Who is Billy Graham?
William Franklin Graham Jr. (November 7, 1918 – February 21, 2018) was an American evangelist and an ordained Southern Baptist minister who became well known internationally in the late 1940s. He was a prominent evangelical Christian figure, and according to a biographer, was “among the most influential Christian leaders” of the 20th century.
Graham held large indoor and outdoor rallies with sermons that were broadcast on radio and television, with some still being re-broadcast into the 21st century. In his six decades on television, Graham hosted annual crusades, evangelistic campaigns that ran from 1947 until his retirement in 2005. He also hosted the radio show Hour of Decision from 1950 to 1954. He repudiated racial segregation and insisted on racial integration for his revivals and crusades, starting in 1953. He later invited Martin Luther King Jr. to preach jointly at a revival in New York City in 1957. In addition to his religious aims, he helped shape the worldview of a huge number of people who came from different backgrounds, leading them to find a relationship between the Bible and contemporary secular viewpoints. According to his website, Graham preached to live audiences of 210 million people in more than 185 countries and territories through various meetings, including BMS World Mission and Global Mission.
Graham was particularly close to Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson (one of Graham’s closest friends), and Richard Nixon. He was also lifelong friends with Robert Schuller, another televangelist and the founding pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, whom Graham talked into starting his own television ministry. Graham’s evangelism was appreciated by mainline Protestant denominations, as he encouraged those mainline Protestants who were converted to his evangelical message to remain within or return to their mainline churches. Despite his early suspicions and apprehension, common among contemporaneous evangelical Protestants towards Roman Catholicism, Graham eventually developed amicable ties with many American Catholic Church figures and later encouraged unity between Roman Catholics and Protestants.
Graham operated a variety of media and publishing outlets. According to his staff, more than 3.2 million people have responded to the invitation at Billy Graham Crusades to “accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior“. Graham’s estimated lifetime audience, including radio and television broadcasts, topped 2 billion by 2008. As a result of his crusades, Graham preached the gospel to more people in person than anyone in the history of Christianity. Graham was on Gallup’s list of most admired men and women a record 61 times. Grant Wacker writes that by the mid-1960s, he had become the “Great Legitimator”: “By then his presence conferred status on presidents, acceptability on wars, shame on racial prejudice, desirability on decency, dishonor on indecency, and prestige on civic events.”
Any historical account of the United States, in the decades immediately following the second World War, that does not prominently feature the influence of Billy Graham is an incomplete or inaccurate history. He was a protestant pastor with tremendous influence at the very highest level of politics and who commanded respect even from those who disagreed with his world view. This “Billy Graham era” was not long ago but it is a bit hard to believe that it occurred at all.