Many years ago, Robert Benchley, a celebrated humorist, essayist, film actor and regular at New York’s Algonquin Round Table, took time in an article to reflect on misconceptions about his city, widely viewed in those days as a cesspool of sin, gin and cynical sophistication. In truth, he wrote, the typical New Yorker goes through life sharing many of the hopes, fears and attitudes of the typical citizen of Peoria, Minneapolis or Fresno. He is, wrote Benchley, someone “at whom one does not look a second time, because there are so many of him and, furthermore, because he would not justify a second look . . . a composite of the small-town qualities of every State in the Union.”
The Rev. Billy Graham, who has died at age 99, must have had much the same insight when he launched his “crusades” into the teeming cities of mid-20th-century America: a realization that the country was a good deal less jaded and materialistic than many believed it to be, and that people everywhere were seeking continuity with their past, reassurance about the beliefs of parents and family, and guidance for the future. Above all, perhaps, they wanted someone who understood this, who spoke to their needs in ways they could understand and who could, quite simply, be trusted.
America has been heavily influenced, even shaped, by its preachers, from Jonathan Edwards to Henry Ward Beecher and the televangelists of today. Some fostered great and needed social change (Northern Protestant churchmen and women created the abolition movement); others sought to impose their will on a dubious nation (as in Prohibition). A few were frauds or hypocrites and were eventually discredited. But through a half-century and more, Graham maintained his standing.
From the 1950s, when he filled big-city arenas across the country with his upbeat, joyful revival meetings, through his emergence as a world figure who preached to thousands upon thousands and was consulted by heads of state all over the globe, including a series of American presidents, Graham kept his message relatively simple, which may be one reason it endured. He was never a great hero of the political left or right, though he took a stand fairly early in this country’s civil rights movement against segregation, and spoke often, if somewhat vaguely, on the need for social justice. (It was in one of his presidential sessions that Graham had what may have been his worst moment, when the White House tapes caught him going along with some of Richard Nixon’s maundering about Jewish influence in the media. The episode was mortifying for a minister with a long history of support for Jewish-Christian understanding.)
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In 2005, Graham held his last full-fledged crusade in New York, which had become a city with a large and vibrant variety of evangelical Christian believers. He drew nearly a quarter of a million people over three days.
When he was young, Graham had a close friendship with Charles Templeton, a fellow evangelist. The two eventually parted ways, with Templeton going on to what he saw as a more intellectual and skeptical view of religion. Many years later, Templeton recalled of his old friend, “I disagree with him profoundly on his view of Christianity and think that much of what he says in the pulpit is puerile nonsense. But there is no feigning in him: he believes what he believes with an invincible innocence. He is the only mass evangelist I would trust. And I miss him.”