questions from politics back to the Bible.
There was also concern over his lack of outright commitment to biblical six-day creationism, with comments reported to come from him suggesting he believed in a form of divinely inspired evolution. Further, his approach to ecumenicist interaction attracted criticism from those who wanted him to take firmer stand against theological error.
Yet, despite the controversy, Billy Graham’s influence was widespread. In fact, he had a great impact on other well-known evangelists, including the recently departed Dick Saunders.
Rt Rev. Tim Dakin, Bishop of Winchester, said of Dr Graham: ‘We remember his family and we give thanks to God for his extraordinary worldwide ministry. Many today will be grieving, but also be giving thanks to God for Billy Graham’s life and ministry’.
Whatever one’s views on the man, his mission or his legacy, nobody can deny the truth of the words with which he opened the Harringay Arena in 1954: ‘It’s been a long time since evangelism, revival, Christ and God was front-page news around the world!’
In the coming months, Evangelical Times will be publishing several articles assessing the ministry and impact of Dr Billy Graham.