“The Nation’s Pastor,” “White House Chaplain,” “The 13th Apostle” and “The Nearest America Has to an Established Religion.”
Those were just a few of the unofficial titles given to Billy Graham by presidents, journalists and others during his more than half a century in the spotlight. And such superlatives suggest why scholars came to the Charlotte-born evangelist’s hometown Friday to talk about his life and legacy.
Few such conferences are held when the subject being studied is still alive, unless it’s an ex-U.S. president. But Graham, now 95 and in fragile health, continues to spend his days in his mountaintop home in Montreat.
Addressing about 100 people at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in south Charlotte, the scholars from Duke University, Gordon-Conwell and Wheaton College, Graham’s alma mater, shared the stage with two Graham family members.
Jean Ford, the preacher’s only surviving sibling, and Leighton Ford, her husband and a leading figure in Graham’s global evangelical network, shared a few personal stories about this son of a dairy farmer who went on to become a globe-trotting preacher and a pastor to presidents.
The first time she heard her big brother preach, Jean Ford of Charlotte said, she was 5 years old, and he was in his late teens. She was sitting with her mother in the balcony at Charlotte’s Sharon Presbyterian Church and Graham “was so loud that I stopped up my ears,” Ford said. Over the years, she said, “he got softer and softer.”
Leighton Ford told of their visit to Montreat late last year for the couple’s 60th wedding anniversary – Graham married them. Ford said he sang a popular Christian hymn, “Blessed Assurance,” to his ailing brother-in-law, and Graham mouthed the words in return.
But it was Graham the important figure in American history who was mainly the focus Friday.
“What does Billy Graham’s story tell us about America’s story?” asked Grant Wacker, a Duke Divinity School professor and author of a forthcoming biography of Graham. “There’s not many people you can ask that about.”
Wacker, whose new book will be called “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation,” said Graham intersected with a number of other currents in American history and life.
He offered a sampling.
Graham figured in the expansion of Southern culture throughout the rest of the country after World War II. A TV pioneer and friend of the famous, he was in the middle of the rise of the celebrity culture, too.
He became part of the civil rights saga when he removed a rope separating blacks and whites during a crusade in his native South in the 1950s. He was an outspoken Cold Warrior during the wars in Korea and Vietnam and, later in his career, just as adamant in his calls for nuclear disarmament.
Graham was “essential” in the modernization of evangelical Protestantism, Wacker said. And, of course, he was a spiritual adviser – and occasionally a political one – to several U.S. presidents.
Surprisingly, Wacker revealed, Graham was probably closer to Democrat Lyndon Johnson, his fellow Southerner, than Republican Richard Nixon, the president he is most closely associated with in the public’s mind.
Another surprise unveiled by Wacker at the conference: For all Graham’s public connections to the White House and Hollywood, he also received personal letters from millions of ordinary Americans touched by his preaching.
Asked once by TV talk show host Johnny Carson what most of the letters were about, Graham didn’t hesitate in answering: “Loneliness.”
Wacker said the letters were a testament to Graham’s ability to address “the private crises and the private anxieties” of those in broken marriages, those dealing with addictions and those who felt alone.
On a lighter note, Wacker quoted from another letter Graham received, this one from a child, that showed how big a presence he was on the American religious scene. The letter ended this way: “P.S. Tell Jesus hi for me.”
But Graham’s last crusade was almost a decade ago, 2005 in New York. So, Wacker said, many young people today don’t know who Billy Graham is.
He cited a 2007 Gallup Poll that said 30 percent of Americans younger than 30 could not identify Graham. And while lecturing at a prestigious university – he wouldn’t say which one, though it wasn’t Duke – Wacker asked the students in the classroom whether they had heard of Graham.
“Silence, absolute silence,” Wacker recalled. “Then one hand went up in the back. ‘I think he’s a wrestler.’ ”
There was, indeed, a wrestler named Billy Graham.
“It is important for us to recognize that his age has passed,” Wacker said of Graham. “The era of Billy Graham is over.”
But, Wacker said, it’s equally important for historians like him, who have “custody of our memory,” to make sure Graham’s legacy is preserved.
Why was Graham such a towering figure?
Wacker had three reasons. He was a model of decency. He made it possible for many to feel “Christian, American and modern – they didn’t have to be isolated ... and they could engage the culture.”
And, most of all, Wacker said, Graham offered people a second chance. He delivered that message, so central to the Gospel and to the American way, “and people listened,” Wacker said.
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