Guest lecturer Grant Wacker: Billy Graham’s “improbable” reach exceeded his constituency

February 21, 2014 | Leave a Comment

Guest lecturer Grant Wacker: Billy Graham’s “improbable” reach exceeded his constituency
Duke University Professor of Christian History Grant Wacker, right, with Glenn Jonas, chair of Campbell University’s Department of Religion and Philosophy. Wacker delivered the Department of Religion and Philosophy’s 15th Annual Lecture Series Thursday.

BUIES CREEK -- Throughout the course of more than 55 years, the Rev. Billy Graham has preached the Gospel to more than 210 million people in 99 countries and on six continents. His name has appeared on the Gallop Poll’s roster of the Most Admired Men, through the year 2012, 56 consecutive times -- the most of any person. And various national mainstream publications have called him the “White House Chaplain,” “America’s Pastor,” and “the 13th Apostle.”

Graham “has probably talked to more people in person than any human in history,” said Grant Wacker, a professor of Christian history at Duke University who delivered the Campbell University Department of Religion and Philosophy’s 15h Annual Lecture Series Thursday in Butler Chapel.

At the same time, Graham has had his share of critics. Bob Jones, the founder of Bob Jones University, for example, once said, “Billy Graham is doing more damage to the cause of Jesus Christ than any human alive.” On the other end of the spectrum, the writer Christopher Hitchens called Graham a “cheap liar” and “an avid bigot.”

Though the “positive status far outweighs the hostility,” Wacker said, “the hostility is important, too, simply to know why the man was such a lightning rod -- why so many people loved him and why so many people despised him. . . .

“How did Graham, this one man from a farm in North Carolina, come to have this kind of status in this culture?”

In a lecture Thursday evening, Wacker drew on research for a book he’s writing, “Billy Graham and the Shaping of Modern America,” to discuss why Graham’s reach was “improbable,” how he achieved this status, and what it has meant for American culture and society. Below is an edited summary of his comments.

3 reasons why Billy Graham’s status was “improbable”

  • His reach far exceeds his constituency. “Only 30 percent of Americans are evangelical; 70 percent of Americans are not evangelical. Yet his popularity far exceeds his natural constituency.”
  • He wasn’t special. “He grew up on a farm in Charlotte. He wasn’t poor; he wasn’t rich. He wasn’t especially a bad student; he wasn’t especially a good student. The truth is: there’s nothing special. . . . He was just absolutely a normal, average Southern farmer.”
  • He made mistakes. “Some of them are minor [mistakes], and some of them are serious. There are many examples I can give you. . . . The most serious is his entanglement with politics, particularly with Richard Nixon. . . . Finally Graham saw it and was brokenhearted and apologized. He said he allowed himself to be taken by the prestige of the presidency . . . and he spent the next 30 years of his life urging young evangelists not to be entangled in politics.”

3 reasons why Billy Graham achieved the status he did

  • He presented mainstream evangelical theology in an appealing way. “Beginning as a pure-bred fundamentalist pretty close to fire and brimstone, his message softened in countless ways and it became a message more and more about God’s love for a lost humanity and Christ’s offer of salvation. . . . I think what Americans heard in Graham was a message that was simple. . . . It was a message that was consistent. . . . They heard a message that was timely and that connected with the narrative of their own lives. . . . [It was a message that] was hope-filled and hopeful [and] . . . that was urgent [and] that said our lives matter and how we spend them matters.”
  • He came across as a heartlander. “He was what my grandmother would call ‘the salt of the earth’ -- the kind of people who make America run. . . . His parents were married for life, members of a Presbyterian church in Charlotte. . . . He grew up on a farm in an age when we esteemed -- and we still do -- rural American values. . . . He presented himself over and over in sermons as a red-blooded American farm boy. Added to that was that he maintained impeccable standards of integrity. . . . Billy Graham came across, really, as a man from Mayberry."
  • He came across as a very special kind of heartlander: a Southerner. Graham “came to prominence in an era when the South went through tremendous cultural excursion. After World War II, we see huge [numbers of people from] the South moving North and West and taking their culture with them. The South shows up everywhere, and Graham shows up with them as a Southerner . . . . . The South exercises tremendous hold on the American imagination. . . . . [Consider] every elected U.S. president from Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush, with one exception, was a Southerner.”

3 things Billy Graham offered America culture and society

  • He was America’s best self. “One historian said ‘He was America’s best self.' He was what people imagined themselves to be, what they wanted to be. Whether they acted that way or not, they imagined themselves to be a certain kind of person, and Graham fulfilled that imagination.”
  • He showed that you can be Christian, American and modern -- all at once. “You can be American and be Christian and be modern, and there’s a way to do it. [Graham] did it instinctively and didn’t make a big deal out of it. He showed people how it’s possible.”
  • He exemplified the power of the second chance. “Read a sampling of the letters sent to him. Many of them will tear your heart out. The letters tell a story of addiction, brokenness, and divorce, and of wayward children and of elderly people of children who never call or write and sometimes from victims of child abuse. It’s a very, very sad tale of human suffering. Some of the letters are very happy and gracious and joyful, but the majority of them talk about human brokenness. And then they thank Graham for the message he has brought to them -- and what he offered them was the promise of a second chance.”-- By Cherry Crayton, digital content coordinator

About Grant Wacker: Grant Wacker is a professor of Christian history at Duke University who is writing a book about Billy Graham, “Billy Graham and the Shaping of American Culture.” In all, he has co-edited or authored seven books, including “Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture” and “Religion in American Life: A Short History.” He joined the Duke faculty in 1992 after serving as an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He received his bachelor’s in philosophy from Stanford University and his Ph.D. in religion from Harvard University.

About the lecture series: The Staley Distinguished Scholar Lecture Program sponsors the Department of Religion and Philosophy Annual Lecture Series. Its purpose is to bring scholars to Campbell University from different areas in the field of religion to stimulate scholarly inquiry, learning and practical application in the academic discipline of religion. The founder of the Staley Distinguished Scholar Lecture Program is Thomas F. Staley, a co-founder of Reynolds and Company, which later merged with Dean Witter to form Dean Witter-Reynolds. The Department of Religion and Philosophy’s 16th Annual Lecture Series will be held on Feb. 3, 2015, and feature the Rev. John Buchanan, editor of The Christian Century.