WHEATON, Ill. (RNS) We gathered at Billy Graham’s alma mater over three days to explore his ministry’s place in American history and chronicle its meaning for the future. It was a fascinating conversation, and poignant, too, as Graham struggles with poor health at home in Montreat, N.C., far from the limelight he once commanded.

Wheaton, Ill. -- Billy Graham and his wife, Ruth, marked their 50th wedding  anniversary on Aug. 13, 1993. The Grahams are pictured on the campus of Wheaton College where  they met and courted.

Wheaton, Ill. — Billy Graham and his wife, Ruth, marked their 50th wedding
anniversary on Aug. 13, 1993. The Grahams are pictured on the campus of Wheaton College where
they met and courted.

But as scholars and admirers here in suburban Chicago added to the growing conversation on Graham’s legacy, a question hovers: How many people younger than, say, 60 are listening?

As Duke Divinity School’s Grant Wacker told the Wheaton College gathering dominated by graying heads, during a recent lecture at Trinity College just one student knew the name Billy Graham. And that student thought Billy Graham was a professional wrestler.

“His story,” Wacker said, speaking of modern Christendom’s most famous figure, “is rapidly receding into the mists of history.”

Graham, who turns 95 on Nov. 7, is under round-the-clock care at home, with limited vision, hearing and mobility. The Charlotte, N.C.-based ministry that’s now run by his son, Franklin, does its best to keep the aging evangelist in the forefront: His picture is on the home page of the website, and Thomas Nelson is due to release Graham’s 32nd book, “The Reason for My Hope: Salvation,” on Oct. 15.

But it’s been eight years since Graham’s last formal crusade. Those close to him say he is in good spirits but fragile health, and requires help in whatever ministry work he tackles. He no longer makes public appearances. As Wacker told the conference, his public ministry — the one that drew 210 million people to stadiums and arenas around the world — is effectively over.

It’s left, then, to gatherings like this one to gauge the impact and meaning of Graham’s command of the Christian stage for a half-century, and to mine the lessons for whatever form evangelism takes going forward.

The Sept. 26-28 conference was sponsored by Wheaton’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, and featured a dozen scholars from around the country. Among the topics: Graham’s mastery of the media, his sermon style, and why he succeeded in commanding the world’s stage for five decades or more.

Billy Graham speaks during the Billy Graham Crusade at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, NY. 6/25/05

Billy Graham speaks during the Billy Graham Crusade at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, NY. 6/25/05

I spent a decade covering Graham for The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, and so the scholars drafted me early in the process to offer a layman’s response to their analyses, and to write the last chapter in a book, tentatively called “Worlds of Billy Graham,” which will examine the future of his ministry under his more politically outspoken (and conservative) son.

Michael Hamilton of Seattle Pacific University spoke of the power of Graham’s crusade sermons arising from a blend of pageantry, as well as his credibility and a simple message that never changed: Accept Jesus and know a new life, now and forever. “Graham,” he said, “aimed for the heart and not the head.”

Estimates are that 4 percent of his crusade audiences over the years answered the famed altar call and committed (or recommitted) their lives to Christ.

Elesha Coffman of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary analyzed Graham’s mastery of mass media. Graham, she said, toed that fine line between slick and savvy in winning positive press. He also learned how to take advantage of movies, radio, magazines, even appearances on “The Tonight Show.” His TV interview with Woody Allen can still be found on YouTube, evidence of Graham’s ability to evangelize on pretty much any platform.

billy graham

Billy Graham (right) during an interview on CNN’s “Larry King Live” in 1994. RNS photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Wacker has been working for years on his own Graham book, “Billy Graham and the Shaping of Modern America,” and mused about the qualities he believes pushed Graham into the spotlight and kept him there. Among them: his basic decency and unstained ministry; a willingness to apologize and adapt (such as his oft-repeated confession that he got too close to politicians and presidents), and the bottom-line promise he offered the faithful — the chance to come forward and start over.

“No matter how badly you have messed up,” Wacker said, echoing a lifetime of Graham messages, “there’s a second chance.”

Looking back on Graham’s history was compelling, but it comes with the sober realization that a common knowledge of his ministry is fading with time. Most of the lectures drew 75 people or fewer, some of them longtime friends of the Graham ministry, many of them well over 60. Only a handful of the 2,400 undergrads at Wheaton dropped by to learn more about the college’s most famous graduate, Class of 1943.

Even at this ardent Christian school, many students have only a vague knowledge of Graham. Freshman Hunter Dinkins, 18, of Visalia, Calif., said that God brought him to Wheaton. But as he waited for a history class outside the conference hall, he confessed that all he knows about God’s most famous modern ambassador is that he held big crusades. “Other than that …”

The statistic that Wacker shared at the start of the conference looms large: A 2007 Gallup poll found that 30 percent of Americans under 30 didn’t know who Billy Graham was, much less what he accomplished.

Ken Garfield is the former religion editor of The Charlotte Observer, where he covered Billy Graham for a decade. Garfield’s book, “Billy Graham: A Life In Pictures,” was recently published by Triumph Books in collaboration with The Observer. Photo courtesy Ken Garfield

Ken Garfield is the former religion editor of The Charlotte Observer, where he covered Billy Graham for a decade. Garfield’s book, “Billy Graham: A Life In Pictures,” was recently published by Triumph Books in collaboration with The Observer. Photo courtesy Ken Garfield


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

As scholars study Graham’s crusade tapes, write their books and give their lectures, they are hoping that the next generation of Christian leaders is listening, that someone out there in Christendom is learning something about integrity, vision and longevity.

“Billy Graham’s legacy? Courageously preaching the gospel,” said Wheaton graduate student Lance Hays, at 25 one of the youngest to attend the conference. “Years from now? Hopefully people will remember that he preached a message that never changes.”

(Ken Garfield is the former religion editor of The Charlotte Observer, where he covered Billy Graham for a decade. Garfield’s book, “Billy Graham: A Life In Pictures,” was recently published by Triumph Books in collaboration with The Observer.)

16 Comments

  1. English web translations of Icelandic newspapers, who describe Billy’s son Franklin (09-27-2013) as, ‘the homophobic Franklin Graham’ show how far the culture has moved since the more sober (and less self-indulgent) optimism of the late 1940s. Whatever the legacy of Billy, it must be placed inside the context of a culture humble enough to be actually looking for good news, within a theocentric framework. Now, however, there are lots of naive folks who actually think that ‘good without God’ is possible…

  2. But why is Graham’s legacy dying? Has balm finished in Gilead – no more miracles? Or have they become unbelievable? As a journalist, will you say that God performed miracles through Billy Graham?

  3. Just when we might have begun to forget about Graham’s disastrous relationship with Nixon, and unfortunate taped comments about “the Jews,” he got pulled into last year’s political fights, sponsoring ads in North Carolina newspapers opposing same-sex marriage .and encouraging voters to “cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principals and support the nation of Israel.” Many of us thought the ads were more likely to have been Franklin’s doing — but alas, Billy’s name was attached. Franklin has also done inestimable harm to Billy’s reputation by making repeated hateful remarks about Muslims, and by drawing what many of us saw as an unusually large salary as head of Samaritan’s Purse, while publicly presuming to have inherited Billy’s mantle. The brand has been tarnished, its fair to say. The next generation of Christians might prefer a hero without this sort of baggage.

    It is unfortunate, as Billy seemed unwilling to be drawn into the Culture Wars when he was younger and more vigorous, but he seems — either under Franklin’s insistence or through a change of heart — much more willing to go there of late.

    • Robert Long View

      Tracy wrote: “…Billy seemed unwilling to be drawn into the Culture Wars when he was younger and more vigorous…”
      I blame Franklin for that hooey. In my opinion, he is nothing more than a spoiled brat. And of late, he appears to be the sort to run rough-shod over other people. I believe it was Ruth Bell Graham that kept Billy out of politics. What is so sad about Ruth’s legacy is that she is buried in CLT at the “BGEA Show Barn” against her earlier expressed wishes. It makes me weep on Ruth’s behalf. And what to make of the Billy Graham 95th Birthday Big Bash and Grove Park Hob Nob with such morally superior types as “Drill Baby Drill, Palen,” The Donald “Birther” Trump, and “Faux News -eves dropper- Murdoch.” But i guess there are those out there that would say that God is punishing Billy for the sin of vanity?

  4. The wording of the headline is probably ill-chosen: while the article’s content may be accurate–that Billy Graham’s NAME and personal history is becoming unknown to younger generations–his LEGACY (the term used in the headline) is ever-expanding.
    The publishing houses, international organizations, intellectual maturation of the evangelical scholarly movement, racial inclusivism, equipping of third world evangelists, and training of international scholars at places like Wheaton Grad School, broadly thoughtful Lausanne covenants (and the Lausanne conferences themselves, where representatives of virtually the entire world-wide church gathered together in joyful and purposive unity), continually-updated use of whatever media was at the forefront of culture (from full length movies in the 1950s to simul-cast broadcasting worldwide more recently), financial lucidity and accountability for ministries, unprecedented willingness to engage any and everybody for the sake of the Gospel (Francois Mitterand, Woody Allen, you name ‘em), unifying of local churches who normally sniffed disdainfully at one another, and of course his signature emphasis on the need for individual DECISION (a perhaps not-incidental correspondence to what the predominant philosophical influence of the time, existentialism, flourishing at exactly the same moment he did, calls for) . . . there are so many aspects of what Christianity is today that can be traced directly back to Billy Graham that it is laughable to suggest that his legacy is fading. On the contrary, even as his name and personality transition from “known” to “historical,” what he set in motion & supported & encouraged is growing in every direction. I know he is pleased by both, the lessening of attention to himself, and the flourishing of the Kingdom through those many, many venues that he opened up.

    • I was never a great fan of Billy Graham, but I think that he was the pivotal figure in shaping modern Evangelicalism. The persona may fade, but the legacy lives on! Praise God!

  5. I believe that as long as Jesus continues to be glorified Billy Graham could care less about his legacy. I think he attracted so many precisely because many sensed that his one singular focus was proclaiming Christ and not himself.

    What is the point of this article anyway? I sense improper motivation for the writing of this article. Just my opinion, but I may be wrong.

  6. I’m 55. I served as Vice-Chair of the Executive Committee for Billy Graham’s 1995 Mission Ontario at the Sky Dome (now Rogers Centre) in Toronto. Billy has had a great influence on my life. But Ken’s point is well taken. There are probably few under 40 who know much about him.

    It is the same in baseball where few writers still writing remember Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

    It is interesting how Christianity is becoming so tied to the current generation that it loses the perspective of any past.

  7. One of the persons we should definitely be looking at and imitating in action and words is Jesus Christ, the son of God, as found in the Bible. His most important focus was doing the will of his Father, God, which included being the ransom sacrifice for all mankind (which we don’t do), and preaching the good news of God’s kingdom or heavenly government (which we should do) as the only hope for mankind on and which will set ALL matters right on earth (Daniel 2:44; Isaiah 11:1-9).

  8. Billy Graham’s legacy will always live on in the lives of those who heard the call of Jesus Christ during Billy’s crusades. Many of those who heard Christ’s call will share the good news with others and so on. It was and is always about Jesus, not about Billy.

  9. I’m not much of a BG fan – too many aspects of his theology I find unbiblical. Yet, I believe even he would agree that the point of the article is off-track. It’s the message, not the messenger, that is sovereign. That is, the most important thing for any preacher is not the person (the weak vessel), but the the gospel message that s/he proclaims, since it is from God. We’re just heralds for the Great Lord and King.

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