Almost a decade ago, I was asked to write the foreword to an absolutely marvelous biography titled, Billy Graham: His Life and Influence. Written by David Aikman, a former foreign correspondent for Time magazine, it is the best book about the evangelist of the many that I've read. In this week leading up to the March 2nd memorial service in Montreat, North Carolina, if you're looking to learn more about this extraordinary servant of God, let me commend this work to you, in print or audio.
My friend, Kathie Lee Gifford, who came to faith through Dr. Graham's ministry -- as did her entire family -- had a fascinating discussion with Megyn Kelly on the TODAY Show yesterday about faith and loss and hope and the legacy of this remarkable man. So rare to see something like this on U.S. network television, so I encourage you to watch it and share it with others.
Jesus Christ once said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these will he do; because I go to the Father.” (John 14:12)
Jesus also said, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end shall come.” (Matthew 24:14)
When I think of Billy Graham, I think of these two verses. For no single human being in the history of the world ever personally preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to more people face to face than Billy Graham – some 215 million in 185 countries.
No single Protestant Christian leader in human history ever personally befriended, counseled and shared the love of Christ and the truths of the Bible with more presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens than did Graham.
Few evangelists have employed radio, television, satellite technology, motion pictures, magazines, books, and the Internet more effectively than Graham to reach hundreds of millions of more souls with the life changing message of the cross, and to train tens of thousands of international evangelists to carry the message to the ends of the earth.
In the power of the Holy Spirit, Graham may have actually reached more people with the gospel than were on the planet when Jesus walked the earth, and did more than any other single human in the 20th century to fulfill the prophecy of Matthew 24:14 and set the stage for the Second Coming.
Why did the Lord choose an ordinary farm boy from North Carolina to accomplish such an historic mission? How did the Lord train and prepare this young man to reach the nations with the message of salvation? What were the geopolitical, social, religious and cultural contexts in which Billy Graham operated? What mistakes did Graham make, what mistakes was he wisely able to avoid, and what lessons can the next generation of Christ-followers and Christ-proclaimers draw from his life and ministry?
These are the questions that have fascinated me ever since I had the opportunity to see Billy Graham in person for the first time in September 1988 in my hometown of Rochester, New York, when he was leading a Crusade at Silver Stadium and my parents were on the platform committee.
My admiration for and curiosity about Graham only intensified the following year, in April 1989, when I had the opportunity to meet and interact with him. I was a senior at Syracuse University. Graham was bringing his Crusade to the Carrier Dome on our campus. But a few months before he arrived, Radical Islamic terrorists from Libya blew up Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing thirty-five fellow S.U. students. Knowing the local General Secretary of the Syracuse Crusade, I asked him if he would invite Graham to speak at a special student forum we would entitle, “Peace In A Troubled World.”
Graham’s staff informed us that due to his age and health, he had largely stopped doing such forums. But given the unique situation, the evangelist graciously agreed. We organized a private reception for him at the Chancellor’s home to meet the student leaders on campus and answer their questions. Then Graham spoke to the larger student body we helped organize and answered their many spiritual and personal questions. I watched the Lord use Billy Graham powerfully that night, touching the lives of young people devastated by an act of Middle Eastern terrorism with the message of a Savior from the Middle East, and I was forever moved.
The interaction of those days whetted my appetite to understand this man, his message, and his methods more deeply. In the last two decades, I have read many Billy Graham biographies, but this one is by far my favorite.
David Aikman’s masterful and incredibly insightful work, Billy Graham: His Life and Influence, is a must read for everyone trying to understand how God can raise up a teenager no one has ever heard of and transform him into the greatest evangelist in the history of the world. David poignantly captures the drama of Graham’s meteoric rise, his proximity to power, the challenges he faced, but most of all his enduring passion to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to anyone and everyone who would listen.
I first came across the book on audio tape and listened to it numerous times, intrigued by the insider details that David reports and the geopolitical and social context that he provides. As David vividly portrays, for half a century Billy Graham made such a gigantic mark on the religious life of both the U.S. and the world that in important ways he transformed the age in which he lived.
He turned evangelical Protestantism into the normative form of the Christian faith as practiced by Protestants. He reached out in an extraordinary way to Roman Catholics, and in many ways was embraced by them as a “brother.”
Christians of more liberal theological persuasion might gripe under their breath about “those Fundamentalists,” but they have never been able to challenge the dominance of evangelicals. Globally, Billy Graham accomplished something similar.
He injected a self-confidence into multiple national Christian movements that helped propel them, in some cases, into positions of national power. Finally, internationally, Graham was at least a partial catalyst for some of the most important events of our era: the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and the peaceful transition from apartheid to black African majority-rule in South Africa.
As you are about to see, David Aikman describes in gripping detail Graham’s painful parting of the ways with America’s leading Fundamentalists in the 1950’s, his complex, and sometimes tormented coping with the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and his intriguing, but not always smooth, relationships with eleven of America’s presidents. In recounting the different stages – and sometimes lurches – of Graham’s life, I found that David fascinatingly, but always succinctly, sketched in just enough of the historical and political background to bring the entire story vividly to life.
The same is true of those parts of the book that deal with Billy Graham’s travels overseas. David Aikman was for 23 years a correspondent for TIME Magazine, and for much of that time was a foreign correspondent and assigned to TIME bureaus all over the world. He became very familiar with the international settings of many of Graham’s most important foreign journeys and knew personally some of the personalities with whom Graham met. His insights into the collapse of Communism, the rise of Christianity in China, and the peculiar nature of North Korean Communism are worth reading for their own sake.
Billy Graham, of course, was first and foremost an American original. But in many ways he also belonged to the entire world, a world which to this day has been profoundly affected by his life. His deeply-held conviction that Jesus Christ is coming back soon – and his determination to give every man, woman and child on the planet an opportunity to hear the gospel and respond to it before that Day – is one of the most important stories of the past century. May the Lord use this wonderful book to inspire and encourage you to receive Christ into your own heart, and then make His beautiful and powerful Name known to the nations while there is still time.