Since I posted about evangelicalism Monday, it would be only fitting to say something about the death of Billy Graham. While out running this morning, my smart phone alerted me to a notification that the celebrated evangelist of the twentieth century had died. The notice box on my screen simply said “Billy Graham has died Age 99.” Caring for my own 80-year-old father, whose health continues to decline, and rushing to a meeting with one of my students that was followed by numerous other activities throughout the day, I have not had much time to think about Graham’s passing. His remarkable life is testament to the American Century, but that might be a blessing as well as a curse.
Graham achieved global fame at the same time the United States became a super power. An American president could not hold office without embracing some part of the Graham aura. An evangelist cut from the early fundamentalist struggles with modernist preachers, Graham appeared to sense the limiting tone of fundamentalism to reach broader audiences in the post-WWII years. He, however, never dropped the central claim of Jesus’ atoning act of sacrifice and the need for a believer to enter into a personal relationship with the living Christ. The message didn’t change but the package that presented it did. Thousands of stadiums and converts later, I can still hear “Just As I Am” drifting over loud speakers as the throng of attendees marched down to the stadium floor to profess their faith. I never attended an event but members of my family did. And my paternal grandmother who lived in our house, made the television broadcasts of Graham revivals required viewing for our family well into the 1980s. Grandma Thompson liked his preaching style: simple, she called it. I, however, accepted Christ within the confines of the Baptist church were we attended and cannot say Graham had much influence on that decision.
I encountered Billy Graham again (he had been ill and off the evangelist circuit) when I started researching the project that became Richmond’s Priests and Prophets. Graham held a meeting in Richmond the mid-1950s and the area ministerial association asked the city council that the segregated seating required for the event be lifted. The event did not make it into the book because the council handled the event on a “desegregated” basis by making one side of the auditorium for “white” attendees and the other side of “Colored” attendees with a tasseled rope separating the two. Graham had announced that he would not go to any city that held segregated seating arrangements. I left the episode out not because I thought it unimportant but because I knew that Graham could make these kinds of bold demands but let them go if even the slightest hint of compromise entered the discussion. In hindsight, I might should have engaged the issue a little more since black and white ministers lobbied the council and black ministers supported the event even in a segregated arrangement.
But that is how I have encountered Billy Graham for most of my life. The whirl and wiz of the revivals were like what folks experience at rock concerts for my family. Even those who refused to attend church on Sundays praised Graham’s work. His was, after all, an impressive life. The revival scene, however, was never where I sensed God’s presence. My dedicated Sunday School teacher who dealt with my inquisitive nature not by telling to stop asking questions but answering them with nurturing guidance taught me as much about the gospel as any televangelist, including Graham. I understand why we will heap lavish praise on the man as a historian of the late twentieth century, but I won’t be able to untangle his message from American exceptionalism because that is how I heard it both as a churchgoer and a historian of the period.