This article originally appeared in the April 5, 1985 issue of Christianity Today.
The log house belonging to evangelist Billy Graham sits at the end of a long road slithering up to the crest of Black Mountain. It is a sturdy and warmly appointed place surrounded by thick stands of hardwood and jackpine and blooming mountain laurel. One can hardly imagine, peering through the ethereal haze draping the hills of this North Carolina hamlet, a more idyllic and soulful setting for a retirement home.
But for Graham, who now is 66 years old, his all-too-infrequent visits to the family homestead in Montreat provide him only the barest respite from his relentless public and private journeys. As long as he is persuaded the hand of God is upon him, the evangelist says he is dutybound to continue his ministry of preaching throughout the world, adding to the flock of 100 million people who have poured in to his crusades.
It has been for him an astonishing and supernatural run as the twentieth century's most recognized and decorated preacher, confidant to presidents and royalty, and counselor to millions of common folk. But Graham says he will be content with a simple epitaph for his life and ministry: "A sinner saved by grace; a man who, like the psalmist, walked in his integrity. I'd like people to remember that I had integrity."
Still, there is much to do. It is, the evangelist says, "God's hour for the world," a time of unprecedented danger and new opportunities, of thunderous approaching hoofbeats and wondrous breakthroughs for the cause of Christianity.
He worries that the world stands at the brink of nuclear holocaust. He laments a resurgence of racism and the uneasy peace in South Africa. He wonders about the morality of the distribution of wealth on the globe, and anguishes over the economic disparities in his own homeland. Yet somehow, through it all, he sees signs of hope.
He has, in fact, changed in considerable ways since he burst from the halls of Wheaton College in 1943 to take charge of his first pastorate in the nearby Chicago suburb of Western Springs. He became the pastor of the First Baptist Church, a small congregation in a town dominated by parishes of a more mainline stripe. Even then Graham was dropping broad hints that he would not be content with a merely parochial ministry. He was instrumental in changing the name of the congregation to the Village Church in an effort to attract fallen-away Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Methodists who may not have known of the Baptist denomination or who may have harbored a bias against it.
Since those early days, Graham has become something of a patriarch for the whole of American Protestantism, admired chiefly by adherents of the more conservative and evangelical faction, but also regarded with growing respect by members of many more liberal denominations. His most persistent detractors, in fact, have been religious extremists largely from the far Right, who fault Graham for his long-standing cooperation with mainline churches that help sponsor his city crusades. More recently, those same critics have charged him with being naively soft on communism in the aftermath of Graham's widely publicized trips to the Soviet Union and his other forays into Eastern bloc countries.
"You can't help but grow and become more tolerant," Graham asserts. "Man is really the same the world over, and the gospel is universal in its application. It's been amazing to me to find believers in every part of the world we've been to. There is no force in the world that can destroy Christianity, and history has proven that."
But even as Christianity appears to be advancing in other nations, Graham acknowledges he is dismayed by widening divisions among American Christians and an increasingly sullied image of conservative Protestantism due to the "proliferation" of theologically unsophisticated and often crassly commercial television preachers.
"We may be in danger of returning to an Elmer Gantry image as far as evangelism is concerned," Graham says. "In the 1950s and 1960s, I believe we contributed some to the erasing of that image." But with the expansion of electronic media ministries in the past decade, and the emphasis by some on "emotion and money," the cause of Christianity suffers, frets Graham, and all evangelical preachers are viewed with suspicion and often held up to ridicule.
"The word 'evangelical' is hard to define now" in this new ethos, he says. In addition, the baldly partisan political lobbying in many of America's churches has exacted a price, Graham says, noting that the toll is one with which he is himself intimately acquainted. "In the political arena, I think there were pastors and evangelists who went too far, both from the Left and from the Right," in the 1984 national campaigns.
Graham, of course, was assailed by many religious leaders for functioning in the role of unofficial White House chaplain through several successive American administrations. For the past decade, Graham has kept a discreet distance from the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., maintaining that even the perception of partisan political activity weakens his credibility as a preacher interested in communicating to people of every ideological tinge and cultural background.
Even so, he has become increasingly outspoken on a number of moral issues with political implications, including abortion, multilateral disarmament of nuclear weapons, and the U.S. economic system. And Graham is now pledging to incorporate these controversial questions ever more forcefully into his sermons.
"The weapons are getting more dangerous," he contends, "and I'm more interested in the subject of peace now than I was two or three years ago. I'm not so worried about a war between the United States and the Soviet Union, but I'm thinking of a country like South Africa. If they get their back to the wall, would they use the bomb? What about Pakistan? Or certain countries in the Middle East? They claim that now at least 15 countries have nuclear weapons, and any one of them could draw in the superpowers." Because President Ronald Reagan holds impeccable credentials as an unyielding anti-Communist, adds Graham, he has an important opportunity to negotiate arms reductions with the Soviets as a capstone of his administration, "just as Nixon was able to establish relations with the People's Republic of China."
Graham further is vowing to assail, on moral grounds, the burgeoning federal budget deficit—calling at the same time for a reexamination of the American lifestyle. "We're going to see this deficit making a tremendous impact on this country's economy, and it's going to affect everyone," he predicts. "We've been living way above our means. And this inequity (between the wealthy and the poor within the U.S., and between America and most of the rest of the world) is going to have to change somehow, whether voluntarily or by law. You can't have some people driving Cadillacs and others driving oxcarts and expect peace in a community. There is a crying need for more social justice."
By the evangelist's own admission, the U.S. economy, currently under a much-discussed study by the nation's Roman Catholic bishops, is a vexing and complex problem beyond his understanding. "The solution is beyond me, but I've found about 250 verses in the Bible on our responsibility to the poor."
During his crusade in Vancouver, British Columbia, last fall, Graham collected foodstuffs during a "Feed the Hungry" evening meeting to distribute among the poorest residents of that Canadian city. "It was a symbol to preach the message that we want to do something concrete," he recalls. "We've got to have a plan to do this year-round, to help the street people. For most evangelicals, the problem is not motivation, but rather how to do something to help others. They've got the gospel—the Cross to transform the heart—and they are finding there are obligations that come with it."
For the past several years, Graham has been stressing with new vigor the themes of self-denial and social responsibility along with his familiar salvation message. "For me, it's not just accepting Christ as Savior and Lord, but being a Christian every day," says the evangelist. "I want to emphasize the price you have to pay, and the changes that must occur in your life."
Throughout his ministry, Graham has proclaimed the need for personal and corporate revival, and has long seen glimmers of proof that such changes are in the wind. But today, he says, the entire world is in the throes of a broad and authentic search for transcendent meaning, and the nation is on a religious quest of "major proportions-maybe the greatest of American history." But the search for the divine "takes many forms," Graham observes. "They may be turning to a guru somewhere and dabbling in metaphysical philosophy. We have both the false and the true Christianity, side by side—the wheat and the tares. People are hungry for a genuine religious awakening, especially university students. There is a nuclear cloud hanging over these students, and I sense a great fear of war and fear for our future far greater in Europe than in America."
Graham, who has preached in more than 60 countries, has been focusing much of his evangelistic energy in recent years outside the borders of the U.S. He conducted only one American crusade last year (in Anchorage, Alaska), drawing fewer than 10,000 a night; while his appearances in Mexico, Great Britain, South Korea, the Soviet Union, and Canada attracted, in most cases, surprisingly large numbers. This year, in addition to his recently concluded Fort Lauderdale campaign, the evangelist is crusading in Hartford, Connecticut, in May, and Anaheim, California, in July, as well as venturing back to England, Hungary, and Romania.
Graham admits that in his youth he "came close to identifying the American way of life with the kingdom of God." But with his far-flung excursions and his unusual opportunity to observe the Christian church in differing political systems, "then I realized that God had called me to a higher kingdom than America. I have tried to be faithful to my calling as a minister of the gospel."
And the gospel that Graham is now preaching with revitalized determination is a more demanding gospel, stripped of any coating of cheap grace and more subdued in its appeal to the emotions. "I had no real idea that millions of people throughout the world lived on the knife-edge of starvation and … that I have a responsibility toward them," Graham asserts. "I've come to see in deeper ways some of the implications of my faith and the messages I've been proclaiming."
It is a gospel rich with the symbols and story of Holy Week, the account of deepest gloom and unspeakable joy, of death and resurrection. It is a message Graham intends to carry to the nations as long as he is given the breath to proclaim it.
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