Port Chester, February 21, 2018 – I never did buy the claim that Billy Graham became famous because William Randolph Hearst wanted to sell papers during his 1949 Los Angeles crusade and wired his editors to “Puff Graham.”
Granted, even Billy thought the inexplicable telegram from the churlish Hearst was significant, but it didn’t account for his international fame or for his staying power. It was Billy’s good looks and charisma that did that.
I first noticed his particular power in 1967 during Graham’s month-long crusade in Earl’s Court, London. The U.S. Air Force chaplains at Bentwaters and Woodbridge air bases in Suffolk sent buses to the crusade so Americans could get a good look at their compatriot. One 15-year-old girl, the daughter of a sergeant, went forward to the podium repeatedly in response to Billy’s nightly invitation. After this had happened several times, I – a callow 21-year-old chaplain’s assistant – asked her if she realized she only had to accept Jesus once. She replied, “I’m going forward to get a closer look at Billy. He’s so cute!”
I’m sure Billy would have been embarrassed by that, but in 1967 he was tall, tanned, and extremely good-looking – all useful tools for effective evangelism.
The next and last time I saw Billy was in 1980 during the gathering of the Baptist World Alliance in Los Angeles. I was there to edit the Alliance’s daily newspaper so I tried to follow the two main celebrity speakers – Billy and former President Jimmy Carter – as closely as I could. Both Graham and Carter submitted graciously to interviews, but my main memory is that they could both walk through the crowded lobby of the host hotel without attracting the slightest attention. Stars do not overly impress sophisticated Angelinos.
Years later, in 2008 when I was a communications officer for the National Council of Churches, I stumbled across a story that reminded me how steadfast was Billy’s faith. I had immersed myself in a project to write a series of blogs on great leaders of the NCC, an organization best known for its commitment to social justice.
As I leafed through the pages of Outlook, a magazine published by the Council from 1950 to 1953, I realized I was missing an important ministry not always associated with the National Council of Churches: evangelism.
I was surprised to discover the Council had a director of evangelism in the early fifties. He was a fiery, energetic preacher named Charles Templeton, who happened to be a good friend of Billy Graham. A long article in Outlook described Templeton’s homiletical zeal and remarkable success in winning souls for Jesus.
Yes! I thought. Perfect. Who knew the council had an evangelical side? Was Templeton still alive? Was he still in the evangelism biz? I jumped on my computer and began searching for him.
I didn’t find Charles, but I found his son and gave him a call.
“I was just reading an old article about your dad’s years as evangelist for the National Council of Churches,” I said.
“Oh,” he replied, sounding interested.
“Is your dad still around?”
“He died in 2001.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“You knew, right?”
“You knew he became an atheist and left the Council?”
So much for the NCC evangelism story.
Digging a little further, I discovered Templeton had written a book in 1996, Farewell to God, My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith.
The book includes an account of his encounter with his old pal, Billy Graham.
In the course of our conversation I said, “But, Billy, it’s simply not possible any longer to believe, for instance, the biblical account of creation. The world was not created over a period of days a few thousand years ago; it has evolved over millions of years. It’s not a matter of speculation; it’s a demonstrable fact.”
“I don’t accept that,” Billy replied.
One has to admire Billy’s tenacity in sticking with his faith. Templeton’s account makes one wonder if Billy ever considered that the Bible offers both history and poetic metaphors that could not be literally true but illumine greater spiritual truths. Possibly Billy’s mind and faith became more open over the years because as he aged he stopped preaching that hell was the inevitable fate for all who don’t accept Jesus as a personal savior. But whatever his faith was, no one can doubt that it was deep, honest, and resolute.
(I wrote in greater depth about Templeton and other doubters in a 2014 blog from which some of the above is gleaned: http://thelittlescroll.blogspot.com/2014/04/doubt-on-steroids.html)
Billy Graham, who died Tuesday at 99, was relatively silent over the past several years as he struggled with memory problems (his staff avoid the word dementia). Throughout his long career he remained friends with the National Council of Churches while other evangelicals denounced the organization as leftist. He once visited the NCC offices on 475 Riverside Drive in New York and conferred with General Secretary Joan Brown Campbell. According to staff legend, Joan reminded Billy that he was breaking his rule against meeting alone with a woman behind closed doors (now known as the Pence rule). Billy reportedly laughed out loud and made no move to open the door.
As Billy aged, I wrote an obituary for him so the Council could quickly release its statement in the event of his death. I revised the obituary four times to tailor the quotes for a succession of NCC general secretaries: Bob Edgar, Michael Kinnamon, Peg Birk, and finally for President and General Secretary Jim Winkler.
The draft obit disappeared long before Billy did, but his passing harkens back to a simpler era in U.S. religion, when an evangelical Southern Baptist from North Carolina figured out how to hone his message about God’s love for all people in ways that rarely offended and often brought us closer together.