By The Dallas Morning News
For many lives fully lived, it can be nearly impossible to sum up their contributions. But for those who truly stand apart, it is often an unwavering dedication to a single universal truth that signals their greatness. And so it was with the Rev. Billy Graham. His greatness came from the understanding that neither he nor any person alive was the great power in the universe, and that it is essential to find your inner humility if you are to seek grace.
Billy Graham, who first heard the call to ministry on the 18th hole of a Florida golf course some 80 years ago, died Wednesday. He was 99.
His preaching took him to nearly 200 nations and to more than 200 million people. He was a Baptist minister with little theological education but a large gift for inspiring others to hear the word of Christ. Graham, who grew up milking cows on his family’s North Carolina farm, was an obscure tent revivalist until the Hearst newspapers discovered his fiery anti-communism in Los Angeles in 1949 and made him a superstar.
He went on to become pastor to presidents and future presidents. He’s credited with urging Richard Nixon to consider George H.W. Bush as a running mate in 1968. He was the pastor Bush would later have dinner with the night the Gulf War began. And he was the spiritual adviser whom George W. Bush would later credit with helping him stop drinking and take his faith more seriously.
Graham was the most influential figure in 20-century American Protestantism, charting a course between fundamentalists and mainliners. He thereby pioneered one of the most important religious movements in the country today: evangelicalism. Though a theological conservative who believed in the literal truth of the Bible, his was a powerful early voice for Christian ecumenism, and he was an advocate of racial integration when such a stance earned him vicious criticism.
Graham avoided the ethical controversies that brought low lesser evangelists. And he was criticized by some for refusing to preach that only certain denominations provide a path to salvation. His preaching rarely focused on harsh judgments about abortion or homosexuality, judgments he thought would keep people from hearing the word of Christ. Instead, he emphasized saving souls in language that would be echoed decades later by Pope Francis.
Graham’s focus on individual salvation eventually came to be seen by some as anachronistic, given the role social justice came to play in many ministries by the 1960s. And Graham’s close friendship with Nixon probably blinded him to the president’s failings. Graham was embarrassed decades later to find his voice on Oval Office tapes capturing conversations with Nixon that were widely seen as anti-Semitic.
But Graham’s quick and humble apology was a telling example of his grace, and after a lifetime of showing respect for the Jewish faith, his standing did not suffer.
Graham will most be remembered for the altar call — an invitation to come forward and accept faith in Jesus Christ — that ended his sermons for six decades. Only God will know how many destinies were changed by the humble servant named Billy Graham, but we can all see the mark Graham left with a simple call: “Come.”
The Dallas Morning News