By Rev. Clay Oglesbee
Well-known evangelist Rev. Billy Graham died Feb. 21 at the age of 99. The Billy Graham Evangelical Association was housed in downtown Minneapolis for 50 years, and Minnesota is considered the launchpad for Graham’s future national and global ministry. Rev. Clay Oglesbee, who serves First United Methodist Church of Red Wing, offers some thoughts about Graham’s impact and reflects on some key tenets of his evangelistic and social outreach ministries that are still relevant for us today.
The opening words of Rev. Billy Graham’s Wikipedia entry capture the little bit the general public knows about him: “William (Billy) Franklin Graham Jr. (November 7, 1918 – February 21, 2018) was an American evangelical and an ordained Southern Baptist minister who became well known internationally...” Many persons no longer recognize, if they ever knew, the significance and scope of his evangelistic ministries all over the world during the last half of the 20th century.
His revivals evangelized more than 200 million people in about 185 countries; he brought millions of people to some degree of faith-renewal, or conversion, to Jesus Christ. He was an evangelistic innovator who used revivals and mass rallies, as well as radio and television technologies, to reach a wider and wider public—one that ultimately became global.
His evangelistic work made him a sought-after counselor and companion to national and international leaders. He became a confidante to American presidents from Truman to Obama. He was also a personal friend and frequent supporter of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in part because Graham often conducted integrated revivals in southern states during a time of adamant segregation.
Graham’s politics were largely conservative, yet he moderated his views at times through his willingness to open himself to the implications of the gospel, and through conversation and prayer with a wide array of persons and leaders. While he adopted many “conservative” opinions, for example, on the equality and rights of women, and the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons, he also took risks more typically described as “liberal" for causes like racial integration and limiting the nuclear arms race.
Graham was an independent evangelical, made so by his understanding of the full impact of the gospel. He refused to join Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, saying, “I’m for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice…” Called at one time “the patriarch of American protestant pastors,” Graham said of public and personal Christian witness, “Our greatest contribution to world peace is to live with Christ every day.”
Graham was also a person who grew in his understanding of Christian evangelism. While he had his limits with regard to social ministry, and though his courage sometimes failed him when it came to racial justice, he stood with other evangelicals at Lausanne, Switzerland in 1974 when they wrote: “Because men and women are made in the image of God, every person, regardless of race, religion, colour, culture, class, sex or age, has an intrinsic dignity because of which he or she should be respected and served, not exploited. Here too we express penitence both for our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive.”
You might be wondering what Graham’s evangelistic and social outreach ministries would have been like had he been a young evangelist today, during these early years of the extremisms of our globally-aware 21st century. There are some clues:
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church