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People & Ideas: Billy Graham

Billy Graham

Raised on a dairy farm, Billy Graham, then a lanky teenager, experienced an evangelical conversion at a tent revival meeting near Charlotte, N.C., in 1934. He would become the foremost evangelical preacher of the 20th century, a "soul winner" whose message of sin and salvation was heard around the world.

In the 1940s, Graham emerged as the public face of a movement anchored in the National Evangelistic Association. These new evangelicals separated themselves from the abrasive sectarianism of fundamentalists, articulating a new evangelical theology. Graham became the first full-time preacher for Youth for Christ, an initiative to appeal to a new generation of evangelicals. Graham and his colleagues decked themselves out in flashy blazers, neon socks and flamboyant ties. Their revivals featured Bible quizzes, ventriloquists and singing quartets. Thousands of young people responded. The revivals became the springboard for Graham's independent ministry.

In 1949, Graham took his crusade to Los Angeles. Before agreeing to appear, he set down three stringent conditions: The sponsors must include as many churches and denominations as possible; they must increase the budget from $7,000 to $25,000 in order to invest more in advertising and promotion; they must erect a much larger tent than originally planned. Graham acknowledged that some of the organizers thought he was brash, but he got what he wanted.

Two days before the start of the rally, the Soviet Union had successfully tested an atomic bomb. With the specter of "godless communism" looming, Graham capitalized on his time in the spotlight to proclaim: "Communism has decided against God, against Christ, against the Bible, and against all religion. ... Communism is a religion that is inspired, directed and motivated by the Devil himself who has declared war against Almighty God." Scheduled for three weeks, the revivals stretched to more than eight weeks.

The newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst instructed his editors to "puff Graham" by covering his crusade favorably and often. Graham made banner headlines and soon landed on the cover of Time magazine. The popularity of his Los Angeles crusade and the positive media treatment propelled him into the American mainstream.

In the years that followed, Graham crisscrossed the country, packing football stadiums, convention centers and civil auditoriums. He preached a straightforward message of sin and salvation, urging his listeners to "make a decision for Christ."

Inclusive by instinct and creed, Graham moved farther away from traditional fundamentalism by reaching out to mainline Protestant denominations and forming friendships with Catholics and Jews. His decision to eliminate the ropes separating blacks and whites at one of his revivals illustrated his commitment to reaching out to every soul.

Like the 19th-century revivalist Charles Finney, Graham demonstrated a knack for publicity and organization. In 1950, he established the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which helped disseminate his message across an array of venues: television specials, the weekly radio program Hour of Decision, Decision magazine and a weekly newspaper column. In 1956, he founded the influential conservative magazine Christianity Today. Over the years, Graham befriended a series of presidents, both Republican and Democrat, and is credited by George W. Bush with leading him to "make a decision for Christ."

Graham transformed evangelism in America and opened the door for the re-entry of conservative Christians like Jerry Falwell into the political arena.

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Published October 11, 2010

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