A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story
by William Martin
William Morrow, 735 pages, $25
The title of this fascinating biography of Billy Graham sets the theme and tone of the entire book: Graham is not a charlatan, a demagogue, or marketeer, but ultimately an honest proponent and worldwide symbol of the New Evangelicalism that emerged in the United States after World War II. The Jim Bakkers and Jimmy Swaggarts may have been popular in their heydays, but no TV preachers will have the lasting, positive impact of Graham, whose honest simplicity overshadowed the rest of the broadcast flock.
It is a cogently argued thesis that author William Martin obviously delights in telling through one anecdote after another. And few writers could have done a better job. For one thing, Martin’s graceful prose, deep religious sensibilities, and fair-mindedness shine through the tale. For another, Graham asked Martin to write the biography and opened many doors for the author. Much of the material in the last half of this thorough study is based on personal interviews and archival sources that are not available to the general scholar. Martin insists that he had complete editorial control, however, and the critical nature of some of the text suggests this must have been the case.
Graham was raised in a fundamentalist-Baptist culture. He attended Bob Jones University for a while, but soon transferred to Florida Bible Institute, where he was not a great student but almost universally liked for his humility and enthusiasm. He admired the eloquent pastors and radio preachers who passed through the campus and harbored great self-doubt that he ever could became a successful evangelist.
Almost from the beginning, however, Graham’s simple, direct preaching style elicited responses to his calls to conversion. In fact, some of Graham’s colleagues still wonder exactly what it is about Graham’s style that hooks people. The best guess—apart from divine grace—is the evangelist’s transparency before an audience; he rarely comes across as disingenuous or boastful. What you see and hear is what you get. Graham spent less than two years as a local church pastor before joining Youth for Christ, which sent him all over the country as a speaker to increasingly large youth rallies during the 1940s.
During that time he honed his preaching style and repeatedly recommitted his life to Christ. Ironically, Graham’s life is portrayed almost in Methodist terms as the preacher’s holy sanctification. While he becomes a more effective evangelist he also exhibits more and more the fruits of the spirit. As Martin sees it, this separates him from the intolerance of the hyper-conservative fundamentalists, on the one hand, and the liberal, apostate culture on the other. The changes over the years in Graham’s attitudes toward a host of issues, from Roman Catholicism to militarism, are well documented by Martin.
Martin does not solve the puzzle of exactly why William Randolph Hearst gave the well-known order to “puff” Graham during the Los Angeles crusade of 1949. But he agrees that afterward Graham truly became a national, and eventually international, religious figure—what some have called a Protestant pope.
Readers will grow weary at times of Martin’s repeated descriptions of the workings of each major crusade, but the detail builds an interesting picture of how the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association became a “revival machine” of remarkable efficiency and effectiveness. The televised sermons are only a small fraction of what Graham & Co. have done over the years.
Martin’s criticisms of Graham are implicit in the revealing sections on the preacher’s political alliances. Certainly for the sake of expanding the Graham ministry, and perhaps for ego satisfaction as well, the evangelist worked whatever side of the political fence seemed most productive at the time. This was true domestically as well as internationally, and Graham’s story illustrates how practical opportunity can shape a religious organization’s implicit political ideology.
Graham’s political alliances, covered in remarkable detail through oral history tapes and more recent interviews, have been far more complex and wide-ranging than most readers of the popular press could imagine. Graham was very close to both Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, despite the great differences between the two Presidents. Martin demonstrates how the Nixon White House used Graham for its own political advantage. Earlier than that, Graham almost had a shot at turning around the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 when he wrote a pro-Nixon piece for Henry Luce’s Time magazine. Fortunately for Graham, he thought better of the idea and was able to get the piece pulled at the last minute; the article praised the Republican candidate for his integrity—a message that might not have set well years later when the Watergate tapes showed a very different side of the man that Graham thought he knew.
Readers will likely be surprised to learn of the incredible efforts made to persuade Communist governments to permit Graham to enter and preach in their countries. In 1977, through the diligent efforts of a Hungarian-American supporter, Graham & Co. essentially arranged a quid pro quo with government officials on both sides to get the evangelist into Hungary. Hungary wanted “most-favored nation status” and the return of the country’s Crown of St. Stephen from the U.S., which the latter refused to give to the Soviet puppet government that took over in Hungary after the war.
Similarly, Martin shows in careful detail how Graham’s later visit to the U.S.S.R., under the auspices of a Soviet-sponsored peace conference, was painstakingly negotiated through and around government officials in the U.S., including the State Department, which was opposed to Graham’s participation out of reasonable fears that the Soviets would derive propaganda value from the visit.
During Graham’s Soviet trip some citizens boldly protested the persecution and imprisonment of religious workers. Probably to keep the door open for a later visit, Graham publicly said he did not wish to take political sides and get involved in “local problems.” Later he went so far as to compare the United States and the Soviet Union in terms of religious freedom. According to Martin, some media wrongly reported that Graham said there was no religious repression in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Graham’s actual statements suggested either considerable naïveté about church-state relations in that country or some type of opportunism meant to guarantee a return invitation”or both. The comments not only created a furor in the United States; they also served the Soviet propaganda mill in domestic and international media.
As with all lengthy biographies this one has some points of discontinuity where the description seems to get in the way of the overall narrative flow. More often than not, however, the thick description is quite telling. Martin now joins Ed Harrell (Oral Roberts: An American Life) as author of a clearly superior biography of a major religious broadcaster and evangelist.
Quentin J. Schultze is Professor of Communication at Calvin College and is author of Televangelism and American Culture: The Business of Popular Religion (Baker).