Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Just as I Am:
The Autobiography of Billy Graham

by billy graham
harper san francisco/zondervan, 760 pages, $28.50

Several recent developments suggest that the time has come to take stock of Billy Graham: the frailties of his age, the encroachments of Parkinson’s disease, the death or retirement of many of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s original team, the extension of the evangelist’s mantle to his son Franklin, and a growing number of solid assessments from outside Graham’s immediate circle (the best of which is William Martin’s 1991 A Prophet with Honor). But the publication of his memoirs mandates an effort at long-term assessment. And the fact that the book, though apparently shortened considerably from earlier drafts, is nonetheless jam-packed with the details of an incredibly peripatetic career provides a great deal of material for such an assessment. 

Just As I Am does many of the things that memoirs from such a person at such a stage of life often do. Graham’s choice of title, for instance, evokes much that has been memorable about his public activity. The phrase is from a hymn written by Charlotte Elliott (1789–1871), sister of an evangelical Anglican clergyman:

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy Blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

The hymn’s use of the language of the King James Version of the Bible, its reminder of the freighted spiritual significance of saintly women (usually slightly in the background), as also its quintessentially evangelical mixture of Christocentric self-resignation and spiritual self-assertion—all of these are pure Billy Graham. The title also evokes the much more concrete scene played out at the end of thousands of Graham’s sermons where, with this hymn sung slowly in the background by a massed choir under the direction of Cliff Barrows, Graham appeals to his listeners to rise from their seats and walk to the front of the auditorium (or stadium or hall or amphitheater) to make a decision for Christ. 

Just As I Am is also characteristic for using a few of its pages in an effort to set the record straight. Graham is not at his best in these sections, which include a concession about perhaps over-stressing the spiritual danger of international communism in his early preaching, a defense of incautious statements about the relative freedom of Christian worshipers made after Graham’s first visits behind the Iron Curtain in the late 1970s and 1980s, several obviously painful efforts to describe the difficulties in raising a family of five children while being perpetually away from home, and a declaration (once again) of loyalty to Richard Nixon. What sets this memoir apart is not the effectiveness of such rebuttals, for self-justifications of this sort, whatever their merits, are almost impossible to pull off. Rather, it is the mood or tone of voice with which such infrequent efforts at score-settling are attempted. Even in these passages the Billy Graham who reveals himself in this memoir is an almost unbelievably nice person.

Graham seems to like everyone. He has a good word to say even about those who railed at him from the theological right as a tool of Satan (for consorting with modernists) and from the theological left as an ignoramus, bigot, or front man for American Big Business. Graham has known well all of the Presidents since Truman, he has been invited to offer spiritual counsel to many high-ranking American officials, and he has met the leaders of dozens of countries around the world. Nobody, it seems, could get his goat, at least for long. In 1954, for example, a hard-bitten columnist pounded Graham in print shortly before he arrived in London. Graham responded by seeking out the reporter in a pub (lemonade for Billy), whereupon the reporter softened up enough to write a commendatory column. Karl Barth once stood in the rain to hear Graham preach in Basel. When he told Graham that the sermon from John 3:3 was good but should not have stressed the must in “you must be born again,” Graham begged to differ (and was soon gratified to hear Emil Brunner affirm his position). But then Graham closes this account concerning Barth with these words: “In spite of our theological differences, we remained good friends.” That line, with variations for politics, region, ethnicity, and other appropriate variables, could be the epitome for the book.

Graham’s apparently bottomless kindness, combined with the lightning pace of his narrative—so many visits, so many good friends, so many celebrities—means that Just As I Am is not a particularly challenging book. It is, nonetheless, worth reading carefully, both because Graham is the genuine article and because many of its details and much of its tone are in fact quite useful for attempting a more complex assessment of his career.

Three theses may be worth considering as a contribution to such a longer-term reckoning. First, Graham’s nose for the powerful took some of the edge off his message but also allowed him to become an extraordinary symbol for the universality of Christian faith. Whether consciously or not, Graham practiced a strategy of access from his earliest days as a student preacher. Always charismatic as a speaker, always friendly, always morally upright, always careful about funds, he has worn his fame very well. Over time, especially after Watergate, he became more consistent in keeping his political and international views out of sight, even as he continued to exploit political and diplomatic friendships.

The result was access to the top levels of political decision-making as well as his position as probably the twentieth century’s most widely recognized human being. (Think, for example, of Graham in the three-year period, 1958 to 1960, preaching before large crowds at multiple sites in the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, and then again in the three-year period, 1988 to 1990, doing the same at sites in China, the Soviet Union, Canada, England, Hungary, West Germany, Hong Kong, and again the United States—and carrying on the same way for most of the intervening thirty years. It is a pace that no mere politician, basketball player, or rock star could hope to match.) To maintain this level of well-regarded fame has taken work at reducing friction—moral, political, and personal. But he has done it. Graham, in short, has traded angularity for access.

It turns out to have been a good trade, for the second thing to notice about Graham is the way he minimized offense at his preaching by restricting his enumeration of sins mostly to those that received close attention in the evangelical culture: malicious neglect of spouse and children, overindulgence in drink, sexual immorality, and capitulation to anomie.

While he gives many indications of realizing that sin also manifests itself as heedless egotism, self-aggrandizement, greed, callousness toward the poor, excessive self-protection, and lust for the main chance, these sins (more the pride of life than the lusts of the flesh or eyes) have not figured prominently in his sermons or personal witness. Since in his sermons the sense of sin is the beginning point for the balm of the gospel, the charge of self-protecting spiritual myopia might be reasonable. Why witness about how Christ forgives sins to whichever public person you best love to hate (for Graham is almost certain to have maintained some level of friendship with that person), if you won’t speak plainly to that person about the sin most obviously being committed? It is a good question, but perhaps a misdirected question, since Graham’s preference for generic (and hence not too threatening) sins has enabled him to keep speaking to all sorts of people in all sorts of places and, moreover, has enabled the innumerable schemes, ventures, publications, movies, programs, educational institutions, and miscellaneous ventures to which he has lent his name to benefit from the almost universal fondness for Graham himself.

In other words, Graham has brokered his particularly inoffensive way of reminding people that they are sinners in need of grace into one of the most powerful forces for Christian ecumenicity ever seen—which is to say, himself.

Graham emerged from a divisive brand of Protestant fundamentalism that in the 1930s and 1940s—for example at Bob Jones University in South Carolina and Wheaton College in Illinois—was fighting for its life, in all senses of the phrase. Graham took to heart the Cross-and Christ-centered focus of that tradition but early on he began to outgrow its combative boundary-setting. In 1957, fundamentalists broke with Graham (not Graham with fundamentalists) when he invited non-fundamentalist churches to help sponsor a major crusade in New York City. So too Graham reached out across racial lines earlier than all but a few of his southern (or even midwestern) evangelical peers, and that at a time when Graham’s publishing brainchild, Christianity Today, was being funded by wealthy Americans who equated civil rights agitation with the Communist threat. He was also one of the first Protestants, evangelical or mainline, to exploit the common ground of the Apostles’ Creed (“my own basic creed,” he calls it here) with Roman Catholics and the Orthodox. By so doing, Graham has done more than any person in the twentieth century (with the possible exception of C. S. Lewis) to promote from the Protestant side the enriching concerns of a meaningfully specific “mere Christianity.”

In these memoirs, Graham takes particular delight in highlighting mutual supporting relationships with Cardinal Cushing, Rose Kennedy, John Paul II, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and other well-known Catholics. As early as the mid-1950s, he had determined to maintain a broad basis for cooperation: “If a man accepts the deity of Christ and is living for Christ to the best of his knowledge, I intend to have fellowship with him in Christ.” The fact that he has maintained that basis allows for a balanced judgment. The Graham who portrays sin in a relatively unthreatening way is also the Graham who reaches out to redeemed sinners of every description. The result is a Christian witness that has knitted together an incredibly far-flung network of Christian believers from all over the globe and from every level of society.

The third thing to notice about Graham’s career concerns the most important matter. Whatever the assessment of Graham’s view of sin, what about his view of God? Here the question is whether Graham’s strategies of access and ecumenicity undermine his message. The charge that perhaps they do arises from two ways in which Graham has seemed to reduce the Christian gospel to a utilitarian device existing for other, more ultimate purposes. In the first instance, it is possible to glimpse pressure on his message from the moral calculus, singularly American, of republican citizenship. This calculus suggests that in a republic the good health of the polity depends upon the morality of the citizenry; that the best thing for personal morality is religion; and that, since Christianity is the best religion, it is positioned to do the most for America. Especially in the first part of his career, Graham was prone to statements that seemed to make the destiny of the United States loom larger than the fate of the Christian gospel. “I seriously doubt if the old America is going to exist another generation unless we have a turning to Christ.” Some who share Graham’s beliefs would agree with him, but also wonder if he was making the penultimate into the ultimate.

In the second instance, Graham throughout his career has spoken of Christianity, again in his words, as “alone” pointing “the way to individual peace, social harmony, life adjustment, and spiritual satisfaction.” For a Christian, true enough again. But priorities seem disarranged when sermons conclude as, for example, one did in New York in 1957: “All your life you’ve been searching for peace and joy, happiness, forgiveness. I want to tell you, before you leave Madison Square Garden this night of May 15, you can find everything that you have been searching for, in Christ. He can bring that inward, deepest peace to your soul. He can forgive every sin you’ve ever committed.”

The charge that may be laid against the utilitarian drift of Graham’s Christian message is the charge that so troubled Martin Luther as he struggled to find a merciful God nearly five centuries ago. The heart of Luther’s spiritual dilemma was the fear that his supposed search for God was really a search for his own ease of soul, the fear that he was seeking God primarily for what God could do for him. Luther may have been overly scrupulous, but he could tell idolatry when he saw it, and tell it most clearly when he saw it up close.

Billy Graham claims for himself neither Luther’s theological acumen nor his penetrating powers of self-analysis. Yet what rescued Luther from himself was also what has preserved the authenticity of Billy Graham’s message. The reason that Graham’s message, though admittedly soft at the edges, remains solid as a rock is that at its center is the Cross. In the early 1950s Graham solidified early practice by dedicating himself to the saving work of Christ as the heart of his message: “I made a commitment never to preach again without being sure that the Gospel was as complete and clear as possible, centering on Christ’s sacrificial death for our sins on the Cross and His resurrection from the dead for our salvation.”

At the close of his memoirs, as at the close of so many sermons, Graham restates the appeal for conversion that is the trademark of his career. As he makes that appeal in this book there is his customary attention to what the gospel does for us. But undergirding all, from first to last, is an equally full sense of what the gospel does to us:

We are not here by chance. God has put us here for a purpose, and our lives are never fulfilled and complete until His purpose becomes the foundation and center of our lives . . . . When you [open your heart to Jesus Christ], you become a child of God, adopted into His family forever. He also comes to live within you and will begin to change you from within. No one who truly gives his or her life to Christ will ever be the same, for the promise of His Word is true: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17–18). We have seen this happen countless times all over the world, and it can happen in your life as well. Open your life to Christ today.

If in the hands of Billy Graham, the gospel bends, nonetheless, it does not break. To conclude that Graham has remained faithful to the message that God saves sinners for His own purposes, as well as for theirs, is the highest accolade a fellow-believer can bestow on this remarkable man. But Graham, of course, has become more than just a rallying point for Christian believers. He is also the most attractive public face that evangelical Protestantism has offered to the world in the half century since World War II. When considering the range of other personalities who might have fulfilled that role had Graham not remained faithful to his message, perhaps it also needs to be said that those who do not share Billy Graham’s beliefs may have even more cause to be thankful for his life than those who do. 

Mark A. Noll is Professor of History at Wheaton College.

Photo by Richard Bromley via Creative Commons. Image cropped.