The death on 21st February of Billy Graham was, by any standard, an historic event. Ninety-nine years old – just short of the century. The responses from the media, both religious and secular, flooded in, many no doubt prepared a considerable time ago. The wide variety of sources testified to Graham’s significance, not just in America, but also on the world stage. Nobody could dispute that a man of stature had departed. Very few preachers leave the world to such public notice. Perhaps none will again. That in itself says much about the role Graham played in twentieth century religious life, and not just within the Evangelical community.
There are, of course, legitimate criticisms that can be levelled against Billy Graham. The first thought for some will be his willingness to include liberal Protestants as well as Roman Catholics among the sponsors of his crusades. The nature of his evangelistic approach – the mass crusades, for example – raised questions for some conservative Evangelical and Reformed observers. His closeness to numerous American Presidents also caused concern, particularly when characters like Lyndon Johnston and Richard Nixon were involved (something which Graham himself seems to have acknowledged). The negatives are certainly there, and we would not close our eyes to them. We would not have any sympathy with those who speak of his death as having ‘prophetic significance’ for the approach of ‘the end times’, as even some family members have stated. And yet there is more to be said.
It is remarkable that in a life of 99 years, much of that time in the glare of publicity, Billy Graham was untouched by even a whiff of scandal – financial, sexual, or of any other kind. That is remarkable, and surely a testimony to the grace of God. Even the most hostile secular critics could get nothing on him, and if they could have, they would have. We can be sure of that. Not only that – nowadays the Internet hosts numerous zealous characters who claim biblical justification for ‘digging the dirt’ on prominent preachers and church leaders in the most scurrilous manner. Perhaps in the earlier years the scrutiny was less intense, the culture more respectful, but with the explosion of the electronic media in more recent times, no corner of the life of a public figure is truly private. Wise precautions were taken, good procedures put in place, all activities were open to scrutiny. Billy Graham passed all the tests. Some whose theology was apparently ‘sounder’ have not.
Whilst there may be legitimate questions about some of his methods of evangelism, no-one can dispute Billy Graham’s zeal for the spread of the gospel for the salvation of sinners. That was undoubtedly his great passion. If we think our understanding of the gospel is more fully biblical, we need to ask ourselves how zealous we are in proclaiming that message. Sometimes the honest answer would be, ‘Not very.’ We don’t have a lot to be proud of.
And why did the Lord allow Billy Graham to preach to hundreds of thousands while we preach to handfuls? Perhaps one reason is that he could trust Graham to handle the temptations and pressures of such a prominent position, and we have all we can cope with. Not too flattering, but perhaps not too far from the truth.
We live in an age that delights to pull down the prominent and successful, and show that they have feet of clay. Sometimes it is fully warranted and even necessary. The exposure of ‘cover-ups’ in many areas of public life has had justification, but it can become a dangerous hobby. Christians are not immune from the cultural tide, as if somehow finding others’ feet of clay made our feet sounder. Not for nothing did the apostle Paul warn the church, ‘Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall’ (1 Corinthians 10:12).
We are not to idealise, much less idolise, any human being, but we are to praise God for the good we see in his servants and seek by grace to imitate them. Billy Graham gives us more than a little food for thought.