Billy Graham no longer prowls around the pulpit like a nervous cat caged in a too-small pen.
His hands don’t claw the air with kinetic urgency the way they used to when he describes the usual - a gone-to-hell-in-a-hand-basket world.
His eyes, still clear blue and challenging, look out at the world through prescription lenses.
At 76, time and Parkinson’s disease have taken their toll on Christendom’s superstar preacher - an American export as well known as Coca-Cola - but they have not robbed him of the vision that transformed him from tent revivalist to global guru, confidant of kings and fallen presidents, counselor to millions.
Thursday through next Saturday, Graham will stage the most ambitious crusade of his 50-year ministry, a state-of-the-art, satellite-transmitted evangelical extravaganza that will be beamed from a baseball stadium in Puerto Rico to 10 million people gathered around satellite dishes in 165 countries. The United States is not part of the event, but there will be later television broadcasts of the crusade in this country.
Nobody has ever done anything like Global Mission. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is billing it as “the largest single outreach in the history of the Christian church” and “the biggest project ever attempted by satellite, even more complicated than the Olympics.”
No one is calling it Graham’s swan song, though the size and ambition of the Global Mission would be a fitting end to the ministry of a man who has preached the Gospel to more people in live audiences than anyone else in history.
“I think it’s hard to overestimate the impact Billy Graham has had on world Christianity,” says William Martin, author of the Graham biography, “Prophet With Honor.”
Graham revolutionized the religious revival. He took it from the tents and church halls of fundamentalist country Christians to the living rooms of millions of mainstream middle-class Protestants, and then to the world. No evangelist today matches his stature or his ability to bring together tempestuous segments of the Christian world.
Though speculation started percolating 30 years ago about who might succeed him, the consensus today is that probably nobody will. A new world evangelist will undoubtedly surface, Christian leaders say, but probably not from North America, and not as the spokesperson for the Billy Graham Evangelical Association.
“Graham came to prominence at a unique moment in history and was able to capitalize on emerging media technologies in a way that no one ever had or will again,” says Randall Balmer, a religion professor at Barnard College who produced a documentary on Graham for PBS.
From the beginning, Graham was poised to take advantage of a national network of fundamentalist organizations that had mobilized quietly in the 1930s and early ‘40s.
Fresh-faced and telegenic, with huge charisma, a jutting jaw, chiseled good looks and North Carolina fundamentalist roots, he was a natural. Nearly from the day he was ordained in a tiny Baptist church in Melrose, Fla., “fundamentalist leaders saw him and thought, ‘This is the movement’s Elijah. Let’s pass the prophetic mantle on and anoint him,”’ says Joel Carpenter, director of the religion program at the Pew Charitable Trusts and author of a soon-to-be published book on fundamentalism in America.
The first five years of Graham’s ministry were spent as a national representative of the then-new Youth For Christ (“geared to the times, anchored to the rock”) movement. “Youth for Christ was the first flash on the public radar screen of the new kind of revival - a revival that very much emulated the style of the popular entertainment of the day,” Carpenter says.
Big band revues. Kate Smith-style singers. Current-events driven.
Russians had developed the atomic bomb. Revolution racked China. The Cold War wafted through Europe. And the young prophet, Billy Graham, with a newspaper in one hand and a Bible in the other, warned from a traveling pulpit that God would take vengeance on an unrepentant America.
The national media discovered him in 1949 at a downtown Los Angeles revival. Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst heard that a couple of Hollywood stars had gotten converted by a young, unknown charismatic country preacher named Graham. Hearst, who believed America needed a spiritual revival, reportedly ordered his papers to “puff Graham.” The rest is history.
Seven presidential inaugurations. Author of 50 books. Regularly voted one of the “Ten Most Admired Men in the World.”
But not everyone loves the man and his ecumenical version of enlightened fundamentalism.
As early as 1966, Bob Jones, then president of the strict fundamentalist Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., disassociated himself from the media-friendly Graham. He criticized Graham for turning converts over to “unscriptural churches” and “false teachers,” liberals who did not subscribe to the virgin birth and the infallibility of the Bible.
Graham has never warmed the hearts of pro-life advocates with statements like the one he made in the late ‘70s and from which he has never veered: “I don’t know the answer to when a fetus becomes a person. I don’t think any of us really knows. There are people that think they do, but they don’t. There are areas like this on which I’m not qualified to speak.”
Liberal Christians, on the other hand, have complained about his many friendships with powerful politicians - both Democrat and Republican - and his emphasis on personal commitment rather than social and economic injustice.
Graham always insisted on integrated crusades, but he refused to publicly support the civil rights movement. He did not condemn the Vietnam War. The Graham message has never wavered: salvation through acceptance and faith in Jesus Christ, and the impending moral collapse of America.
Despite occasional missteps, Graham has maintained a squeaky-clean personal and corporate image. Presidents and televangelists have succumbed to moral and financial infidelities over the years, but not Graham.
Graham has been married to his wife, Ruth Bell, for 51 years, and four of his five children are involved in Christian ministries.
His son, Franklin, 42, is the second vice chairman of the board of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the independent Minneapolis-based organization Graham founded in 1950 to oversee the finances of his ministry.
It has become the IBM of evangelism, producing more than 100 Christian movies, publishing the 2-million-circulation Decision magazine, producing Graham’s “Hour of Decision” radio program, which is carried on 700 stations around the world, and financing international ministries. The association made $89.4 million in 1993, most of it from contributions.
“I have been asked what is the secret? Is it showmanship, organization or what?” Graham once said.
“The secret of my work is God. I would be nothing without him.”