Good-bye, Billy Graham

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The accolades are pouring in upon news of Billy Graham’s death. Russell Moore even hailed him as the greatest evangelist since the Apostle Paul in an indulgent tweet.

That’s a bit much. John Wesley’s reach still expands over two centuries after the death of Methodism’s founder, and church choirs still sing hymns written during 19th-century revivals stewarded by Dwight L. Moody.

Still, Graham left a legacy stretching far deeper and wider that the evangelistic gatherings for which he was famous – and surely some cynics are off the mark in refusing to forgive him for his Nixon partisanship in the 1972 election and his unfortunate comments caught on tape. He apologized for those comments and his momentary partisanship. He steered clear of any hint of political endorsements for the rest of this life.

Graham was not perfect (why do I even need to say that?), but he was – for lack of a better term – a humble gentleman who showed more grace than most of his opponents. Many are unaware that he was an organizational hombre.  He helped establish two theological seminaries, a relief organization, the National Association of Evangelicals, an international organization called the Lausanne Movement, and Christianity Today. He also bucked the Jim Crow south and made sure his rallies were integrated. The same was true when he toured apartheid South Africa.

We don’t hear about that.

Graham teamed up with Harold Ockenga and Carl Henry and, along with others, changed the face of biblically-centered Christianity in America, which had devolved into a separatist, anti-intellectual fundamentalism walled off from the surrounding culture. The three men began to call themselves “neo-evangelicals” or “new evangelicals” to distinguish themselves from the fundamentalists. The “neo” and “new” were soon dropped while “evangelical” stuck. At the time, evangelicalism conveyed sophistication – and the word had nothing to do with partisan affiliation (Graham himself was a registered Democrat).

Alas, times have changed. The word “evangelical” has been hijacked – a tragedy against which Graham had warned: “I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form,” he said in 1981. “It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”

Graham really believed in Jesus, as do I. And I thank God for his example of integrity.

Here are a couple quotes from around the web.

Katelyn Beaty, a writer, said this:

I will be forever grateful for Billy Graham’s evangelicalism: bold yet winsome, convicting and compassionate, always driven by a love for God and neighbor. This is the soil of faith I was planted into. Thank you for your life, Billy. You ran the good race.

Dan Rather, former CBS News reporter:

Condolences to the family of the Reverend Doctor Billy Graham. The great preacher and pastor has died, leaving a legacy of being one of the most influential Americans of his time.

I knew him fairly well; interviewed him several times, had some long personal conversations with him over the years and saw him preach in person some.

He had his shortcomings and made his mistakes, as we all do. But he did his best to do good and succeeded better than most of us.

Have fun in Heaven, Doctor Graham. Maybe we’ll have a chat when I get there.

About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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