Billy Graham: Assessing the legacy of ‘America’s pastor’

The Rev. Billy Graham is in his 90s but still manages to meet with major public figures on occasion and releases periodic reflections on his life and faith. Indeed, though Graham is infirm and in virtual seclusion in his mountaintop home in North Carolina, his stature and legacy seem to grow as he ages.

Even before the years took their physical toll, the man dubbed “America’s pastor” was considered unique in his expansive role in American religious history.

Graham led more than 400 evangelical revivals, often called “crusades,” in more than 185 countries. He spent time with a dozen U.S. presidents and was considered a close adviser to a number of them.

This edition of ReligionLink provides resources and experts for reporters who want to expand on Graham’s personal reflection to assess the impact of his remarkable life.

Background

Few believe that any religious leader will ever again be so popular with so many Americans, though Graham himself has wondered whether he should have done things a bit differently.

“I … would have steered clear of politics,” Graham told Christianity Today in an e-mail exchange in January 2011. “I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to.

“But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now,” he told the evangelical monthly that he founded in the 1950s. Graham also said that if he could go back and do anything differently he would “spend more time at home with my family, and I’d study more and preach less.”

Despite those remarks, Graham ventured into politics in a big way less than two years later, telling Republican Mitt Romney in October 2012 that “I’ll do all I can to help you” win the presidential election. Graham’s organization, now run by his son Franklin Graham, also scrubbed its website of a reference to Mormonism as a cult, prompting criticism from some religious leaders.

Highlights

Reporters have many avenues for exploring Graham’s legacy. Possibilities include:

Message: Graham is known as an emotional preacher who stuck with a simple message about Jesus’ ability to save souls.

Clean house: Graham has consistently won praise for his high ethical standards, both in his personal conduct and in his ministry. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has consistently been rated as one of the most efficiently run religious charities.

Global ministry: Graham is an international evangelist who preached to people in more than 185 countries and whose ministry provides resources in several languages.

Music: He embraced contemporary Christian music before many others did. Many contemporary Christian artists who participated in his crusades, including Michael W. Smith and Toby McKeehan, can talk about Graham’s influence.

Race: Graham is known for welcoming people of different ethnicities and condemning racism. Read a newspaper column posted at BillyGraham.org in which he called racism a sin.

Politics: Graham has been called a “pastor to presidents” because he’s advised so many of them through the years. That’s brought both praise and criticism, with some saying that he allowed himself to be used for political purposes or that he failed to speak out strongly about moral crises in the White House. Graham never officially endorsed a presidential candidate, but many said he came very close with his praise of Romney in 2012 and of George W. Bush in the past.

Ecumenism: Graham welcomed people of different denominations at his crusades, including Roman Catholics. That caused some to call him a champion of ecumenism and others to criticize him for compromising his fundamentalist roots. Although Graham has remained hugely popular with the American public, many evangelical leaders distanced themselves from him, particularly at a time when there were deep doctrinal divides among Christians in this country.

Youth: Even as he became a great-grandfather, Graham continued to reach out to youth. For years he designated one night of each crusade as a “youth night.” At a time when many churches struggle to reach young people, crowds of youths responded to Graham with respect and awe, praising his traditional message as relevant to their lives.

Judaism: Graham generated controversy when comments he made about Jews in a taped 1972 conversation with President Richard Nixon surfaced. The evangelist said he didn’t remember making the comments and apologized for any harm they caused. He later issued a second and stronger apology.

Film: The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has produced more than 125 films, including nine major motion pictures, through World Wide Pictures, originally called Billy Graham films. Read a May 29, 2002, Charity Wire story.

Resources

Articles and blog posts

Awards and honors

Graham has received numerous and varied accolades over time, including:

  • Gold Award of the George Washington Carver Memorial Institute, 1964, for contribution in race relations
  • Horatio Alger Award, 1965
  • Torch of Liberty Plaque by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, 1969
  • Honored by Morality in Media for “fostering the principles of truth, taste, inspiration and love in media,” 1969
  • Sylvanus Thayer Award from the United States Military Academy Association of Graduates at West Point, the most prestigious award the academy gives to a U.S. citizen, 1972
  • Direct Selling Association’s Salesman of the Decade award, 1975
  • First National Interreligious Award, American Jewish Committee, 1977
  • Distinguished Communications Medal, Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission, 1977
  • Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion, 1982
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, 1983
  • Congressional Gold Medal (awarded to Graham and his wife, Ruth), 1996
  • The first nonmusician to be inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame by the Gospel Music Association, 1999
  • Named by TIME magazine as one of the 100 most important people of the century, 1999
  • Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation Freedom Award, 2000
  • Honorary Knight Commander of the order of the British Empire, for his international contribution to civic and religious life over 60 years, 2001
  • Since 1955, consistently named one of the Gallup Poll’s Ten Most Admired Men in the World – more than any other individual in the world

Graham's family

Graham’s wife of 63 years, Ruth Bell Graham, died June 14, 2007. In addition to her husband, her survivors include three daughters, two sons, 19 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren. Billy and Ruth Graham made their home in the mountains of North Carolina. Erik Ogren is media liaison for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, based in Charlotte, N.C., and is contact person for all requests involving Graham or the BGEA. Contact 704-401-2117, media@bgea.org.

The public television network UNC-TV produced a program about the Graham family, Ruth and Billy Graham: What Grace Provides. It includes a timeline of the couple’s lives, details about people and events that touched them and samples of Ruth’s poetry.

The Grahams’ children:

  • Franklin Graham

    Franklin Graham, the fourth child of Billy and Ruth Graham, is president and chief executive officer of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and of Samaritan’s Purse, a relief organization. He often speaks out in support of President Donald Trump, celebrating his approach to religious freedom, border security and other issues. Arrange an interview through Kaitlyn Lahm or Scott Knuteson.

  • Nelson Edman Graham

    Nelson Edman “Ned” Graham is the youngest of Billy and Ruth Graham’s children. Formerly in pastoral ministry, he is president of East Gates International, which prints and distributes Bibles to Christians throughout the People’s Republic of China. He lives in Sumner, Wash.

  • Ruth Graham

    Ruth Graham is the third child of Billy and Ruth Graham. Formerly acquisitions editor for HarperCollins/San Francisco and McCracken Press, she has her own speaking ministry and is a writer. She is the author of In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart and co-author of I’m Pregnant … Now What?. She serves on the board of Birthmothers, which assists women facing unplanned pregnancies, and on the board of trustees of Mary Baldwin College, from which she graduated cum laude. Her book A Legacy of Love: Things I Learned From My Mother was published in 2005. She lives near Charlottesville, Va.

  • Anne Graham Lotz

    Anne Graham Lotz is the founder and president of AnGeL Ministries, a teaching and speaking ministry based in Raleigh, N.C. She leads the “Just Give Me Jesus” women’s revivals. Her books include Why: Trusting God When You Don’t Understand.

    Contact: 919-787-6606.
  • Virginia Graham Tchividjian

    Virginia “Gigi” Graham Tchividjian is the Grahams’ oldest daughter. She is a speaker and author of inspirational books. She lives in South Florida.

Books by Graham and his family

  • Billy Graham has written more than two dozen books, including his autobiography, Just As I AmPeace With God: The Secret of Happiness, and How to Be Born Again.
  • Ruth Bell Graham, Billy Graham’s wife, wrote 14 books, including It’s My Turn and (co-authored with daughter Gigi) Prodigals (and Those Who Love Them).
  • Franklin Graham has authored several books, including his autobiography, Rebel With A Cause: Finally Comfortable Being Graham.
  • Ruth Graham has also written several books, including In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart and A Legacy of Love: Things I Learned From My Mother.
  • Anne Graham Lotz’s books include Why?: Trusting God When You Don’t Understand.
  • Virginia “Gigi” Graham Tchividjian has authored or co-authored a number of books, including the memoir Passing It On: Four Generations of Graham Traditions.
  • Ruth Graham has also written several books, including In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart and A Legacy of Love: Things I Learned From My Mother.

National sources

Biographers

  • David Aikman

    David Aikman is an award-winning print and broadcast journalist and the founder of Gegrapha, an organization of predominantly evangelical Christian journalists based in Washington, D.C. He has written a number of books, including Billy Graham: His Life and Influence;  A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush; and One Nation Without God: The Battle for Christianity in an Age of Unbelief.

  • Roger Bruns

    Roger Bruns, an independent scholar who is retired from the National Archives and Records Administration, is the author of Billy Graham: A Biography. Bruns lives in Reston, Va.

  • Patricia Cornwell

    Popular novelist Patricia Cornwell, whose books include the Kay Scarpetta mystery series, grew up down the road from Billy and Ruth Graham in Montreat, N.C. Cornwell is the author of Ruth, A Portrait: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham. She lives in Manhattan and South Carolina.

  • William Martin

    William Martin is the Harry and Hazel Chavanne Senior Fellow in Religion and Public Policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston. His interests include the impact of religious fundamentalism on politics, and he is the author of With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America.

    Martin also wrote A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story, as well as a Beliefnet commentary regarding Graham’s comments about Jews in a 1972 conversation with President Richard Nixon.

  • John Charles Pollock

    The Rev. John Charles Pollock of Devon, England, is the official biographer of Billy Graham and the author of The Billy Graham Story, the revised and updated edition of To All the Nations.

  • Grant Wacker

    Grant Wacker is professor emeritus of Christian history at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, N.C. He specializes in the history of evangelicalism, Pentecostalism and world missions and is the author of Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture.

    Wacker is working on a biography to be titled Billy Graham and the Shaping of Modern America.

Scholarly resources on evangelism

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • George F. Bennett

    George F. Bennett is chairman emeritus and a longtime member of the board at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass., which Graham co-founded. Bennett also has served as a trustee of Wheaton College and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. He is a knowledgeable source on Graham, the contributions of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the role Graham played in the founding of Gordon-Conwell.

  • Robert Coleman

    Robert Coleman is Distinguished Professor of Discipleship and Evangelism at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. For many years, Coleman directed the School of World Mission and Evangelism at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School while also serving as dean of the Billy Graham International Schools of Evangelism and director of the Billy Graham Institute at Wheaton College. He is a founding member of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism and past president of the Academy for Evangelism in Theological Education. Among his many books is the classic The Master Plan of Evangelism, first published in 1963; Graham wrote the foreword.

  • Michael Cromartie

    Michael Cromartie is vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., where he heads its Evangelicals in Civic Life program. He is also an expert on religious liberty and Christianity and politics. His books include, as editor, Religion and Politics in America: A Conversation.

  • Michael G. Long

    Michael G. Long is an associate professor of religious studies and peace and conflict studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. He edited The Legacy of Billy Graham: Critical Reflections, a collection of essays examining the evangelist’s impact on mainline Christianity and American civil religion, and is the author of Billy Graham and the Beloved Community: America’s Evangelist and the Dream of Martin Luther King Jr.

  • Jim Wallis

    The Rev. Jim Wallis is a Christian author and commentator and the founder of Sojourners magazine, a periodical that tries to promote social change through Christian values. He has served on the White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and can comment on public policy issues. Arrange an interview through Meredith Brasher.

    In 1995, Wallis helped found Call to Renewal, a national federation of churches, denominations and faith-based organizations from across the theological and political spectrum working to overcome poverty. He has praised Billy Graham’s social conscience.

  • Alan Wolfe

    Alan Wolfe is the founding director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and a frequent commentator on religion and politics. His books include The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith, which focuses on the impact of evangelicals on American religious culture. He has written widely on secularism.

In the South

  • Allison Calhoun-Brown

    Allison Calhoun-Brown is associate professor of political science at Georgia State University. She specializes in religion and politics and African-American politics.

  • Kenneth J. Collins

    Kenneth J. Collins studies American Christianity at the Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He can comment on the evolution of evangelicalism in the United States.

    Contact: 859-858-3581 ext. 2368.
  • James Guth

    James Guth is a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. He has written widely on the emergence of Christian conservatives in the political arena.

  • Barry G. Hankins

    Barry G. Hankins is a professor of history and church-state studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He is an expert on Christian conservatives and their interaction with American culture. He wrote the book Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture.

  • Allen Hertzke

    Allen Hertzke is Presidential Professor of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, where he specializes in religious studies. His books include Freeing God’s Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights; Representing God in Washington: The Role of Religious Lobbies in the American Polity; and, as co-author, Religion and Politics in America: Faith, Culture and Strategic Choices. He is an expert on church-based populist movements.

  • James Davison Hunter

    James Davison Hunter is Labrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory at the University of Virginia and executive director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He is a frequent writer and commentator on the culture wars dividing America, especially as regards homosexuality. Contact Hunter through his assistant.

  • Bishop T.D. Jakes

    Bishop T.D. Jakes is head of the 30,000-member Potter’s House in Dallas. He was named “America’s best preacher” by Time magazine and in 2001 was the subject of a Time  cover story, “Is this man the next Billy Graham?”

  • Thomas Lansford

    Thomas Lansford is a professor of political science and academic dean at the University of Southern Mississippi, Gulf Coast. He wrote about Graham for the Encyclopedia of American Religion and Politics. He can be emailed via this contact form.

    Contact: 228-214-3291.
  • Charles Lippy

    Charles Lippy is a retired professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He has written extensively on American religious history, including Pluralism Comes of Age: American Religious Culture in the Twentieth Century; Modern American Popular Religion; and, as co-author, The Evangelicals: A Historical, Thematic and Biographical Guide.

  • Wilfred M. McClay

    Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he is also a professor of history. He is a widely published author on issues related to religion in America. He co-edited Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America. He is also a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and co-director of the Evangelicals in Civic Life program.

  • R. Albert Mohler Jr.

    R. Albert Mohler Jr. is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and hosts a weekday call-in radio program. In 2001, he chaired the executive committee of the Greater Louisville Billy Graham Crusade. Mohler’s blog often mentions Graham.

  • Laura Olson

    Laura Olson is a professor of political science at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., and is also an expert on women and gender in religion. Her books include, as author, Filled With Spirit and Power: Protestant Clergy in Politics and, as co-author, Women With a Mission: Religion, Gender and the Politics of Women Clergy. She is also co-author of a paper on mainline Protestant congregations and homosexuality.

  • Mark Rozell

    Mark Rozell is a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Arlington, Va., and co-editor of Religion and the American PresidencyReligion and the Bush Presidency and The Values Campaign?: The Christian Right and the 2004 Elections.

  • P. Kent Smith

    P. Kent Smith is a professor of missions at the graduate school of theology at Abilene Christian University in Texas, where he teaches a course on culture and evangelism in North America. Smith has ministered for churches in Texas, Wisconsin, Indiana and Missouri.

In the Midwest

  • Joel A. Carpenter

    Joel A. Carpenter is a professor of history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he also directs the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity. He also is the former religion officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts and former director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicalism.

  • Jay R. Howard

    Jay R. Howard is dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University in Indianapolis, Ind., and a former Christian radio disc jockey. He is co-author of Apostles of Rock: The Splintered World of Contemporary Christian Music. Howard can talk about Graham’s encouragement of contemporary Christian music.

  • Thomas P. Johnston

    Thomas P. Johnston is associate professor of evangelism at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., and is the author of Examining Billy Graham’s Theology of Evangelism. Johnston founded Evangelism Unlimited.

  • Steven P. Miller

    Steven P. Miller teaches history at Webster University and Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South and several articles and book chapters about Graham, including a 2006 article for George Mason University’s History News Network titled “Billy Graham: Have Journalists Given Us an Accurate Picture?

  • William D. Romanowski

    William D. Romanowski is a professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. He wrote Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in American Life and Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture.

  • Ronald A. Simkins

    Ronald A. Simkins directs the Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. He is general editor of the cross-disciplinary electronic Journal of Religion & Society.

In the West

  • Andrew Finstuen

    Andrew Finstuen is an associate professor of history and director of the Honors College at Boise State University in Idaho. He is the author of Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety.

  • Ted G. Jelen

    Ted G. Jelen is a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has followed religion and politics, including the participation of the Catholic Church and the role abortion politics plays. He co-edited the books Abortion Politics in the United States: Studies in Public Opinion and The One, the Few and the Many: Religion and Politics in Comparative Perspective. He also co-wrote the book Between Two Absolutes: Public Opinion and the Politics of Abortion.

  • Greg Laurie

    Greg Laurie is pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif. He preached that the Japanese earthquake/tsunami disaster was a sign of the end times, but he declined to name a date. Laurie has preached several other sermons focused on the end times. He is a nationally known evangelist and serves on the board of directors for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse. A frequent speaker at the Billy Graham School Training Center and the Billy Graham School of Evangelism, he calls Graham one of the biggest influences on his life.

    Contact: 951-687-6902.
  • Richard J. Mouw

    Richard J. Mouw is a well-known writer and commentator on evangelical Christianity and the president of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., a leading evangelical institution. Contact Mouw through Fred Messick, Fuller’s associate vice president for public affairs.

  • Chris Soper

    Chris Soper is a professor of political science at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and the author of Evangelical Christianity in the United States and Great Britain: Religious Beliefs, Political Choices.

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