In a country, and a world, more divided than ever along lines of faith, race, and politics, the number is staggering: The voice of the Rev. Billy Graham, who passed away on Wednesday, Feb. 21, at the age of 99, is estimated to have been heard by 2.2 billion people during his lifetime.
To ignore that that voice sometimes courted controversy while preaching the gospel is to leave out a crucial part of the story. Graham, perhaps as passionate and persuasive a speaker about the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ as any evangelist who ever lived, spoke ill of Jews, same-sex marriage, and feminism. That can’t simply be swept under the rug, even if he expressed contrition for those views as he grew older.
But there is also no doubt that Graham, seemingly alone among his kind, was untouched by the scandals that seemed to envelop the other, lesser televangelists that followed in his wake. There is no doubt that Graham was a mesmerizing speaker with a fervent faith in the power of Christianity. There is no doubt that even nonbelievers could be taken with his compassion, his intelligence, and the sheer belief of his message.
It’s hard to imagine now, but Graham was a preacher who could fill stadiums; who had the ear of every United States president from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama; who invited Martin Luther King Jr. to preach at one of his revivals in a time (1957) when that idea seemed ludicrous; who, through his endless series of sermons, crusades, and books (over 30 of them), was undeniably one of the towering figures of the Christian faith in the 20th and 21st centuries. Just like those controversial views, his legacy, his effectiveness, and his faith cannot be ignored.
Graham once said, “Someday, you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”
Who can doubt he believed in that heavenly kingdom with every fiber of his brilliant, flawed, inspired being?
Upon hearing of his passing, several of the Upstate’s religious leaders spoke about Graham’s influence on Christianity, and on them personally. Here’s what they said:
“I would say that Billy Graham was among the top five most influential people of the 20th century. Though he was entirely respectful of the church, he blasted through its walls, reaching millions of people in his crusades and in his writings, who may not have ever entered a sanctuary. In many ways, he was ahead of his time — in his insistence on racial diversity at his crusades, a care to avoid compromising sexual situations, and a public apology for getting too cozy with presidential power. I honestly believe that he was a man of God — and I don’t throw that term around lightly.” –Rev. Deb Richardson-Moore, Pastor of Triune Mercy Center
“When Billy Graham spoke, Christians listened; presidents listened; secular people listened. The wonder of his ministry was not his oratory skill, but his integrity. I grew up watching his crusades on television. His message was simple, Jesus-centered salvation. For his life and his ministry, I am grateful. To God be the glory.” –Dr. Rev. Bob Howell, senior pastor, Buncombe Street United Methodist Church
“Mr. Graham was taken by God’s angels and given a ‘royal escort’ into heaven this morning. We are all obviously grieving because we all loved him so very much. This moment in time is the fulfillment of Mr. Graham’s lifetime ministry centered around the eternal life we have in the Lord Jesus Christ.” –Rev. Don Wilton, senior pastor at First Baptist Spartanburg and Graham’s personal pastor
“Bob Jones University extends its sympathy to the family and associates of Billy Graham at this time of loss and trust they will experience God’s comfort and strength. As an evangelist, Dr. Graham desired that men and women hear the Gospel and come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. We rejoice for all of those who accepted Christ’s free gift of salvation through his ministry.” –Steve Pettit, Bob Jones University President