Billy Graham (William Franklin Graham)

Billy Graham (William Franklin Graham)
Billy Graham (William Franklin Graham)

William Franklin (Billy) Graham is one of the bestknown and respected religious leaders of the 20th century. His influence has been immense in his roles as evangelist, as a shaper of modern evangelicalism, and as a link between evangelicalism and prominent political leaders, particularly Republican presidents.

Graham was raised and educated in a Southern, fundamentalist milieu, but by the 1940s had graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and had become a world-roaming evangelist with Youth for Christ. A 1949 Los Angeles crusade brought him to the attention of William Randolph Hearst, who helped boost his career among a national audience.

This crusade set the pattern for Graham’s evangelistic appeal: In a context of cold war anxieties, Graham urged personal and national repentance to avoid divine judgment. Throughout his career Graham’s preaching would remain simple and direct, stressing that the answers to all essential questions are to be found in God through Jesus Christ.

In other respects, however, Graham departed significantly from the conservatism of many of his constituents. He refused to allow his audiences to be segregated by race, as was common in the South when he began his ministry.

Beginning with his 1957 crusade in New York City, he agreed to cooperate with mainline churches. Fundamentalists who insisted that no fellowship could be maintained with theological liberals considered this a fatal compromise.

Far from accommodating any kind of liberalism, however, both of these positions followed from Graham’s principled biblicism. Indeed, along with several other figures, Graham was critical in shaping a post-fundamentalist stance for conservative Protestantism in the 1950s.

Through the National Association of Evangelicals and Christianity Today, Graham and others helped evangelicals shed what many saw as the angry self-righteousness of fundamentalism, as well as emerge from the cultural ghetto that kept them separated from “the world” and at the same time prevented their engaging it.

Graham’s belief that modern men and women were desperate for the Bible’s message led him to work with non-evangelicals who supported his crusades. It also made him welcome the attention of U.S. presidents who were eager to profit from associating with him. These were mostly symbiotic relationships: Politicians sought the approval of Graham’s constituency, and evangelicals in turn moved closer to the cultural mainstream.

Graham would later express some regret that he had allowed himself to be used, especially by Richard Nixon, who aggressively cultivated religious conservatives. At the time it had seemed an appropriate way to bring biblical truths to the ears of the powerful. In the 1980s, Graham would again shock his more conservative supporters by questioning the morality of the nuclear arms buildup.