Hear My Heart
Introduction AMERICA’S PASTOR GOES HOME
By Marshall Shelley
Billy Graham was perhaps the most significant religious figure of the twentieth century, and the organizations and the movement he helped spawn continue to shape the twenty-first.
During his lifetime, Graham preached in person to more than two hundred million people and to millions more via television, satellite, and film. Nearly three million responded to the invitation at the end of his sermons to “accept Jesus into your heart.” He proclaimed the gospel to more people than any other preacher in history. In the process, Graham became “America’s pastor,” participating in presidential inaugurations and speaking during national crises such as the memorial services following the Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 attacks.
“He became the friend and confidant of popes and presidents, queens and dictators,” said Columbia University historian Randall Balmer, and yet even in his later years he possessed “the boyish charm and unprepossessing demeanor to communicate with the masses.”
Billy Graham was born in 1918 in Charlotte, North Carolina. He briefly attended Bob Jones College, graduating from Florida Bible Institute near Tampa and Wheaton College in Illinois. He was ordained a minister in the Southern Baptist Church in 1939; he pastored a small church in suburban Chicago and preached on a weekly radio program. In 1946 he became the first full-time staff member of Youth for Christ and launched his evangelistic campaigns. For four years (1948–1952) he also served as president of Northwestern Schools in Minneapolis. His 1949 evangelistic tent meetings in Los Angeles brought him to national attention, and his 1957 New York meetings, which filled Madison Square Garden for four months, established him as a major presence on the American religious scene.
Graham appeared regularly on the lists of “most admired” people. Between 1950 and 1990 he won a spot on the Gallup Organization’s “Most Admired” list more often than any other American. Ladies Home Journal once ranked him second only to God in the category “achievements in religion.” He received both the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1983) and the Congressional Gold Medal (1996).
Sherwood Wirt, who for seventeen years edited the Graham organization’s Decision magazine, cited one Scottish minister who made this observation about Graham: “My first impression of the man at close quarters was not of his good looks but of his goodness; not of his
extraordinary range of commitments, but of his own ‘committedness’ to his Lord and Master. To be with him even for a short time is to get a sense of a single-minded man; it shames one and shakes one as no amount of ability and cleverness can do.”
Graham was a model of integrity. Despite scandals and missteps that toppled other leaders and ministers, including Graham’s friend Richard Nixon and a succession of televangelists, in six decades of ministry no one ever leveled a serious accusation of misconduct against him.
That’s not to say he wasn’t seriously criticized. Some liberals and intellectuals called his message “simplistic.” Some fundamentalists considered him “compromised” for cooperating with mainline groups and the National Council of Churches. His moderate antisegregationist stance during the civil rights era drew fire from both sides: white segregationists were furious when he invited the “agitator” Martin Luther King, Jr., to pray at the 1957 New York City crusade; civil rights activists accused him of cowardice for not joining them on protest marches and getting arrested for the cause.
In 1982, when he visited the Soviet Union to preach the gospel at the invitation of the government, he touched off a firestorm of criticism. Despite having met with the Siberian Seven—Pentecostal dissidents who were seeking political asylum—Graham was quoted as saying he “had not personally seen any evidence of religious persecution.” Some called him a traitor. But he insisted he would go anywhere to preach as long as there were no restrictions on his freedom to proclaim the gospel. He returned claiming he saw the hand of God working
in the Soviet Union. He was fiercely attacked for being naïve and “a tool of the Soviet propaganda machine.”
By 1990, however, after the fall of the Soviet Union, his prescience was vindicated when President George H. W. Bush said to the National Religious Broadcasters, “Eight years ago, one of the Lord’s great ambassadors, Rev. Billy Graham, went to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and, upon returning, spoke of a movement there toward more religious freedom. And perhaps he saw it before many of us because it takes a man of God to sense the early movement of the hand of God.”
Perhaps Graham’s lasting legacy was his ability to present the gospel in the idiom of the culture. He did this brilliantly, making innovative use of emerging technologies—radio, television, magazines, books, a newspaper column, motion pictures, satellite broadcasts, the Internet—to spread his message.
In the 1990s he re-engineered the formula for his “crusades” (later called “missions” out of deference to Muslims and others offended by the connotation of “crusade”). His standard “youth night” was revolutionized into a “Concert for the Next Generation,” with Christian rock, rap, and hip-hop artists headlining the event, followed by Billy Graham preaching. This format drew record numbers of young people who cheered the bands and then, amazingly, listened carefully to the octogenarian evangelist.
In addition he helped launch numerous influential organizations, including Youth for Christ, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and Christianity Today. The ripple effect of his shaping influence extends
to such schools as Wheaton College in Illinois, Gordon-Conwell Divinity School in Massachusetts, Northwestern College in Minnesota, and Fuller Seminary in California. His encouragement and support helped develop the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, Greater Europe Mission, Trans World Radio, World Vision, World Relief, and the National Association of Evangelicals.
He brought the global Christian community together through international conventions: a 1966 Congress on World Evangelism in Berlin; the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland; and three huge conferences in Amsterdam for itinerant evangelists in 1983, 1986, and 2000, which drew nearly twenty-four thousand working evangelists from two hundred countries.
In many ways, Billy Graham both formed and embodied the evangelical movement. Theologian J. I. Packer attributes the evangelical “convergence” to Graham: “Up to 1940 it was every institution for itself. There wasn’t anything unitive about the situation. There were little outposts of resistance trying to keep their end up in the face of the liberal juggernaut. Increasingly, from the 1950s onward, evangelicals came together behind Billy Graham and the things he stood for and was committed to. It continues that way to the present.”
For many, however, William Franklin Graham won’t be remembered for these accomplishments. He’ll always be “Billy,” as he preferred to be called. He titled his autobiography Just as I Am, a reflection of his humble spirit, taken from the hymn sung most often when he invited people to come forward and receive God’s love. And
for millions, his humility before the Almighty encouraged them to approach God with that same spirit.
May this book, which in so many ways represents his heart to us all, encourage you to do the same.
Vice President, Christianity Today