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America’s Pastor – Billy Graham the shaping of a nation 

A fascinating read for all who recognise Billy Graham’s unique and powerful ministry and wonder if we will see his like again.

 
 

BillyGrahamAmerica’s Pastor – Billy Graham the shaping of a nation
By Grant Wacker  
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press  
ISBN 978-0-674-05218-5  
Reviewer: Martin Poole


It was US President George Bush senior who first called Billy Graham the “nation’s pastor”, and Grant Wacker draws on this description to examine the role of Billy Graham, particularly with regard to the culture of his homeland.

His 300 page book with over 900 footnotes is certainly well researched and whilst for the UK reader the focus is most definitely Stateside, there is much to interest in his account of Billy’s ministry. He gives us statistics – Billy preached to 215m people in 99 countries (ratchetted up to 2 billion taking into account telecasts etc). His biggest single audience was 1.1m people in Seoul Korea.

He summarises his not uncritical view of Billy Graham’s preaching by standing back and observing that “if the number of inquirers who walked forward to commit their lives to Christ measured effectiveness, Graham was the best in the world at what he did. For that matter he may have been the best who ever lived at what he did.”

The book also charts Billy Graham’s association with 11 consecutive presidents, commencing with Billy’s gaffe-strewn meeting with President Trueman to deeper and valued friendships with his successors down to the present day Obama.

Whilst generally positive the Nixon years and the fallout from Watergate are well documented. The invasive tapes of White House conversations, including Billy’s own words, serve to show that these strong relationships were not always beneficial and Billy not always wise.

An interesting observation is that while Billy Graham gained from the early days of White House accessibility, in later years there has been a shift whereby presidents and presidential candidates find a photo shoot with Billy Graham an aid to their own position.

A significant theme of the book is an assessment of Billy’s pronouncements on justice issues and particularly the race question. The interaction between Billy Graham and Martin Luther King is probed. While many see Billy “behind the curve”, due attention is drawn to him dismantling the ropes that separated black from white at his Chattanooga crusade, and henceforth preaching to racially mixed gatherings.

The question is posed as to why, with all his influence, Billy did not take a stand on many topics. Some of this objection is answered by his unswerving commitment to a message that called for hearts to change which in turn would affect society. This message was to be available to all and its circulation was not to be impeded as a result of taking stands against those who held differing views on social issues. Compromise, or a strident uncompromising focus upon a message he felt under God’s direction to present as widely as possible?

Of the wide range of character traits that Wacker highlights in Billy Graham, including financial probity, marital fidelity, sexual purity, rugged good looks, sartorial elegance, rich baritone voice, ability to harness new technology….. the most attractive is Graham’s humility.

When asked by a journalist how he thought he would be viewed by history he replied, “I don’t want people to say nice things about me because I don’t deserve them; I only want the Lord to say well done thou good and faithful servant - but I am not sure I am going to hear it.”

A fascinating read for all who recognise Billy Graham’s unique and powerful ministry and wonder if we will see his like again.


The Revd Martin Poole is a retired Baptist minister having served the churches of Tabernacle Penarth, Godalming and Eastleigh

 

Baptist Times, 10/07/2015
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