By William Martin
Editor’s Note: The following post describes events during one of the gatherings of the 1986 Greater Washington Billy Graham Crusade in Washington, DC.
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” – Matthew 28:18-20
An old black prophet shuffling along inside a word-jammed sandwich board tried to convince the thousands who streamed past him into the convention center that Billy Graham was an aide-de-camp to the Antichrist, but they did not buy it. To them he was the living symbol of Evangelical Christianity, the man who had preached Christ to hundreds of millions of people throughout the world and now brought his message to the capital of what many still regarded as the Redeemer Nation, the “nation with the soul of a church.”
Inside, some grabbed Cokes or hot dogs at concession stands. Others lingered at tables set up in the center’s cavernous lobbies, browsing over devotional guides, souvenir picture books, how-to manuals on personal evangelism, and rapidly shrinking stacks of volumes by and about Graham and sundry relatives and associates. For the most part, the assembling multitude was solidly middle- and working-class: clean, neat, and conforming to standards of dress and decorum they felt best reflected their self-image as the good, decent people who affirm and embody the core values of American society. A well-schooled usher corps funneled folks into the stands or to special areas for the deaf or for those who spoke one of the eight foreign languages into which the service was being translated.
In the cramped quarters of a TV-production truck parked at a loading dock off the main hall, a small crew checked monitors and controls as they prepared to transform a live service into a television program that would be seen by millions a few weeks later. Meanwhile, in one of the center’s many conference rooms, Elwyn Cutler gave instructions and seating assignments to the ministers and other professional churchmen whose contribution to the crusade would be honored by a spot on the platform, a tangible symbol of importance to massage their egos, impress their parishioners, and consequently boost attendance. In another room, comfortably furnished with sofas and chairs and stocked with an abundance of soft drinks and snacks, Billy Graham spent the last few minutes before the service visiting with former District of Columbia mayor Walter Washington, Mayor Marion S. Barry, Jr., and Vice-President George Bush.
When the appointed moment approached, T. W. Wilson unobtrusively indicated it was time for this inner circle to join Elwyn Cutler’s larger group in its procession to the platform. Inside the arena the choir fell silent and attention shifted to the stage, where the organ, piano, and synthesizer sounded the first notes of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. Moments later, as Graham and his party mounted the rear steps and came into view, 25,000 people rose in sustained ovation.
Because it was the opening service, introductions ran somewhat longer than usual, but they provided a good view of the thin line between Church and State and of Billy Graham’s position as an icon not just of American Christianity but of America itself. Mayor Washington, noting that he had raised the first dollar to build the magnificent convention center, announced that Billy Graham came to Washington, like Queen Esther in the Bible, “for such a time as this.” Mayor Barry, observing that it was he who brought the $98 million facility to completion, praised Graham’s stand against apartheid in South Africa and racism in America, then assumed the evangelist’s support of the mayor’s own programs regarding drugs, unemployment, the rehabilitation of prisoners, and sex education for young people. To close, Barry wrapped his own career in the mantle of God’s providence, noting that his rise from a sharecropper’s shack in Mississippi to the leadership of this great city and a spot on the platform with Billy Graham proved that “the Lord moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.” George Bush provided the final cachet. “We welcome to America’s city,” he said, “America’s pastor, Dr. Billy Graham.” He affirmed his own belief in the separation of Church and State but insisted the nation would be strong only so long as its faith is strong, and he thanked Graham for his role in reawakening the faith of citizens in “this one nation, under God, the last, best hope of man on earth.”
Other preliminaries included a stirring religiopatriotic song and a low-key collection. Then, just before Graham spoke, “America’s beloved singer of sacred songs,” George Beverly Shea, a gentle bear of a man who became the first member of Graham’s team in 1944, stepped to the microphone, anchored himself to the pulpit with both hands, and sang, “In times like these we need the Bible. . . . This rock is Jesus . . . Yes, He’s the one.” At 77, Shea sounded 20 years younger, his deep rich voice rolling out over the auditorium and settling on the audience like a down comforter.
With no further fanfare—at most services, Graham receives no introduction whatever—America’s Pastor began to speak. He commended local officials for giving “the greatest cooperation we have ever received in any crusade we have ever held,” announced that on Tuesday night he would talk about “The Richest and Sexiest Man Who Ever Lived,” and urged everyone to make a special attempt to fill RFK Stadium for the final service the following Sunday. Then, apparently because he feels a preacher ought to tell a few jokes to show he is a regular fellow, he related a couple of the small handful of stories he has been repeating for decades. Neither was a four-star anecdote, but the crowd laughed generously, as crowds often do when famous noncomedians tell jokes.
The sermon, when he finally got to it, was a classic piece of Graham homiletics. Its theme was Christ and its five subheadings were the Creative Christ, the Compassionate Christ, the Crucified Christ, the Conquering Christ, and the Coming Christ. As in virtually all his sermons, he recited a laundry list of problems: poverty, drugs, broken hearts, emptiness, guilt, loneliness, spiritual blindness, and fear. He knew these were problems and that secular remedies were bound to fail because one of the greatest biochemists in the world and rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and Harvard president Derek Bok had told him so. He had other evidence as well: “a Roman Catholic priest studying for a PhD in Chicago . . . Simon LeBon of the rock group Duran Duran . . . a girl in Japan . . . the managing partner of one of Washington’s most prestigious law firms . . . a new movie out . . . a recent Gallup poll . . . a magazine cover story . . . a taxicab driver on Donahue . . . a letter that came to me last month. . . . “And most important of all, “the Bible says. . . .”
To no one’s surprise, Graham proclaimed, with monumental conviction and certainty, that the sole and sufficient answer to these problems is Jesus Christ. In the early years of his ministry, he spoke with such volume and driving rapidity that journalists dubbed him “God’s Machine Gun.” He still generated considerable intensity in his later years when the topic and occasion demand it, but his style had become almost conversational, and the conversation had a tendency to ramble despite his increasing use of full manuscripts. Nonetheless, many of the familiar gestures—the clenched fist, the pointing finger, the ambidextrous slashes, the two-pistol punctuation, the hands drawn down to the Bible like twin lightning bolts—were still there and still riveting in their effect.
The sermon moved inexorably to its goal: the “invitation”—to accept Christ for the first time, to receive assurance that one’s prior acceptance and salvation are still under warranty, or to acknowledge a backslid condition and to rededicate oneself to walking a straighter and narrower path. “Life is uncertain,” he said. “God does not give us the date of our death.” And then, the words that bring virtually every sermon of his to an end: “I’m going to ask you to get up out of your seat and come and stand here in front of the platform, and say by your coming, ‘Tonight, I want Christ in my heart.'” As he suddenly fell silent, his head bowed in prayer, chin resting on right fist, elbow cradled in left hand, the convention center swelled with the simple melody and words of the quintessential invitation hymn:
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
And from every section of the auditorium, they came, they came. Serious of mien but devoid of tears or other overt signs of emotion, more than a thousand souls answered Billy Graham’s call to be washed in the blood of the Lamb.
The program would not air for several weeks, but Graham stepped back into the pulpit to say, “To you watching on television, at home, in a hotel room, in a college dormitory, wherever you are, call that telephone number you see on the screen.” Then, to the “inquirers” who had streamed into a large open space immediately in front of the platform, he said:
“You have not come to Billy Graham. I have no special powers. I’m just another human being like you. I’m just the messenger. The message comes from God. You have asked for his forgiveness. I want to tell you on the authority of Scripture that he will give you that forgiveness. Not because you deserve it, but because Christ died for you. And he rose again, and he’s alive, and he’s willing to come into your heart now by the Holy Spirit and give you a new power, a new strength, a new joy, and a new peace.”
He then led them through the “sinner’s prayer”:
“O God, . . . I am a sinner. . . . I’m sorry for my sins. . . . I’m willing to turn from my sins. . . . I receive Christ as my savior. . . . I confess him as Lord. . . . From this moment on. . . . I want to follow him . . . and serve him . . . in the fellowship of his church. . . . In Christ’s name, Amen.”
This ostensibly life-changing transaction so simply accomplished, he urged them to read the Bible every day, to pray regularly, and to witness for Christ by inviting others to become Christians and by manifesting a loving and helpful spirit, particularly across racial lines. Finally, he encouraged them to affiliate with a church and worship regularly, not just stay home and watch TV preachers: “Many are far better than I’ll ever be, but Christians need to worship together.” With that, Graham left the platform and his associates took control, making sure all inquirers were matched with counselors who would help them clarify and confirm their decisions. As the last remaining strays found shepherds, the area began to hum with quiet conversation and prayer. Counselors helped their charges fill out decision cards and gave them a booklet entitled The Living Christ, a copy of the Gospel according to John, a brief Bible correspondence course, and suggestions for further study. The cards would reveal that few inquirers were confirmed pagans. Most already had some connection to a church or had come to the crusade as the guest of a church member.
Within minutes, runners rushed the decision cards to rooms where a Co-Labor Corps of over 200 volunteers waited to feed them into an elaborate follow-up procedure designed to link them to cooperating pastors and channel them into local congregations. The head of this operation, Dr. Robert L. Maddox, who had served as Jimmy Carter’s liaison to the religious community before becoming executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, admitted that the crusade could not be expected to reshape Greater Washington. “Billy will go home next week and the city will swallow him up and the effects will be gone. But as a matter of fact, in the lives of individuals, it may be absolutely pivotal. I have seen that happen. It won’t rock Washington, DC, for the Lord, but it might make some congressman struggling with key legislation think a little bit differently. Last night, I watched two or three guys that I know who grew up out here in Virginia and were as segregationist as they could be. They were working right alongside black people without any regard to color at all. When this is over, white churches will still do their thing and black churches will do theirs, and there is not going to be any great crossing of that line. But there will be greater understanding. It could have some impact.”
Back on the sidewalk outside the convention center, the old prophet had retired for the night. A policeman who had asked a departing counselor for an inquirer’s packet and had, after a brief conversation, “trusted Christ,” held up his hand to stop traffic for one of the last groups to leave the building. He was singing a gospel song.
A Prophet with Honor is the biography Billy Graham himself invited and appreciated for its sympathetic but frank approach. Carefully documented, eminently fair, and gracefully written, it raises and answers key questions about Graham’s character, contributions, and influence on the world religious scene. In this engaging and comprehensive book, William Martin gives readers a better understanding of the most successful evangelist in modern history, and the movement he led for over 50 years.
A Prophet with Honor makes a vital contribution to the Billy Graham legacy and allows us to understand why his words, actions, and personality endeared him to popes and preachers, kings and presidents, and millions of Christians in virtually every nation and culture around the world.
Martin draws on:
- extensive conversations with Graham himself
- nearly two hundred interviews
- previously untouched resources, including documents from six presidential libraries and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association archives
- personal observation of Graham’s crusades and conferences in the United States and Europe
decades of research on evangelical Christianity.
Martin pays particular attention to Graham’s controversial relationships with Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. He also describes how Graham’s lifelong determination “to do something great for God” led him to organize international conferences that spearheaded the worldwide spread of the liberating message of Jesus, and prompted him to help strengthen religious freedom in the Soviet bloc and China.
Tracing Graham’s life and ministry from his rural and religious roots in North Carolina to his place as the elder statesman of American evangelicalism, examining both his triumphs and his tribulations, Martin shows the multidimensional character of the man who has become one of the most admired persons in the world.
William Martin (BD, PhD, Harvard) is the Harry and Hazel Chavanne Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Chavanne Senior Fellow for Religion and Public Policy at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He has appeared on many national radio and television programs, including 60 Minutes, Nightline, 20/20, Today, Frontline, and All Things Considered. He has been published in numerous national and regional periodicals including The Atlantic, Harper’s Esquire, and Texas Monthly. While researching this book, he was given exclusive access to the Billy Graham archives.