His words made grown men jump!
In 1949, William Randolph Hearst, the aging media mogul, sent a two-word decree to his national network of editors. “Puff Graham” was a journalistic signal instructing his people to write praiseworthy stories about the “Johnny-come-lately” evangelist Billy Graham.
The golden-haired evangelist was conducting a tent crusade in Los Angeles and Hearst must have been impressed by Graham’s sizzling sermons and unflinching condemnation of communism. Suddenly, reporters and photographers converged onto the “Canvas Cathedral” and flashbulbs started popping.
Pulling a reporter aside, Graham gathered that Hearst had smiled upon him graciously. Graham’s star rose overnight, and photographs and praises soon followed in Life, Time, Newsweek, and on the front pages of big-city newspapers.
Graham’s Los Angeles crusade was extended to Nov. 20, 1949, and it gained much national attention due to the conversion testimonies of several Hollywood celebrities.
Trace the trajectory of evangelicalism in America and it seems to flourish with the youthful energy and vision of the North Carolina evangelist.
Those two words from Hearst helped launch an international ministry spanning 70 years. Billy Graham has preached to an estimated 200 million people around the globe – and another two billion people via radio, television, and Internet.[i] Graham’s books, Christianity Today magazines, and print resources have sold millions of copies.
Graham has stated that he never met or communicated with Mr. Hearst; therefore, he never discovered “why” the millionaire newspaperman was so obliging.
In 1950, Graham turned down a lucrative Hollywood acting role. It was offered by the president of Paramount Studios, Y. Frank Freeman, for a possible remake of the movie “The Ten Commandments.” Cecil B. DeMille was in that lunch meeting along with Anthony Quinn, Barbara Stanwyck, and Betty Hutton. Recounting the luncheon years later, Graham said, “I looked him straight in the eye, with the others listening, and told him that God had called me to preach the Gospel and that I would never do anything else as long as I lived.”[ii]
Trace the trajectory of evangelicalism in America and it seems to flourish with the youthful energy and vision of the North Carolina evangelist. As Dr. Graham’s health and drive waned in his late years – so has the American church. He once said, “Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spine of others are often stiffened.” Graham’s courage and presence fortified the faith of so many for so long.
I believe God blessed Graham for the following reasons.
Firstly, early in the 1950s Dr. Graham demanded an inclusive ministry by preaching to “all” people. When the ushers in one crusade in the South refused to take down the ropes separating blacks and whites, Graham took the ropes down himself. He befriended Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and included black singers and guests on his stage. In the short run, Graham lost financial backers. In the long run, he gained the blessings of God.
Secondly, Billy Graham demanded accountability for his lifestyle and finances. He and his team established high moral standards of personal conduct. They held each other responsible. They also instituted the highest standards of financial accountability. Graham helped launch the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) in the late 1970s. Today, almost 2,000 ministries and charities are guided by the seven standards of responsible stewardship that the ECFA instills and values.
As Southern Baptists approach our “tree stump” of decreasing baptisms and membership, we can learn many things from the life of Billy Graham.
Thirdly, Billy Graham would use the power of multi-media for the sake of the gospel. As an unchurched child, teen, and young adult, I can remember Graham’s long bony finger pointing at me through our television set while pleading with me to come to Jesus. The visual image of thousands of people walking toward the stadium platform during the gospel invitation brought conviction into my life. Graham would use televised crusades, movies, magazines, books, tracts, etc., in order to reach people for Christ.
Finally, Graham preached a clear and convicting gospel. “The Bible says,” was Graham’s trademark ring of authority. However, at the age of 30, Graham became conflicted about the Bible’s authority due to the sour skepticism of a fellow minister. Sleepless and burdened, Graham went for a moonlight walk one night with his Bible. Coming to a tree stump, he laid his Bible on it. He knelt in the dirt and poured out his heart to God. He finally prayed, “Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word – by faith! I will believe this to be Your inspired Word.” The Holy Spirit instantly released him of this paralyzing doubt and Graham sensed a renewed freedom and power to preach.
Weeks later Billy would set up his giant tent in Los Angeles and the providential “puffing” of Graham unleased the young fiery evangelist onto the world stage with a gospel of which he was never ashamed.
As Southern Baptists approach our “tree stump” of decreasing baptisms and membership, we can learn many things from the life of Billy Graham. The greatest lesson Graham taught us is the confidence we can have in the gospel “for it is power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).
May our four-century old theological travail over the undying stalemate of the Remonstrants and Counterremonstrants finally return us to the simplicity of the cross and the sufficiency of our Lord’s atoning sacrifice to all who believe.
With America’s growing secularism, now is not the time to be mesmerized by mysteries, or hamstrung by shy sermons with faint-hearted gospel invitations. Billy was bold!
“The gospel is only good news if it gets there in time!” a good friend of Graham once said. [iii] The favor of God seems to rest on those who take sharing the gospel seriously.
[iii] Carl F. Henry—in 1956 at the urging of Billy Graham, Henry became editor of Christianity Today magazine. He held this position until 1968.
Ron Hale is senior adult/pastoral care pastor at West Jackson Baptist Church in Jackson, TN, and a member of the SBC Executive Committee.