Katie Harrison

Katie leads Faith Research Centre at ComRes, helping public, private, non-profit, academic and media clients to gather data and insights about religion and belief, and worships at Riverside Vineyard Church.

February 21, 2018

The news of Billy Graham’s death has brought back many memories. My first trip to a football stadium, to hear him speak on one of his tours of England in the Eighties; the ways nonconformist churches emulated his ‘altar calls’ as an invitation to receive salvation; the weekly repetition of those words in John 31 in gospel services: “You must be born again.”

Some day you will read or hear that I have died. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will have just changed my address
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Coincidentally, he’s recently been on our television screens, reminding us of his history with Britain in the Netflix drama, The Crown. He made an appearance in the second series as pastoral adviser to Queen Elizabeth II, while she ponders the meaning of forgiveness. Her Majesty is depicted meeting him a couple of times, inviting him for a one-to-one shortly after she has was told of her uncle’s former affiliation with Nazis.

American evangelist Billy Graham (second left) with his wife Ruth and the Queen, Prince Philip and the Queen Mother, when he preached at Sandringham Parish Church in 1984. (Credit: PA Images)

That Graham engaged in such a way, with such a public figure, was unusual. At a time when conservative evangelicals, especially those in ‘low’ churches, were averse to taking a role in public life, Graham not only met the British Queen, but also had a ‘bittersweet’ relationship with Nixon – and one which he later came to regret. His links to Nixon were messy and complicated – and very public. It deterred many people of faith from engaging in politics.

It was a while before white US evangelicals would leave their separatist lifestyles to engage again with public policy, and even then it was only through organisations such as Moral Majority2 which concentrated on a small number of polarising issues.

Graham’s son Franklin has, however, been very vocal in his support for elements of the Trump presidency. While this will have gone down well with many of his humanitarian organisation’s supporters3, it hasn’t made him popular among more progressive Christians. He has been publicly criticised for his political positions by Jerushah Armfield, his niece and Graham’s granddaughter, who suggested he stick to his charity work.

Billy Graham described his relationship with President Nixon, pictured here in 1971, as ‘bittersweet’  (Credit Image: AP Photo)

Graham, though, would certainly not want to be remembered for his political engagement. Quite the opposite. He was widely praised for his humility and would frequently argue that his mission was to point people’s attention to Jesus, and not to himself. He wished fervently that his revival meetings could have been advertised without using his name: “I despise all this attention on myself…I’m not trying to bring people to myself, nor am I trying to interest people in me.”

His dedication to a simple faith, clearly expressed in an invitation to receive the forgiveness available because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, touched the hearts of many. He spoke to millions of everyday folk: people brought their friends, neighbours and colleagues to his tent revivals, city crusades and outdoor arena services.

The only thing Billy Graham wanted to do was to point people towards his understanding of the Gospel
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There are still plenty of those people around and, while they may have been separatist back in the day, they are certainly finding their voice now. In our audio documentary on the white evangelicals who support Trump (airing on UnHerd next Monday), Greg Smith of Pew Research Center told us:

“In the 2016 election, fully one quarter of all voters, 26% of everyone who cast a ballot, was a white born-again or evangelical Christian and that’s very much on par with what we’ve seen in recent elections…they are a very large, very consequential, very politically powerful constituency in the United States.”

Billy Graham had a huge amount of influence on this, now politically significant, group of people. But the only thing he wanted to do was to point them towards his understanding of the Gospel. Politics didn’t work out for him, and he never saw it as his game.

Graham had a simple unsophisticated message throughout his life, and a few years ago his grandson passed on to the world his grandfather’s simple understanding of the life that is to come:

“Some day you will read or hear that I have died. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will have just changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”

FOOTNOTES
  1. Throughout much of the 20th century, most conservative evangelical churches in both the UK and the US, particularly those not aligned with Anglican church calendars, would hold a weekly service dedicated to inviting people to receive salvation
  2. Moral Majority was founded by Jerry Falwell whose son, Jerry Falwell Jr, is now a regular in the White House and has the ear of President Trump
  3. Franklin founded the NGO Samaritan’s Purse, best known for its controversial Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes filled with donated supplies, along with proselytising tracts promoting Christianity