A Personal Look at Billy Graham, the World's Best-loved Evangelist
Challenge and Response
Whoso has felt the Spirit of the Highest,
Cannot confound nor doubt Him nor deny:
Yea with one voice, O world, tho' thou deniest,
Stand thou on that side, for on this am I.
— FREDERIC W.H. MYERS, SAINT PAULI RUN STRAIGHT TO THE GOAL.
— 1 CORINTHIANS 9:26 (TLB)
In the summer of 1949 a momentous hour came when Billy Graham drew on his Lord for what he called "a lasting, unassailable strength." The spiritual crisis he faced put his future in jeopardy. The issue at stake was ostensibly the integrity of the Bible, but in reality it was the authority of the Holy Spirit of God. Billy has often spoken about the situation that arose, and his biographers have discussed it at length.
I did not know Billy in 1949, so I was quite unaware of what he was going through, but I did have a couple of encounters with one of the other persons directly involved.
Charles Templeton, who was and still is Billy's friend, grew up in a broken home, his father having deserted his family. But Charles developed into a tall, handsome, intellectually acute young man. As a budding preacher in the Nazarene church, he won considerable acclaim and was chosen to direct the newly formed Toronto Youth for Christ.
Billy Graham, after his marriage, accepted a call to pastor a Baptist church in Western Springs, Illinois. With singer George Beverly Shea, he developed a popular radio ministry in nearby Chicago. He became friends with Torrey Johnson, who had organized Chicagoland Youth for Christ and now was planning to form a youth for Christ International, with himself as president. For vice presidents Torrey chose Chuck Templeton and Billy Graham. The three men, with two other Christians, paid an evangelistic visit to Europe. Billy was then named Youth for Christ's first full-time evangelist. It was Templeton who proposed the motion to the young board to elect him. He and Billy had become good friends.
As a result of the election, Billy Graham resigned his pastorate and began to travel. He has never stopped.
People who knew Templeton during his Toronto days have told me that long before he joined Youth for Christ International, he had spiritual problems and was showing indications of restlessness. He has informed Billy's biographers that he became increasingly aware of how easy it was to manipulate people from the pulpit. It seems that religious phrases rolled smoothly off his lips. He complained to Billy that their motivation was not all spiritual, that a lot of their success could be attributed simply to "animal magnetism."1 Frequently he criticized what he described as the "glibness" and "facileness" of Youth for Christ evangelism.
In 1948 Templeton applied to Princeton Theological seminary for admission as a student. He was accepted despite his academic deficiencies. At the time he urged Billy Graham to return to seminary with him, pointing out that they were facing unexplained problems in the Bible. He said he felt the need to undergird his own ministry with a broader understanding of the faith.
Billy greatly admired Chuck, but such talk was disturbing. To him the Bible was God's Holy Word. At Florida Bible Institute and Wheaton College the Bible had not been challenged; rather it was revered and reinforced. Billy said to Chuck, "Wiser men than you or I will ever be have already encountered and examined all your arguments, and they have concluded that the biblical record can be completely trusted."
In researching this story, I couldn't help thinking about the old "puffing parson" in John Masefield's poem, "The Everlasting Mercy." The young rebel in the poem, Saul Kane, angrily taunted the parson for trusting the Holy Scriptures, whereupon the parson made his gentle response:
The Bible is a lie, say you,
Where do you stand, suppose it true?
But Templeton's thinking had proceeded beyond attacking the Bible; he was now questioning the very existence of God Himself.
In 1947 Henrietta Mears invited Billy to take part in the College briefing Conferences conducted at the Forest Home Conference Grounds in California's San Bernardino Mountains. Chuck Templeton, who was still regarded as a leading evangelist, was also invited to be on the faculty.
In the discussions that took place between the two men at Forest Home, Templeton challenged Billy to "use his mind" in approaching the problems of Scripture. But the issue went deeper than a debate over words.
Later, wandering alone among the pine trees, Billy resisted the challenge of intellectual doubt. He did so just as our Lord resisted the temptations of Satan in the wilderness, as Martin Luther resisted the Holy Roman Emperor at the Diet of Worms, as Charles Spurgeon resisted the English Baptist leadership in the nineteenth-century "downgrade" controversy, as Pastor Martin Niemöller resisted the "German theology" heresy of the Nazi leadership, and as Pastor Wang Ming Tao resisted the indoctrination of the Chinese Communists who demanded that he deny the Kingship of Jesus.
Clearly the real issue involved in the controversy at Forest Home did not surface at the time. It was the lordship of the triune God Himself, who said, "I will not give My glory to another." But is God really God? Is He a God of love and power, of truth and wisdom, of justice and holiness, of mercy and salvation and joy? Does He care about humanity? Does He hear and answer prayer? Is Jesus Christ really God the Son? Does He equip men and women with supernatural grace and favor when they seek His face and place their lives at His disposal? Does God fill us with the Holy Spirit and visit us in hidden and unseen ways when we defy the pattern of the world and commit ourselves to His own pattern of crucifixion and resurrection? These were the real questions at issue for Billy. They are always the questions at the back of biblical controversy.
Henrietta Mears was a great spiritual reservoir for Billy in those few days. He also spent hours alone — walking, thinking, trying to make up his mind. For Billy it was a critical hour, humanly speaking; but from the mighty crags and palisades that surround Forest Home, God's spirit began speaking to his soul. Billy told his biographer John Pollock, "I got my Bible and went out in the moonlight, and I came to a stump. I place my Bible on the stump and knelt down and said, 'Oh, God, I cannot answer some of the questions Chuck and some of the other people are raising, but I accept this book by faith as the Word of God.' "2
Since those mountain moments Billy has often repeated that "when I preach the Bible straight — no questions, no doubts, no hesitations — then God gives me a power that's beyond me. When I say, 'The Bible says,' God gives me this incredible power. It's something I don't completely understand." He adds, "When I pick up the Bible, I feel as though I have a rapier in my hands."
Leaving Forest Home behind, Billy drove to Washington Boulevard and Hill street in Los Angeles. What started there in September 1949 as a modest series of tent meetings organized by conservative-minded, praying Christians erupted within weeks into an awakening of human souls that in the fullness of time shook the world until its spiritual teeth rattled.
And what happened to Mr. Templeton? On the surface, nothing. He remained handsome, detached, charming, brilliant, moving among the centers of ecclesiastical power with aplomb. He became director of evangelism for the National Council of Churches, and later for the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.
I saw Templeton perform twice in later years, once in 1952 and again in 1954, during his visit to California. He was still called an evangelist. While I knew little about him and had no idea of his relationship to Billy Graham, I remember having a negative impression after hearing him speak. Soon afterward he left the church and publicly renounced his faith. Today there are Christians in Canada, where Templeton lives in retirement, who still maintain their warm friendship with him and pray for his soul. So does Billy Graham.
Today, after a lifetime of preaching, Billy is facing a social order in which the media daily proclaim that Christianity in the West is losing ground. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is being challenged by other gods. The sacredness of marriage is being threatened by unnatural practices that are winning sanction. The courts are abandoning any notion of a higher law than the laws they write. Good and evil, right wrong are regarded as relative, not absolute. Everyone now has "the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." Stalin's dictum, there is no such thing as eternal truth," has gained acceptance. The only certainty left is uncertainty, and as a result, our youth are growing up without a clue as to what life is about.
But are things really that bad? Yes, they are. My mother-in-law, who led me to Christ, used to remark after reading someone's boast in the press about scientific progress, "Let God be true but every man a liar."3 The signs of social deterioration continue to form the backdrop to Billy Graham's preaching just as similar signs evoked the prophecy in Isaiah 1. The New Testament predicts that conditions will grow worse, not better.
The story is told of a very ancient inscription found carved on a buried stone in Iraq. When deciphered from the Sumerian script, it read: "Everything is falling apart. God has forgotten us. Invasion is imminent. Taxes are intolerable. The drought has destroyed our crops. Lawlessness is increasing. The roads are not safe. Children no longer obey their parents. And everyone wants to write a book!"
A case may be made to show that things have always been bad, that history is nothing but deja vu. It's pretty obvious that some things keep recurring and other things simply wear out. The idol worship of ancient Egypt, Assyria, Greece, Canaan, and Philistia came and went. The religions of Manichaeism, Mithraism, and Pelagianism, once so popular in the Mediterranean world — where are they? The difficult is that Satan is still with us and will remain active until the sacred prophecies are fulfilled. Meanwhile sin and ungodliness have taken new forms, and New Age cults and theological aberrations such as the pretentious "Jesus Seminar" turn out to be no more than ancient heresies in a new format.
The joy of Billy Graham's Gospel is that he is on the winning side. Like the great soul-winners and revivalists of another day, he presents simply and clearly the truth that Jesus Christ died for our sins on the cross of Calvary and is alive today. The Carpenter of Nazareth has risen from the grave and has sent His Holy Spirit into the world with a message of redemption and eternal life.
For nearly five decades Billy Graham has proclaimed those glad tidings of great joy to millions of people. In doing so he has helped bring evangelicalism out from the "Protestant underground," as it was sometimes called. He gave the Gospel credibility in the halls of state and even in the Kremlin. He lit a spark, and the spark caught fire. It is not Christian to compare Billy's work with the work of other evangelists, but we can surely say that he was and is a most unusual man of God.
Today the Holy Spirit is active in a fresh way in churches and home fellowships all over the surface of the planet,4 and neither Billy Graham nor anybody else seeks to claim the credit. All the glory goes to God. And no church can claim the Holy Spirit for its own to the exclusion of other churches, for the Spirit is free as the wind. He is truth, and truth can be found everywhere. He is love, and love knows no boundaries. He is joy and power and riches and wisdom and grace and honor and blessing, and these are greater than the universe itself because they are the attributes of the living God.
What a wonderful time to be alive, when churches are loosening up, and worshipers are smiling and leaving their neckties at home and lifting their hands in prayer. What a wonderful day when God's servant Billy Graham and others like him around the world are still proclaiming the Good News, and sinners such as you and I once were are still responding, and the Holy Spirit is still equipping new converts to "go and do likewise." Soli Deo gloria.
1. William Martin, A Prophet with Honor (New York: William Morrow, 1991) 110.
2. John Pollock, Billy Graham (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1966), 81.
3. Romans 3:4 (KJV).
4. In 1989 pilot Dwayne King of the Central Alaska Mission flew across Bering Strait with a Russian Bible and made a pioneer visit to Providentiya, Siberia. After the air traffic controller talked King's plane down to the landing strip, Dwayne led him to Christ.