By David Gibson
“Billy Graham: An Ordinary Man and His Extraordinary God” by Lon Allison. Paraclete Press (Brewster, Mass., 2018). 157pp., $21.99.
The Rev. Billy Graham was just shy of his 100th birthday when he died last November. His death meant the loss of one of America’s best-known Christian leaders. He was widely respected and dedicated to an evangelical ministry that ultimately found him preaching to large gatherings in some 185 nations.
His long life and ministry were recalled and celebrated at the time of his death. Even many who neither were Baptist nor evangelical Christians, as he was, experienced some sense of loss in that moment.
“Billy influenced everyone from Catholics and Lutherans to Bible church evangelicals and Assemblies of God charismatics,” Lon Allison comments in “Billy Graham: An Ordinary Man and His Extraordinary God.”
Photos of Rev. Graham and reports on his expansive ministry appeared frequently in the newspapers and broadcasts that were part of my early life. I was very young at the time of his 1949 breakthrough preaching crusade in Los Angeles.
So successful was that crusade that its planned schedule had to be extended by five weeks. “Almost overnight, it seemed, Billy was a national sensation,” Allison states.
In the years and decades to follow, many Americans came to view Rev. Graham as a sort of pastor to their nation, due in part to his ministry to U.S. presidents. Rev. Graham’s White House visits always were newsworthy. Allison calls him the “pastor to presidents.”
Four U.S. presidents, Allison observes, “became what might be called close friends” of the evangelist: Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Rev. Graham “knew and met” 11 sitting presidents, “starting with Harry Truman.”
Rev. Graham came to realize over time that some would interpret a visit by him to a president as an expression of political endorsement. “Toward the end of his public life,” Allison observes, the evangelist said that given the chance to do things over he would “avoid any semblance of involvement in partisan politics.”
Allison says that “one of the most sobering periods of Billy’s life” emerged in the context of his friendship with Nixon. Rev. Graham had asked the president several times “to make sure his heart was right with God,” according to the author.
But Allison says that after the 1974 release of the Watergate tapes and after “Billy heard the president’s language and tone” on them, “he was deeply distressed.” Their “friendship was wounded,” although it “would not end,” Allison recalls, noting that Rev. Graham led Nixon’s memorial service in 1994.
Allison tells Rev. Graham’s story, but this brief book is not meant as a complete biography. Many will welcome the intimate details of his life revealed by Allison. Their close relationship allows the author to present a “bird’s-eye view” of the evangelist.
For 15 years Allison was executive director of the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton, Illinois. Certainly, his book is not the work of a dispassionate observer. Thus, it is notable that Allison is willing not just to describe Rev. Graham’s strengths, but a number of his weaknesses too.
It appears that Allison’s overriding goal is to present him as someone whose “source of strength, both emotionally and physically, was his life with God.” Rev. Graham’s “relationship with God was always the core reason for his being,” Allison writes. It prompted Rev. Graham “to trust God with every serious life challenge and decision.”
Rev. Graham was a lifelong learner and Scripture lover, known when traveling to leave several Bibles open around his hotel room, for example. He could pick one up whenever he wished and “sip” throughout the day on God’s word.
The Gospel “was the core purpose” of Rev. Graham’s life, Allison insists. Yet, like many religious figures, he once experienced a crisis of faith. It lasted a year or more, and it challenged his very confidence in the Bible “as authoritative.”
Allison explains that Rev. Graham “found himself questioning if he was right in accepting the Bible as the word of God.” The historic 1949 Los Angeles crusade followed quickly upon his resolution of this faith crisis.
Rev. Graham’s ministry exploded on the American scene just four years after the Second World War ended and at a time of fear engendered across society by the advent of nuclear weapons. Allison suggests that these and other unsettling developments on the world stage made Rev. Graham’s ministry particularly timely.
He writes, “At times of geopolitical unrest, people are more willing to look for spiritual guidance and answers.”
In the early years of Rev. Graham’s ministry, many Americans were familiar with the image of “Elmer Gantry,” the fundamentalist evangelist depicted in Sinclair Lewis’ famous 1926 novel. Gantry “was motivated in his work by the very things he preached against in public: money, alcohol and fornication,” says Allison.
With Rev. Graham, he suggests, people confidently felt that they were in the presence of someone who was nothing like that — someone, as Allison comments, who readily gave credit for “anything good” witnessed in himself “to the Gospel of the living God working in him.”
Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.