Billy Graham: America’s Pastor

Billy Graham may have addressed more people face-to-face than anyone else in history, with the possible exception of Pope John Paul II.[1] By the numbers, his effectiveness was spectacular. He addressed face-to-face with the gospel more than 210 million people spanning over 185 countries in 417 crusades over nearly sixty years.[2] Distinguished historian Martin Marty said that the Mt. Rushmore of Protestant American shapers includes Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Billy Graham.[3] And George H. W. Bush had called him “America’s pastor.”[4] Not bad for a farm boy who got his start in the rural piedmont region of North Carolina.

And few people could be more suited to write a biography on Graham than Grant Wacker, the Gilbert T. Rowe professor of Christian history at Duke University Divinity School. I was introduced to Wacker through his work on early Pentecostals and American culture, Heaven Below. Wacker’s outstanding new biography on Graham is scholarly and disciplined, “an interpretation rather than a strictly chronological account” (5). He portrays Graham as one of the architects of new evangelicalism (perhaps the primary) and as the face of American religion in the public square.

Wacker says his book is propelled by three questions:

  1. How did Graham become the “least colorful and most powerful preacher in America”?
  2. How did he help expand traditional evangelical rhetoric into the moral vocabulary that millions of American used to make sense of both their private and their public experiences?
  3. How did he help mold the culture that created him and that he created? How did he speak both for and to modern America?

To answer these three questions, Wacker proposes one answer which is the core of his book:

From first to last, Graham displayed an uncanny ability to adopt trends in the wider culture and then use them for his evangelistic and moral reform purposes.

I found Wacker to be extremely fair at every turn, in interpreting the life and significance of a man who would be easy to malign (as did Reinhold Niebuhr) or divinize (as have many biographers). Wacker critiques the crusades as theatrical (140), noting that they “embodied the entrepreneurial spirit of American evangelicalism at its most efficient best” (151). Yet he portrays Graham as a man of deep integrity, guilty of little more than “flashes of vanity.”

Wacker’s historical analysis would make it easy to criticize Graham as a naive showman, employing entrepreneurial vision for self-aggrandizement. And yet Graham’s steady faithfulness to the gospel message and his persistent moral integrity should give us pause at such uncharitable assessments.

Graham’s critics repeatedly objected that his gospel had no bite. He called them to Christ but did not expect them to change in any fundamental way….

[But] there is danger in overthinking the data… Hundreds of thousands–perhaps millions–of Americans attested that Graham had played a pivotal role in their journeys. Other pastors had their jobs. He had his. It was to nurture the private life of a public faith.

Whether you are a Graham critic or fan, you will appreciate Wacker’s far-reaching and insightful analysis of American culture, religious culture in particular, and Billy Graham’s role in shaping it.

[1] Grant Wacker, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Cambridge, Mass: Bellknap Press, 2014), 21.

[2] These numbers are generally agreed upon with slight variation. This particular set of numbers comes from Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the Whitehouse (New York: Center Street, 2007), vii. But the biography of Graham on the BGEA website provides similar data, available at http://billygraham.org/about/biographies/billy-graham/.

[3] Martin E. Marty, “Billy Graham Taught Christians New Ways of Being in the World” (September 30, 2013), Martin Marty Center, University of Chicago Divinity School, accessed January 8, 2015, https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/billy-graham-taught-christians-new-ways-being-world-martin-e-marty.

[4] George H. W. Bush, quoted without direct citation in David Aikman, Billy Graham: His Life and Influence (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 234.

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