This article originally appeared in the August 11, 1997 issue of Christianity Today.

Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham
by Billy Graham
HarperOne, April 1997
800 pp. $14.99
Billy: A Personal Look at the World's Best-Loved Evangelist
by Sherwood Eliot Wirt
Crossway Books, March 1997
217 pp. $13.25

Well," said the best-selling author on the other end of the line, "They're calling it 'the book of the century.' " Unlike the news-magazines, talk-show hosts, and, it would seem, most other Americans, I hadn't yet seen Billy's autobiography, and my friend was trying to sum up the matter for me. Book of the century? I mused. A few decades early for such a judgment,isn't it? I had known Billy Graham from his youth and had no doubt he was the man of the century for evangelicals, probably for Protestants,perhaps for Christendom; but book of the century? Then I read it.

While it is not the literary masterpiece of the century—though in general it's well written—I read the book with a sense of awe, as if standing in the presence of a person who, without trying, towers over the century. Who else could give us a view of our presidency from inside the White House,uninterrupted for more than a half-century? And never once was he even tempted to seek residence in that house, though often urged to do so. No one in church history could compare to Billy Graham in the numbers of people personally introduced to Jesus. And the understated report of it here is stunning. To this day, I weep whenever I watch those final moments of the TV specials,multitudes streaming down from the stands, not to Billy, but to Jesus. Yet,in this book, the magnitude of that phenomenon overwhelmed me.

Just As I Am is not just a chronology of crusades and of personal friendships with people in high places. Billy tells us details of fascinating stories I've never heard. From the text, some enterprising author could call a book on Near Death in the Air, or Interrupted Sermons, or Close Encounters with Bullets and Bombs.And those would represent only a few of the astounding tales that crowd in, one on top of the next. Events in a single year in the life of Billy would make ample biographical material for a lesser mortal's entire life!As readers, it is as if Billy had welcomed us to spend a week or so in his log home, hidden away on the side of a mountain in Appalachia, where we can sit by the fireplace as the patriarch reminisces.

This reviewer may be forgiven, I hope, for fast-forwarding over those endless lists of unknown people who are important in Billy's mind—a tendency that highlights another of the author's excellencies: genuine appreciation of people, worthy or not, and loyalty to a fault. At the end of the book, the author clues us in on the secret of recalling minute and colorful details from a half-century past: diaries, letters, news reports, biographers—and a team of research assistants. Even so, future historians should note that,though this is no doubt the most authentic history of its subject we shall ever get, it is not infallible. Soon after publication, I was talking by phone with the son-in-law of Billy's sister Catherine, who interrupted the conversation to say, "Mom is sitting over here laughing as she reads Just As I Am. She's sure enjoying herself. Says she's going to tell Billy Frank he should remember there were other people present at some of those events who don't recall everything just the way he does." Others of us may feel a kinship with little sister Catherine!

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Then there are favorite stories of those who know Billy that are omitted.That leads us to the other biography published this year: Billy,by Sherwood Wirt, founding editor of Decision and long-time friend and associate of Graham.

Was it some terrible miscalculation on the part of the publisher to bring out yet another biography of Billy Graham in the same year the "Book of the Century" was published? I hope not, because Wirt's account is no redundancy.

For starters, he does what Graham's book could not do. Billy is not a detached chronology of events—at the beginning and again at the end,the author states his intent to write a tribute to his well-loved friend.And that he does, with the skill of a professional writer.

It is more than a pleasure to read Wirt's prose; it's often deeply moving.Many times I had to put the book aside until my eyes cleared enough to take up the story. It's not just that stories are told from a different perspective,however; there are important stories here that Graham omitted or referred to only in passing. For example, you will find here the story of when Billy's life was transformed through a fresh encounter with the Holy Spirit. This book is personal also in that it is the story of Sherwood Wirt, a man greatly used of God, though in this book, as in life, it was ever in the shadow of Billy Graham.

There are two features of these books that in themselves would be worth the price of each. In Just As I Am, pictures—many in full-color—chronicle Billy's life. And in Wirt's book, a powerful feature: the reproduction at the beginning of each chapter of a letter to Billy by a child who responded to his ministry.

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That's the way one reviewer sees things. But perhaps some will want to go beneath the surface and seek here for answers. I did. In the first place,what accounts for this phenomenon of our twentieth century we call Billy Graham? And second, when in our saner moments we remind ourselves that this man is not God, we may be forgiven for asking the second question: should we follow Billy's example?

First, then, how do we account for Billy's phenomenal success? Liberals,fundamentalists, and secularists will find plenty of data to support their explanation of Billy Graham—overwhelming personal charisma, uncanny wisdom in sizing up and matching words to each person or crowd, and an awe-inspiring organization. In all of these there is more than a measure of truth.

The reports we hear from those who have known Billy, beginning in his teen years, reflect a remarkably attractive and powerful persona. He often deprecates his own intelligence, beginning in college days, but who has ever been sharp enough to survive 50 years of the press, winning them from unreasonable hostility to almost universal admiration? Who would have the wisdom to sustain close encounters with ten Presidents and simultaneously crack the Kremlin? Incredible.And it isn't just the entourage that always accompanies Billy. One trace sin the shadows an intricate and well-oiled organization that handles not only the crusades and a correspondence of 200,000 letters a year, but a whole array of ground-breaking evangelistic ministries.

Those characteristics, however, could never account for the millions of transformed lives. So why did God choose this man? No one but God knows for sure, but three qualities fairly leap from these pages, qualities that God must surely value: humility, prayer, and integrity.

These books unveil a celebrity of colossal proportions who is genuinely humble.Not self-effacing. Humble. It is seen on almost every page. Not only the frank account of failures nor the self-deprecation, which is not affected,but subtle clues. Like his frequent use of "we." It is not the royal "we"or he would use it consistently. It is passing the credit on to others. And then there is what is not here: no movement, no new denomination,not even a fan club—none of the trappings of the things you might expect to gather around such a larger-than-life persona. Billy's deference is not only to presidents and kings, to Ph.D.'s, movie stars, industry tycoons,and bishops, but also to his colleagues. And to a barefoot evangelist from the jungles of Africa. His admiration of them all is in a context of "each considering the other better than himself." God can afford to share his glory with one who refuses to touch it!

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The second characteristic I never recognized till overwhelmed—and convicted—by the realization from his autobiography that Billy's is a prayer-saturated life. How could he pray while talking with machine-gun rapidity? But he does.By day and by night—often through the night. His prayer life is not obtrusive,let alone sermonic; it quietly undergirds these accounts. He often attributes the success of a campaign to the millions of others who are praying, and that is no doubt true. But I discovered here a man who prays almost as naturally,it would seem, as he breathes.

And then there is the integrity. My father told me once that the three pitfalls of the ministry are pride, women, and money. The whole world knows that Billy is morally upright. But a vow never to be alone with a woman other than his beloved? Finances clean as the driven snow, yes. But turning down the offer of complete bankrolling for all his enterprises in order to stay dependent on the Lord and in touch with the millions of ordinary people who pray and give? Beyond integrity!

For me, those are the characteristics—humility, prayer, and integrity—that unlock the secret of Billy Graham. For at the end of the century, it is Billy's spiritual power, his God-anointing, that alone accounts for such a life.

Then there is the question of whether we should follow him. In his humility,prayer, and integrity, certainly. But what of his methodology?

It is clear in Just As I Am that Billy's approach is open and warm to everyone—Catholic, Orthodox, liberal. Everyone but fundamentalists.His unswerving commitment to ecumenical inclusivism is a central theme. So his theological blood brothers, the fundamentalists, won't follow him. It is disingenuous to say that they are alienated from Graham because fundamentalists as a class are more hypocritical and unloving than others.Nor is it fair to say they should not be so rigid about methodology. For them it's not method; it's doctrine. They believe it sinful disobedience to cooperate with unbelievers in spiritual ministry. Billy may, too; but if so, he defines "believer" more broadly than they. Fundamentalists won't follow him on principle. But what of evangelicals?

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Billy studiously disregards many doctrines that divide Christendom and majors on what unites—Jesus Christ and the salvation he offers. He does not do this because ecumenism is an end in itself, though he does believe love and Christian unity are of utmost importance. He stresses these because his is the calling of an evangelist. That is the touchstone determining what to stress and what to leave out. Evidence of that is emphasis on some themes that do not unite: his drumbeat emphasis on the authority of Scripture, sin as the root problem, judgment for the unrepentant, for example.Still, his emphasis is on the unity of the faith more than the purity ofit.

Why? His ministry is evangelism. Why does he define racism as a moral issue(to be relentlessly pursued) and abortion a political issue (to be avoided)?His goal is to win people to faith, not straighten out every problem. "An evangelist," he writes, "is called to do one thing, and one thing only: to proclaim the Gospel." To pursue his single purpose in life, Billy consciously avoids, even downplays, theological distinctions. It's clear that he adheres to the fundamentals of the faith because he says so, but his job, he also says, is not to mark himself off from those who differ theologically; rather,it is to work tirelessly to bring everyone to saving faith.

But there is a problem if we make evangelism the whole ministry of the church.If our churches, seminaries, and periodicals downplay or discard fundamental teachings of Scripture that may not be central to our evangelistic task,we gravely err and may even become sub-evangelical. The purpose of the church includes not only winning to faith but, as in the Epistles, presenting everyone mature in Christ, both in what we believe—even when that marks us off from others—and in what we become.

That half of Americans consider themselves born again must be credited to Billy Graham more than to any other individual, but that only 7 percent adhere to Billy's evangelical faith remains a major challenge for the church. We who proudly follow Billy Graham in his evangelistic trailblazing must be careful not to use his approach to that special calling as a model for the entire ministry of the church. Let the church proclaim the whole counsel of God!

Book of the century? Perhaps. But man of the century? Certainly so to millions.And to me.

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Short Notices
The Secrets of Barneveld Calvary
By James Calvin Schaap
Baker Book House
190 pp.; $11.99, paper

Not a novel exactly, nor a collection of short stories, The Secrets of Barneveld Calvary is a sequence of tales drawn from a single congregation in the fictitious town of Barneveld, Iowa. The storyteller is their pastor, who wants for once"to simply tell the truth as I've seen it, not something precast to win friends and bring in seekers." And so he shares the "untold joys and concerns" of the people he knows best.

Such candor could exist only in fiction; in real life, it would constitute a massive betrayal of trust. But because the "secrets" of Barneveld are our secrets, too—both the failures and the deep consolations—we read not for voyeuristic thrills but for the bittersweet shock of recognition: yes, yes,that is how it is.

"What happened decades ago between Barneveld's most famous pastor, the Reverend Cecil Meekhof, and Duane Foxhaven's father created a bruise on Duane's soul that only deepened as, one by one, those few who knew the old story died and left him alone with the memory." That's the way these tales begin, with a comfortable intimacy that immediately draws the reader in. One sentence and you're hooked.

James Schaap writes with such unpretentious authority that he tempts us to look for Barneveld on the map. But the right place to look is in the geography of the imagination, north of Yoknapatawpha and south of Lake Wobegon.

McQuilkin is a homemaker, author, conference speaker, and president emeritus of Columbia International University.

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