Graham, Billy (1918-), Evangelist
Billy Graham was the most successful and influential evangelist and evangelical Christian leader of the twentieth century. He spoke in person to more than eighty million people in more than eighty countries, and he reached countless additional millions by means of electronic and print media. For most of the last half of the twentieth century he was consistently ranked among the most admired persons in America.
Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, William Franklin Graham attended Bob Jones University (briefly), Florida Bible Institute, and Wheaton College in Illinois. He rose to prominence within evangelical circles as a field representative for Youth for Christ International during the mid-1940s. His stadium revivals, called "crusades," his Hour of Decision radio broadcast, and his astute use of television made him famous nationally and internationally during the 1950s. Christianity Today, which he founded in 1956, became America's most widely read serious religious journal and remains the flagship publication of American evangelical Christianity. He was the first Christian, Eastern or Western, to preach in public behind the Iron Curtain after World War II, and his repeated visits helped foster greater religious freedom in Communist countries.
Graham was a friend and occasional adviser to a series of presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton. These associations added to Graham's public image but also led to criticism. After the 1973 Watergate scandal made it clear that he had been manipulated by the president for political gain, the disillusioned evangelist became more cautious and sounded repeated warnings against the temptations and pitfalls that lie in wait for religious leaders who enter the political arena. He pointedly refrained from involvement in the Religious Right, the religiopolitical movement that began in the late 1970s.
Graham played a major role helping worldwide evangelicalism become an increasingly dynamic, self-confident, and ecumenical movement. In hundreds of his crusades, Christians of almost every stripe worked side by side with each other, often for the first time. In addition, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) sponsored or underwrote a series of monumental conferences that drew thousands of evangelical leaders together and helped them gain a better sense of their own strength and formulate concrete plans for expanding their reach and influence. The 1966 World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin helped create a kind of third worldwide ecumenical force, alongside Vatican II and the World Council of Churches. A 1974 conference held in Lausanne, Switzerland, included far more non-Western delegates and called for greater attention to pressing social problems and to adapting the gospel to a variety of cultures. Two conferences in Amsterdam, in 1983 and 1986, provided 13,000 evangelists from more than 170 countries with intensive training in the practical aspects of itinerant evangelism. A third, even larger Amsterdam conference was planned for the year 2000.
In recognition of his achievements, Billy Graham has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1983) and the Congressional Gold Medal (1996), the highest honors these two branches of government can bestow on a civilian.
Graham, Billy. JustAsI Am. 1997.
Martin, William. A ProphetwithHonor: The Billy GrahamStory.