Billy Graham and the shaping of a nation, with Grant Wacker [MIPodcast #77]
Historian Grant Wacker joins us to talk about Graham in this episode. Wacker visited Brigham Young University last year as part of the Maxwell Institute’s Reformation conference. He spoke with me about the landmark biography he wrote about Graham, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation.
Grant Wacker is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor emeritus of Christian History at Duke University. He is author of the book America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation. In 2017 Wacker presented at the Maxwell Institute’s Reformation conference, “500 Years of Martin Luther.”
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. The Reverend Billy Graham rose to international prominence in the 1940s preaching an evangelical Christian gospel. Hailing from North Carolina, the charismatic preacher filled stadiums, counseled American presidents, and encouraged millions of people around the world to seek personal transformation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Billy Graham died one week ago, February 21st, at the age of ninety-nine. I’m actually putting the finishing touches on this episode as Graham’s body lies in honor under the United States capitol rotunda in Washington, D.C.
Historian Grant Wacker joins us to talk about Graham in this episode. Wacker visited Brigham Young University last year as part of the Maxwell Institute’s Reformation conference. He spoke with me over the Internet about the landmark biography he wrote about Graham; the book is called America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation.
As always, you can send questions or comments about this and other episodes to me at email@example.com.
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Well I can’t guarantee that, Lester, but you know you can listen to those episodes over and over again every month.
And now in this episode, here’s Grant Wacker talking about America’s pastor, the late Billy Graham.
BLAIR HODGES: Grant Wacker joins us today from North Carolina. Dr. Wacker is an emeritus professor of Christian History at Duke University Divinity School. Thanks for joining us today on the Maxwell Institute Podcast, Grant.
GRANT WACKER: Thank you, Blair. It’s a pleasure to be here.
HODGES: We’re talking about your book, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation. How did you become acquainted with Billy Graham?
WACKER: I started the research for the book long before I actually met him. About 1990 or so, I realized I really would like to meet him in person and so through some intermediaries I arranged for that and am very, very grateful. I’ve met with him four times and my wife went with me each time. He lives high up on a mountain near Nashville, North Carolina, and so the long winding road up. I would say meeting Graham in person was a mountaintop experience, in most senses of the word, each occasion were ones that we will always remember. We both took notes of everything we said and that he said.
So I’m four times… two times are about two years interspersed between each of the visits. I would say overall we found him to be exceptionally gracious, very down-home, utterly unpretentious, and very disarming. We were, I would say, anxious by the first time we met him, but within just a matter of seconds actually he totally disarmed us by how casual he was, wanting to know about our kids and our grandkids, what I thought about Carolina sports and Duke sports and so forth. So these were very nice occasions.
The first time we saw him he was about 89, I think, and then the last time he was probably about 95. He’s now within a few weeks of 99, and visitors are no longer allowed to see him because he is so frail at this point. So we were very fortunate that we were able to see him in the final years of his career.
HODGES: How did you first become aware of Graham?
WACKER: Well it’s almost a question of when was I not aware of Graham. I grew up in an evangelical/Pentecostal home and church and culture in southwest Missouri, and so he was simply a part of our lives, my family’s life. He came on the radio, on television. I never had a direct academic interest in him until about 15 years ago.
I’d worked on history of early Pentecostals for a long time and I wanted to get a different topic to work on. One of my friends, a very distinguished professor at Wheaton named Mark Noll, and Mark said, “Well, why don’t you try telling a big story for the end of your career?” So I said, “Like what?” And Mark said, “One of the stories that we haven’t yet heard is the connection between Billy Graham and American culture.” We have a lot of books about Billy Graham himself, and of course a lot of books about American culture, but no one has yet really focused on the connection there, how the culture helped create him and how he shaped the culture.
Of course it turned into a much bigger project than I ever imagined because the materials were vast and not sufficient. It seemed like they were infinite, they just go on and on forever, just the English language materials alone. Part of the attraction of working on Graham has been that the materials are so rich and they are so well organized in the Billy Graham Archives that it’s a project that’s easy to do, but it’s also hard to do simply because there is so much and you have to make so many selections. I enjoyed it tremendously. Those were some of the most enjoyable research years of my life.
HODGES: As you mentioned before, this book isn’t necessarily a biography of Billy Graham, it’s more of a look at Billy Graham’s relationship to American culture, how it shaped him, how he was shaped by it. But you do start out the book by telling a quick story of Billy’s general life. How did Billy Graham come to embrace evangelical Christianity?
WACKER: He was born in 1918, so in a sense he preceded what we think of as evangelicalism. In mid-twentieth century America, evangelicalism was coming into being and he had a great deal to do with the shaping and the forming of the evangelical movement as we know it. So he grew up really in a pre-evangelical culture and by that I mean the world he knew as a child was fundamentalist, but in a very broad sense, and he was instrumental in splitting the fundamentalist movement into, for lack of a better word, I would call “hardcore” fundamentalist, and then you might say “soft-core” fundamentalists became evangelicals.
HODGES: What were the main differences between those two things as they split? What was it originally and then what did it become?
WACKER: Originally, the world he grew up in in the 1920s in the South was a world in which they did not make hard doctrinal distinctions internally. I mean, they were there, there were plenty of firm doctrines, but it was more loose, it was more fluid, and as Graham, I’m getting ahead of myself, but it helps answer this story, but in the mid-twentieth century Graham decided that he wanted to work with, for lack of a better word, liberals.
The key there is “work with.” He did not ever countenance the idea of becoming liberal, but he felt that he could work with them if they would work with him, that they would work together in a larger cause. He repeatedly said, “I’ll work with anyone who will work with me if they don’t ask me to change my message.” So when he started doing that in the 1950s there were many fundamentalists who felt that he was compromising simply because he was willing to associate with people who were outside the fold. That was instrumental in bringing about this split within the movement.
So today the people that we think of evangelical on one side and fundamentalist on the other are clearly differentiated, but that is to a good extent related to Graham’s own activities in the 1950s.
So to go back to the 1920s when he was growing up in the South, it was a large fairly amorphous movement of conservative Christians who wanted to preach the gospel and they did not draw these firm lines between and among themselves that they would later on. So that was his upbringing world. Now having said that I should also say that as a child his parents were very conservative reformed Presbyterians and they were so conservative they did not sing hymns in the church, they only chanted Psalms. But that was as a child. As a young man he moved into this more broadly defined fundamentalist culture.
HODGES: What were some of the principles that fundamentalism maintained? What were the important points of doctrine that they would hold to?
WACKER: He grew up in this culture in which scriptural authority was paramount. They were, I would say, not terribly worried about the question of inerrancy, that developed much later, that’s a product of the 1950s. In the 20s and 30s inerrancy just wasn’t a question for him. They just presupposed that the scriptures are authoritative, that it answers all of life’s key questions. So I would say the primacy of scripture was the first concern.
Second concern was the necessity of a life transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. They saw those two together; scriptural authority and their relationship with Christ would then lead to mission. You’re obliged to tell people about this, you just can’t keep it a secret. It really is good news. So those three things: authority of scripture, the relationship with Christ, and the necessity of mission, or of sharing that message would be the cardinal features of the church life that Billy absorbed as a young man.
HODGES: How did Billy decide to become a preacher as he became? What were some of the main cultural issues that he confronted as he started his ministry?
WACKER: It was gradual, actually, his becoming a preacher. There were a series of steps. He was at a Bible institute in Florida and a romantic relationship went awry, we’ll put it that way. A young woman he was very much in love with actually gave his ring back to him. This was a moment of, should we say, self-clarification. Following this romantic disappointment he went through a time of prayerful introspection, you know, “What does the Lord want me to do with my life?” He felt he was called to ministry.
So in that time he was at Florida Bible Institute and he transferred then to Wheaton College outside of Chicago and there he prepared for a career vocation, in ministry. He only served as a pastor for about 18 months, that’s after graduation from college. He was not a very good pastor. He acknowledged that and the people who knew him in those days admitted that he just was not a very good pastor. He did not like the settled life of a pastor. He was just too inclined to travel, so that did not fit very well for him.
A little later on he served as a college president of Northwest Bible College and he very soon realized that he was not an academic either. He was not a pastor, he was not an academic, but what he knew deep in his heart was that he was an evangelist. He was very clear about this throughout most of his life that he was called to, as he put it, to invite people into a relationship with Jesus Christ. He was very clear that he was not a theologian. People would ask him these kinds of heavy theological questions and he would say, “I’m not a theologian. You’ll have to ask the theologians. My job is to invite people into the church.” And that’s what he did.
HODGES: When he began his ministry what kind of cultural issues was he confronting at the time?
WACKER: Let’s say that he began his ministry in the late 1940s, I mean we could put it before or later, but late 1940s is a good time because that’s when he joined Youth for Christ, or we might say Youth for Christ joined him. That’s a good question, did Youth for Christ create Billy Graham or he did create Youth for Christ? They were both integral to each other. He begins seriously with Youth for Christ in 1944 or 45, and by 46 he is the most prominent face in Youth for Christ and in those days the issue was, as always, evangelism calling people to faith in Christ, but it also was involved in broader cultural concerns such as, in those days they called it juvenile delinquency, divorce was a major concern, and very quickly communism.
Today our young people have a hard time grasping, getting their minds around the power of the threat of communism, but in the late 1940s it was extremely large and Graham took it seriously. For Graham, communism wasn’t simply a political matter. It had theological import. Communists were atheists; they were Godless atheists. It was a religion. It wasn’t just an alternative religion. It was a militant, aggressive, religion that aimed to overtake American life and aimed to crush Christianity. So a lot of what Youth for Christ was about and Graham was committed to was combatting communism as both a political menace, but even more as a menace to authentic faith. So those are the big issues of the late 1940s and they would continue through into the early 1950s.
HODGES: Yeah, communism was a large threat and then that shifted over time. How did his emphasis on that matter shift and how was that sort of representative of the type of changes that Billy Graham underwent throughout his ministry?
WACKER: From the late 40s to the early 1980s, Graham changed continually and moved in one direction. He moved from this overwhelming fear of the military threat and communism in general and the Soviet Union in particular toward a position in which he was equally afraid of the threat of atomic catastrophe. So he became a strong advocate of nuclear disarmament. He would say both sides have to engage in mutual nuclear disarmament, that that was the overwhelming threat to civilization and in his mind it was not only a practical matter, but it was also a matter Christian faith demanded, the stewardship of the earth, the stewardship of our civilization.
So it’s very a really marvelous story, the trajectory this man went through over the course of 40 years, changing as much as he did. The world changed too, it wasn’t just Graham changing by himself. The character of communism, the character of the Soviet Union, all these things are changing along the way. But looking at Graham himself, this is a man who is in motion, and for me, one of the major findings of my work is that he was a man who was attuned to the culture and was willing to change. He saw that in some ways he had been wrong and he wanted to stay abreast of the opportunities that were arising.
HODGES: How influential did Billy Graham become at his peak?
WACKER: That’s a great question, Blair. There are a few different ways to measure it. One way that I think is important, and I talk about this a great deal in the book, is the letters that he received in his office, or his headquarters, in Minneapolis. We do not know the total, but we do know that he received millions, and for many years they arrived each morning in trucks. So the letters I think are one index of the breadth of his influence, coming in by the truckload, numbering in the millions over the years. The great majority of them were destroyed intentionally, for reasons of space and confidentiality, but several thousand have been preserved and they are at the archives, the Billy Graham Archives at Wheaton College. You can read them, they’re open to the public.
One gains a sense from the letters of how he connected. He connected at a very personal level. Again and again people write about how he changed their lives, how he was a father figure for them, a pastor figure, or even a confessor figure. In some ways it was easy to make him a confessor, pastor figure because he’s distant, you can confess things to someone who isn’t right there in the room with you. But still he served that function for millions of people. More than that, many of the letters were just, “Hi, how are you?” He was not only a pastor, confessor, but he was a friend. I find this remarkable because virtually no one would have a chance to meet him personally, and that’s an index of how he connected with American culture.
The other way of getting at it though, hard statistical evidence, he showed up on the Gallup register of “Most Admired Men,” I believe it is now 56 times, and that’s from 1955 to the year 2016. The most frequent runner-up was Ronald Reagan who appeared 33 times. Then I believe John Paul II and Jimmy Carter appeared 29 timed apiece. So the point is that Billy Graham appeared on this list of most admired men almost twice as many times as any other person. That’s another way of gaining a sense of his cultural authority.
Maybe a third one, I’ll actually speak of two more. The third one would be simply the number of people he spoke to person-to-person, or face-to-face. The organization kept pretty good records about attendance and the crusades that he preached in brought in over 215 million people, almost certainly more than any other person in history. More than three million people turned in decision cards registering decisions for Christ in their lives, almost certainly more than any other person in history. So that’s another way of gaining some sense of his prominence and his authority.
The last one, this is the fourth index, is his relationship with American presidents. He knew personally every president from Truman through President Obama. He wasn’t friends with Truman. Truman disliked him, made very clear that was a relationship that did not go very well, but all the other presidents he had a good relationship with, and at least four that he was very close. He was very close to Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush, and their wives. This is an under told story, is the relationship between Graham and the president’s wives, as well as Ruth Graham, his own wife, and the president’s wives. I would say, Blair, that there probably is no other religious figure in American history who had that kind of access to the pinnacle of American power for so many years.
HODGES: He also received some criticism for his involvement. Talk a little bit about his relationship to Richard Nixon, for example, and how that shook out. That seems to be one of the most difficult aspects of his career.
WACKER: In retrospect I would say that was without question the most difficult aspect. It got him into the most trouble. It was the aspect of his career that he himself most regretted and apologized for, and the same with historians, including myself. It’s inexplicable, really. First let me say that there’s never a question of personal probity, there’s no evidence that at any point Graham compromised his personal life, particularly in sexual and financial matters. He was a man of impeccable uprightness. So what we’re talking about is political issues.
What went wrong, in short, is this. Graham met Nixon in the early 50s and for reasons that are difficult for any of us to understand, he was drawn into the power of Nixon’s charisma. Before we get too judgmental about this we have to say so was the rest of the United States. Nixon, after all, was elected president of the United States twice, and in 1972 he was elected president by the greatest landslide by which any president has ever been elected. He won the greatest number of votes in the Electoral College of any president. He won every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. So my point here is to say that Graham was drawn into Nixon, but so was the American nation, so Graham was not unique. Even so, he was drawn into Nixon’s orbit and he said things like, “Nixon is the greatest statesman since Winston Churchill.”
So there was almost no qualification in Graham’s admiration for Nixon. He thought Nixon was extremely smart, which he was, there’s no question about it. He admired Nixon’s grasp of world affairs, and objectively that is true. Nixon did do many things that most historians admire. He had a lot to do with (inaudible) action, for example, so there were a lot of positive factors here.
Graham’s association with Nixon also blinded him to Nixon’s darker side, his raw ambition, and his willingness to subvert the law to support his personal ambition. Graham supported Nixon’s policies in Vietnam without question. Graham had a very hard time accepting Watergate. He resisted it until finally when the dates came out he had no choice but to accept Nixon’s perfidy, but he supported Nixon as long as he possibly could, and long after almost everyone else saw what was going on.
Then the issue that also captured the most press attention was an occasion in which Nixon drew Graham into a conversation about Jews. It was in the Oval Office, nobody was there but Nixon and H.R. Haldeman in 1972 and Graham thought it was a private conversation, he did not know the tape recorders were running, and Nixon started making anti-Semitic comments and Graham joined in. These tapes were released 30 years later, and Graham was just mortified. He could not believe that he had said the things he said that day.
Specifically he talked about Jews’ control of the media. So when these were released 30 years later he could hardly believe he had said those things, but he promptly apologized. He said, “That’s not how I really felt then, it’s not how I feel now, I can’t believe I said that.” He apologized repeatedly, personally, and in print. But the damage was done and there was no taking it back. Larry King was a very close friend, and Larry King was a secular Jew, and he interviewed Graham about this on television and Graham said, “I was sucked into the glamour and power of the presidency,” and Larry King said, “Well, that’s not good enough, Billy.” They were close friends, but King said, “That’s not good enough,” and Graham had no response.
The sum of it is that Graham admired Nixon for good reasons, but also for reasons that he later came very much to regret.
HODGES: That’s Grant Wacker. He’s an emeritus professor, the Gilbert T. Rowe professor emeritus of Christian History at Duke University Divinity School. We’re talking about his book America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation.
So the book is structured to talk about the different roles that Billy Graham occupied. We’ll talk a little bit about some of these roles. The first, and we’ve touched on it a little bit of so far, but the first role that I wanted to talk about was his role as a preacher, and you examine both his content and his style. Let’s talk about content first. What was the main gist, what was his theological core?
WACKER: One of his associates said jokingly, but I think truthfully, “If you’ve heard ten of Billy’s sermons, you’ve heard them all.” Graham himself would say that actually every sermon was about the same thing, it was John 3:16. That is a truth. Every sermon ultimately was focused on the question of inviting people into a relationship with Christ. Now he did this in many, many different ways and he sometimes got way off track along the way, but sooner or later every sermon came around to the same point: to invite people to a relationship with Christ.
The typical way that the sermons were structured is that he started with a rehearsal of a global crisis. The entire world is quite literally going to Hell. I don’t say that flippantly, I mean that’s exactly how he framed it. The natural disasters, political disasters, cultural disasters, and then the nation, same thing, disaster, sometimes natural but far more often moral, spiritual. Then as the individual, when we look at our relationships with our wives, our husbands, our neighbors, those relationships are poisoned as well. Then we look inside and we aren’t the people we want to be.
So multiple levels, the world, the nation, our personal lives, and ourselves, are tortured by these multiple levels of sin, he was very upfront; this is sin, this is a breakdown, and for all of these crises there is an answer and the answer is found in giving your life to Christ. That’s the larger theological theme of the sermons and in one way or another most of his writings too. He was not a theologian, he was the first to admit it, he did not wrestle with deep theological issues, he said, “That’s just not my gift. My gift is to call people to an awareness of the problems of the world and then where the solution lies.”
That’s the content of the sermons.
I’d also say that Graham’s great gift lay in the invitation that he gave at the end, to come forward to commit your life. People who had no use for him were just uniformly amazed by how effective he was. And of course people who did have use for him were pleased. This is a factor in his ministry that is still astonishing and puzzling for many, is that at the end of the sermon he would simply, usually, just stand there, absolutely quiet and always in the same posture, his right elbow cupped in his left palm, and he would say, “Come, you come, we’ll wait.” And he was silent and he would stand there and wait and people came. They’d stand up, hundreds, sometimes by the thousands, and they would come forward.
CLIP: Billy Graham, Southern California Crusade (1985) If you have a doubt about your relationship to Christ, you come and settle it tonight. I’m going to ask you to do something that we’ve seen thousands of people do. I’m going to ask you to come and stand in the outfield out here and say tonight, “I open my heart to Christ. I’ve got excuses but they’re only excuses,” and some of these excuses will be that you’re too far away; it’ll take too long. Yes, from that top deck up there it takes about six or seven minutes, so start now.”
Now why do I ask you to come forward publicly? Because every person Jesus called in the New Testament he called publicly. He said, “If you’re not willing to acknowledge me publicly before men I will not acknowledge you before God, my Father.” I’m going to ask you to come publicly and openly. I’m going to ask that no one leave this stadium now. This is the holy moment of this service. Don’t leave. If you’re up in that upper deck, go down and around. If you’re with friends or with relatives or in a bus, they’ll wait. After you’ve come I’m going to say a word to you and have a prayer with you and give you some literature that will help you in your Christian life. It won’t take long. But even if does take long, come anyway, from all over, whatever language you speak, or whoever you are.
You may be a member of the choir and been here several nights and God has been speaking with you. Many of you are in the church but God has been speaking to you, and you know that you need to come and make this commitment to Christ. There’re excuses, oh yes, the devil is giving you some new ones right now. You get up and come. We’re going to wait. As hundreds are already on their way, you join them.
WACKER: There were some meetings that even he admitted were failures. Nobody came forward. But far more often than not there was a striking response. So his genius, I’d say, is less in the preaching than in his invitation and how people responded to the invitation in the end.
HODGES: That tells us a little bit about that content, too, and you’ve taken us to one of his events a little bit in your description there. Tell us a little bit more about his style.
WACKER: It changed over the years. In the early years it was loud, fast, furious. In one of his first major meetings in Los Angeles in 1949 a stenographer clocked in at 241 words a minute. Reporters repeatedly commented on how loud he preached. So you put it together—the speed, and the body, the bombast, and he was constantly in motion, pacing the platform, crouching, standing, gesticulating, pounding his fist, going out, his fingers shooting out, I mean, it was a spectacle.
CLIP: Billy Graham, Los Angeles Crusade (1949) I do not believe that any man, that any man, can solve the problems of life without Jesus Christ. There are tremendous marital problems, there are physical problems, there are financial problems. There are problems of sin and habit that cannot be solved outside the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Have you trusted Christ Jesus the Savior? Tonight I’m glad to tell you as we close that the Lord Jesus Christ can be received, your sins forgiven, your burdens lifted, your problems solved, by turning your life over to him, repenting of your sins and turning to Jesus Christ the Savior. Shall we pray?
WACKER: That’s one of the reasons why people came, I think, is he ran himself as a spectacle. Over the years the style gradually changed. He began to preach at a more deliberate speed, finally by the end it was described as a fireside chat. He spoke with decreasing volume, became a more chatty style, and he was less animated. He was more prone to stand and he would be dressed like a million dollars. His sense of attire was astonishing. He dressed like an uptown banker.
CLIP: Billy Graham’s final public sermon, Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland (July 7, 2006) That’s not the end of the story. The end of the story is when you come to Christ and then the coming again of Jesus. My mother used to tell me that every morning when she woke up she thought this may be the day when he was coming back. I’ve thought that many times myself. This may be the day. Hereafter shall ye see the son of man, sitting on the right-hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven. Now what do you have to do? God has done all that for us. What do we have to do? First you must repent of your sins. The first sermon Jesus ever preached was repentance. Scripture says he began to preach and to say, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repentance means we are sorry enough to quit. Repent ye, and then be converted that your sins may be blotted out. God commands all people everywhere to repent, the scripture says. It means to turn around, to change your mind, to head in a new direction in your life.
WACKER: So the early Graham and the late Graham were quite different. What is consistent in all this is that he captured the audience. No matter how he preached, people paid attention. Even when the press came and they had no use for Graham for one reason or another, and many didn’t, even the negative press would say that nobody ever asked for a refund. Graham was always a charismatic preacher.
Now I should stress that Graham had plenty of critics. He had far more people who applauded his approach, but there were critics along the way. But even the critics acknowledged the compelling personality.
HODGES: What kind of criticisms would people make? You mentioned, for example, by the end he looked like a banker in a million dollar suit. Were questions of finance raised with him?
WACKER: Rarely. That’s a great question to ask, what kind of criticism he received. To the best of my knowledge his personal life was never criticized, or virtually never criticized. That’s because there was nothing to criticize. Virtually no one raised a question of his personal morals. Before 1950 there was some measure of criticism of Graham being like other preachers, who took in a lot of money and left town. That was before 1950.
In 1950 he had a moment of awakening in which there was a front-page photograph on the Atlanta Journal of Constitution. The photograph of Graham showed him getting in a taxicab, leaving town, waving, and then there was a photograph next to him of bulging bags of money. Now as it happened, these are two pictures that were taken on separate occasions at the same meeting, but they were juxtaposed on the same page. So what it did is it left the impression that Graham had taken up offerings, had all of this money in bulging gunnysacks full of it, and then he was getting in a cab and leaving town with it.
Well this obviously he saw how destructive this impression was and so at that time he determined that he would stop it right in its tracks. And he did it by putting himself on a stated public salary. At that time the stated salary was $15,000 a year, which was pinned to the salary of, as he put it, a successful urban pastor, $15,000 a year, which was a tiny fraction of what he could have if he had just taken in whatever was given, and an even tinier fraction of what he could have made through a popular medium. In fact, at that time, Cecil B. DeMille offered him a starring role in a movie, NBC offered him a million dollars a year to host a television show, so he could have made a great deal of money. But he chose not to, and he said, “This would destroy my ministry,” so he put himself and his associates on this stated public salary so that what that meant it no matter how much money people gave in the meetings he himself did not receive that.
So that was a form of criticism that came early on and he stopped it and there was never any significant criticism about money after that. Where the main criticism came over the years was that Graham was much too comfortable with American celebrities and American presidents and the American way of life and so the New York Times had a front page story about 1970 in which they called him “the White House chaplain.” He didn’t like that, but he saw the point, that he appeared to be not a prophet figure, but rather as a supporter of the rich and the mighty and the powerful. There was truth in that. Graham was comfortable with the American way of life, and he was comfortable hobnobbing with the rich and the powerful. Eventually he came to see that.
That was, I think, the most frequent criticism of the 50s and 60s, and even the 70s. Maybe one other point of criticism, and this relates back to Richard Nixon, and that is he was heavily criticized for his support of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War. He was often criticized for supporting war, and I don’t think that was quite right. He supported the presidents. He had a high view of the presidents, the presidency, he felt we ought to respect the presidents, and if they thought this war was just fine then we should follow their judgment.
Understandably many people in the press and in the churches felt that Graham was just absolutely dead wrong in this. So those were the forms of criticism that he received. If I could say just one more thing, though, Blair, is that one of the things about Graham that I very much admire is that in his later years in particular he acknowledged the truth in some of those criticisms and he tried to change. He urged young pastors and evangelists coming along not to make those same mistakes that he had made, particularly of political partisanship. He said, “Stay out of politics.”
HODGES: How was that shaken out for his son? I know his son has sort of taken on the mantle of sort of a public figure now. Has his son taken that advice, do you think, to heart?
WACKER: Well of course the first thing I have to say is there are two sons. So we are speaking about one son. The youngest son has not been visible in public politics. But the older son, Franklin, certainly has. This is an important and complicated story in itself. Actually it breaks down into two parts, that is Franklin’s relationship with his father, Billy, and then Franklin’s own public role.
Let me deal with the second one first. Really there are two Franklin Grahams. There is the partisan cultural warrior, and then there is the humanitarian philanthropist. As we are talking right now in September of 2017 we are in the midst of two terrible storms, hurricanes in Houston and in Florida, and Franklin’s organizations, Samaritan’s Purse, was among the very first on the ground in both places. Last year, or two years ago, maybe three years ago, when I last researched this, Samaritan’s Purse gave away half of a billion dollars in humanitarian aid. So it’s one of the most effective and one of the largest humanitarian organizations in the world. It’s no questions asked. They are among the first on the ground, no questions, they’re there to help. Franklin runs that organization and he’s the heart and soul behind it. That is one Franklin Graham that I think the press does not see, does not acknowledge.
The other Franklin Graham is the one who has made these highly controversial statements about Islam and who has been very explicit about the church and gays, very explicit about his support for Donald Trump. So he’s a cultural warrior and he’s unapologetic. He does not in any way resist that label. I’m not quite sure how you put the two together, but anyway, that’s just the reality of it. Now Franklin claims that his father supports his views, or would support his views, if he were still young enough to be able to participate in public affairs. I think he’s simply wrong on this. I think Franklin believes that, but as a plain historical fact I think he is wrong. I do not think his father would have supported his views.
HODGES: Interesting. What makes you think that?
WACKER: Shortly after 9/11 Franklin made his comments about Islam and soon after that the New York Times interviewed Billy and asked him explicitly, “Do you agree with your son Franklin?” And the senior Graham’s response was, “I love my son, but on some things we disagree, and this is one of them.” I think that’s diplomatic. The older Graham wanted to stay out of the political fray, and if he had gotten into the political fray in many ways he would have been far more progressive than Frank was or is.
HODGES: That’s Grant Wacker. He’s an emeritus professor of Christian History at Duke University Divinity School. We’re talking about his book America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation. Grant, how does Billy Graham’s Southern background affect his ministry, and especially with regards to racial issues, civil rights, and things like that?
WACKER: Those are both wonderful questions. Let me take them in order. Graham grew up in the South, in North Carolina, on a farm outside of Charlotte. He was always proud of being a Southerner and to the end of his ministry he would remind people, nobody doubted, but he would remind them that he was a southerner. And indeed when he was in North Carolina he would very frequently remind people that he was from North Carolina. One of the reasons nobody doubted was because he retained a Southern accent all his life and then we found in private conversation that the Southern accent was even stronger when he was just schmoozing over iced tea. So this was part of his culture. You could say it was embedded in his genes.
He was shrewd enough to see that the South was expanding beyond its geographic boundaries. Years in which Graham was rising, in the 40s and 50s and 60s, were also years in which Southern culture was expanding, we are speaking of a Southernization of American culture. I think a kind of trivial example but one that actually makes the point in a rather fun way is Southern fried chicken and Colonel Sanders. Colonel Sanders capitalized on this. He understood that people in Seattle liked the idea of eating of Southern chicken. Well this is Graham. He understood the appeal of the South, it’s down-home, relaxed, unbuttoned, iced tea out on the front porch, he understood that was appealing and so he maintained that. I think it was truthful, but he also maintained it because he knew it would enhance his ministry.
Now the question of race is complicated, like everything with Graham, and it’s very controversial and historians disagree on Graham and race. I will say straight up that I think that on the whole Graham demonstrated steady progress. I want to stress those terms, again say, on the whole steady progress. Looking back he would say that growing up it just did not occur to him that African Americans would be social peers. He said this years later looking back, but he said as a young man in the 1930s or 1940s he reflected the same patronizing attitudes that other upper-middle class whites had about African Americans. He met a black student at Wheaton College, or he remembered the African American he met at Wheaton as a student, and he said this was the first time that he had ever understood that African Americans may be his social peers. When he said that he was looking back in the 1990s. He said it with a great deal of social remorse, but he said this was the way it was.
Through the 1940s his crusades were segregated, now this was typical in the crusades in the South, by 1950 he was beginning to have second thoughts about this, there was something wrong with having segregated crusades, and so in 1950 he chastised his own Southern Baptist convention at their annual meeting for segregating their seminaries and he felt there was something wrong here in the way that white Christians segregated, excluded blacks in the churches. I think it’s fair to say he wasn’t clear about it. He was developing a social conscience at this time. It’s not like, you know, suddenly overnight he had this epiphany like, wow! It took a while for him to see what was wrong, but by 1952, within the span of two years, he had changed his mind dramatically.
In ’52, ’53, it’s not quite clear when, but somewhere in there, he came to insist that the meetings, his crusade meetings, be integrated. There was a great deal of resistance; white conservative supporters were very hostile. He received death threats. But he felt that scripture left absolutely no choice. From then on his crusades were integrated. Now let’s go back to my words earlier where I said on the whole.
There were times later on where he seemed to backtrack. Not that he ever fell into overtly racist comments, but that he seemed to retreat from a bold stance. That came especially in the 1960s when there were disturbances in the street, black power was emerging, and the Graham’s view was that advocates of racial justice were moving too fast. He said they do more harm than good because they antagonize white people and you’ve got to lead people, not push them. Enduring reform requires us to persuade, to bring people along. Now Martin Luther King’s response to this was of course, “Well we can’t wait. We’ve been trying to bring people along for centuries and it hasn’t worked, so what do we do?” But Graham was of the same frame of mind as Dwight Eisenhower, which is that, “Well we have to do this gradually.” So Graham went through this period in the late 50s and early 60s where I think he would have to be called a gradualist. Some have said by virtue of his authority the fact that he was a gradualist actually retarded racial progress. There’s a point to that. By the late 60s and 70s Graham had come around again to the position he had taken in the early 50s, which is that the church has to stand on the front ranks of civil rights and racial justice.
That’s very telling that in 1982 he preached in the Soviet Union in Moscow and he was actually in a patriarchal cathedral and he said, “I’ve gone through three conversions in my life. The first conversion was to Jesus Christ. The second conversion was to racial justice. And the third conversion was to the necessity of a nuclear disarmament.” So he’s a man who made significant progress over the span of his years, but understanding that he, like most people, the progress was developmental.
HODGES: One of the things that you also pointed out in the book is you mentioned Martin Luther King, and it’s possible Billy Graham is one of the people he had in mind when he wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” when he talked about the white moderate as being one of the biggest obstacles to racial progress.
WACKER: Yeah, it’s altogether possible. I think from what I know of King’s history his primary target was of the mainline clergy who were moderates, gradualists, but it’s also absolutely possible that he was thinking of people like Graham. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was in 1964 and in 57 Graham had invited King to pray at Graham’s meeting in New York City. King did come and did pray and Graham again received ferocious criticism from white conservatives over inviting King to the meeting. This was a bold move for Graham to bring King, and even more, it is not often noticed, at that point Graham brought onto his team Howard Jones who was an African American pastor and Howard Jones stayed with him all his life.
Howard Jones was a Christian missionary and Graham received criticism for that as well, but I think that was in the long run even more important than the association with King. He was signaling to his followers that he would have an African American as one of his closest associates. So there was this, you might call it, high point in the 1957 the relationship was never really all that warm, personal chemistry just wasn’t right. But at least publicly both men worked together.
By ’67 that relationship had gotten very cool and one of the reasons is that King had come out with sharp criticism of the Vietnam War. In ’67 Graham was still supporting the war. Now later on he (inaudible) that support but at that point he was still supporting war and he felt that King, as he put it, “Rendered a great disservice to the many brave Negro soldiers,” this is how Graham put it back in the ’60s. So there was certainly a cooling between King and Graham in the late ’60s. Even so when King was assassinated Graham unhesitatingly described him as one of the great moral leaders of the century. He said, “This is one of the great losses of American life.”
HODGES: Before we go, Grant, I also wanted to talk to you about your own position as the author of this book. In your own words you consider yourself a partisan of the same evangelical tradition that Graham represented. You write that in your prefatory material. So you’re coming from a similar religious background. What strengths do you think that lends to your work as you are working as a scholar on someone who is from the same religious tradition or background?
WACKER: I will generalize and I’ll say that what I’m about to say to myself should apply to probably most historians, include those who work in the Latter-day Saint tradition, in that I think it helps us understand better the inner texture, the motives. I think it’s Clifford Geertz who had said there is a difference between a wink and a twitch. Being inside a tradition helps us know when we’re looking at a wink and not a twitch. They’re just subtle nuances, contexts that the insider is able to see.
At the same time there’s a downside and that is being an insider blinds us to some data that the outsiders can see and I don’t think there’s any way around that, this is just the human condition. What we have to do is manage it. The way I try to manage it is by listening to historians or other people who are not on the inside of the tradition and trying to hear what they think and put the two together. I recently looked back at the first book I wrote. I surprised myself, this was 40 years ago, and I surprised myself that I said in the very preface of that one the same thing, I said, “Well I’m an insider, so I hope that opens my vision to some things but I know it closes it to others.” So this is a view I’ve had all through my working career, for better or for worse. I encourage my graduate students to own their identity.
I’ll digress for a second to say there is, I think, often an illusion that takes place among religious historians that if they can write perfectly objectively, you know, “We’re just going to tell the truth and it doesn’t matter who we are.” Well, I don’t agree at all. I think it matters greatly who we are because we all see things from a point of view. So I would rather just be upfront about it and tell people what my point of view is and then ask outsiders to correct that point of view from their point of view. We all see through a glass darkly. I think I’ve heard that phrase before. So, you know, if we all get together we might get a better picture of what actually happened.
I put myself within the evangelical tradition, but I see that as a very, very big family and there are many different kinds of evangelicals. I’m usually on the left side of that tradition on most issues, but I still think that’s a family that I belong in. I might add that I’ve been part of the Mormon/Evangelical dialogue for many years. I’m not Mormon and the Mormons are not evangelicals, but we have found that we agree on far more things than we disagree on, and that’s been one of the most delightful and illuminating interchanges I’ve ever had is talking with my Mormon brothers and sisters about how we both try to serve the church.
HODGES: How do you think that meeting Billy Graham in person, as you said, multiple times, how do you feel that ended up impacting the book that you ultimately wrote?
WACKER: That’s really a great question. Some of my closest friends in the profession urged me not to do it. They said, “Do not meet him in person because that will dull your edge.” They’re probably right. It probably did disincline me to be as critical as I should have been. The question is, was the trade-off worth it? And without question I would say, yes. It was well worth it for a couple of reasons. One is that I was able to experience in person the charisma of his personality. One journalist, Nancy Gibbs, well, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy wrote a wonderful book about Graham. They said, “It is almost impossible to exaggerate the power of his personality unless you have experienced it personally.” I found that to be true. I saw and my wife saw why it was that so many people were just swept into his orbit.
Actually there was one, I think it was Barbara Mandrell, who wrote that there were two people in her life that had commanded a room as soon as they walked in and they were Johnny Cash and Billy Graham. I don’t know much about Johnny Cash, but I know numbers of people who say the same thing about Graham, that he entered the room and he owned the room. To experience that helps you understand what was going on in a larger way.
The other thing I found by being with him in person, well two more things actually is how funny he is. His wit. You would never know that by watching him on television or on the radio. He had some kind of corny jokes on the radio of television. What you didn’t see is the personal wit. When you’re with him you just see how fast his mind worked. That was great.
The other thing was his humility. This man who understood who he was, he understood he was Billy Graham, he knew he was the most powerful preacher in America. He didn’t play games about that. He knew who he was. At the same time he always saw himself as the Lord’s instrument. He never thought that he had that power by virtue of his own gifts, his own genius, none of that. He always thought he was the Lord’s servant and the Lord had equipped him. So there was his deep humility that came through, and I don’t think I ever would have known that if I had just read about it.
HODGES: I appreciate you taking the time today, Grant. This is Grant Wacker that we’re speaking with from North Carolina. He’s the Gilbert T. Rowe professor emeritus of Christian History at Duke University Divinity School and the author of the book America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation. Thank you so much, Grant, for taking time to talk about the book today.
WACKER: Thank you, Blair. Thank you very much.
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