Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness
Billy Graham: Evangelist to the World
Angels: God’s Secret Agents
“Whatever else,” Marshall Frady writes about Billy Graham, “he has transmuted into a peculiar sort of megacelebrity, megastar of his age: his rangy wheat-haired form has been personally beheld, the reverberant bay of his voice immediately heard, by more people over the face of the earth than any other single human being in the history of the race.” Yes, yes. As Robert Frost once said, “Hell is a half-filled auditorium.”
The swollen corporate evangelism of today, first perhaps understood by Billy Sunday whose organization in its time was found to be second in efficiency only to National Cash Register, is a graceless computation with rolling, gathering zeros of cost to be met by love offerings, books, pamphlets, bumper stickers, salvation kits; and always by bold invasions of the pocket-book, conducted with the insolent insistence that appeals when honored are the way to safety, second, if indeed that, only to prayer, still a free enterprise.
Billy Graham is an outsized statistic. Number gives him a definition somehow beyond his calling, or at least inseparable from it. Arithmetic precedes him with its flash; arithmetic follows him. Past numbers tend to create future numbers.
The long, hectic pilgrimages, or “crusades” as the preferred word has it, to India, the Soviet Union, South Africa, Australia, Korea (South), and even to the foreign territory of Madison Square Garden: these are his biography. And Graham himself is a sort of double emanation: he is both the pilgrim and the shrine, the portable Canterbury to be visited and experienced. For God’s Star it is an iron routine, with the shape and the form of the appearance settled and unchanging, except for various scriptural texts read out and briefly connected to a generality, and sometimes for conservative political asides suitable to the nation under the siege of the crusade. This is, as it must be, a long-running play, sustained by the inspiration that comes to Graham, as it does to gifted actors, from the presence of the audience.
Dislocation, variation, and change are to take place out there, in the souls of the crowd. Still the disagreeable reeves or drunken millers who may have “come forth for Christ” at this peculiar Canterbury will never be known to us as souls residing amid the shambles of their singular characters. Since the changes and revelations take place in bulk, so to speak, the pilgrims and the saved are reduced to number. “Responses” and “decisions” are carefully, laboriously recorded, offerings are counted, and all is filed away. The size of the crowd, the weight of the offering lead—after the unknowable workings of the inner light upon a single soul—where? Certainly to the next crowd and the next offering.
Like number itself, Billy Graham’s life is repetition. A shock, a quivering of the seismograph—Richard Nixon, for instance—are calmed by prayer, prayer that is itself inevitably of repetitive, long-uttered diction, at least if one may judge from the public and published prayer-diction. “Guidance” appears upon request and its usefulness seems to be not so much to form opinion as to soothe anxiety.
Billy Graham’s “ministry” and his life are circular. The circular life is concerned to defy distraction and temptation, in order to return to where it started. Perhaps that is why Graham in his circlings often sounds like the orbiting astronauts, or it may be that they sound like him. Graham speaks of the visionary, the heavens and the depths, of dedications and revelations in a predictable swelling and falling of cadence, in a reiterative language that is scarcely language at all, or at least seldom the abrupt, broken searching of speech as it turns and twists to meet experience and thought.
From Marshall Frady’s brilliant biography of Graham: “…equally generic to Graham’s enthusiasms, and elemental to maintaining the vigor of his evangelism over the years, has been a certain cheerful imprecision in his apprehension of the actual—some lack of a final fine close-up focus register in his sense of things.” And Frady on Graham and his group: “Their only sense of any mystery in life ranges no farther than incessant reports among themselves of wondrous and pleasant coincidences.”
Among the “Praise the Lord, wasn’t that a miracle?” happenings are such matters as a family without crusade tickets being suddenly offered nine spare ones. Sometimes coincidence reaches out to “a certain appreciation for the blank dead ends of the terrible.” This was the case with Noel Houston’s critical profile of Graham in Holiday magazine in 1958. “Graham’s face briefly took on a grave and remote look—’Yes, and you know, very soon after those articles of his came out, he dropped dead of a heart attack.’ ”
In Graham’s life and in his enterprise, it is as if one were to make a large foot-print with one’s initials on it signifying a single choice under which all the rest of experience would somehow be subsumed. This in many ways makes Graham a resistant object for Frady’s intense contemplation. First of all, if Graham is in a sense deprived by the habits of his mind, cut off from the vitality of struggling language, Frady is all language and flowing connection. Fluent sentences and paragraphs, a streaming abundance of imagery, a Faulknerian enchantment with the scenery in which these bare lives flourish. Frady’s biography of George Wallace1 and the present large work on Graham are outstanding works of literature, not quite like any other in their intention and quality.
Imaginative saturation, a special kind of interest and intelligence, much that is quirky and novelistic, high creative ambitions are brought to bear on his charmless, driven Americans, Wallace and Graham. Wallace’s nastiness and gift of tongues almost accumulate in Frady’s fascination with speech rhythm and anecdote into a kind of charm.
“He don’t have no hobbies,” declares an old crony from Wallace’s hometown. “He don’t do any honest work. He don’t drink. He ain’t got but one serious appetite, and that’s votes.”
In both books the surrounding characters are unique bits of American portraiture—in the Graham book, the cranky old evangelist, Will D. Campbell, for instance. A profound attention, a sort of respect, and finally a devastating looking: in this way these original works are created. Frady gives Billy Graham everything and yet concedes nothing. No secrets are uncovered, the person remains whole and is not found to be dishonest or insincere; instead he is impervious. Unthinkable that Graham, reading the book, would not fall to his knees a dozen times, asking for guidance through his feelings of unease.
Graham, accustomed to giving and receiving only in the glare of his definition of self, has of course his official biographer, John Pollock. A second Pollock volume on the “decisive years” from 1970 to the present is published this year, perhaps to compete with Marshall Frady’s. “Absolutely indispensable for the millions who follow Billy Graham’s ministry and wonder about the man behind it.”
Millions console, not to say, consolidate, also. Yet, in weaving his way through things, Graham finds that lesser numbers are also valuable. When accused of being repetitious, he answers. “I am consoled by the fact, pointed out once by an eminent theologian, that Jesus repeated himself five hundred times.” In his foolish book Angels: God’s Secret Agents (over one million copies in print, says the jacket; in all of Graham’s published work, the number of copies in print serves as a sort of subtitle) addition asserts that the Bible mentions angels three hundred times. There may be something here meant to wash clean the stain of the Middle Ages and the Papacy that discolors the subject. On the matter of appealing for funds, Graham says, “One fifth of all the teachings of Christ was given over to money and stewardship.” One fifth.
It is not known whether the arithmetic comes from the old biblical concordances or from the computations done by the machinery of BGEA (Billy Graham Evangelistic Association) in Minneapolis. “Graham’s ministry is administered from Minneapolis in a manner that has become a mix of IBM, McCann-Erickson, Sears Roebuck. Blue Cross, and the morning devotionals at Vacation Bible School.”
Billy Graham’s parents were pious, dogmatic North Carolina farm people. About his father, Graham observes. “I never once heard him even use a slang word, much less a profane one.” Marshall Frady is, of course, a good deal more thoughtful on the elder Graham: “So he abided on through the years of his son’s magnifying renown with a kind of peaceable and oblivious remoteness—a figure as lean and plain as a yard rake, with a long flattish face and narrow age-freckled forehead under a dim patina of zinc hair…. His chief occupation during his last years seemed to be passing his day ambling amiably among the tables at the S & W Cafeteria in the nearby Park Road Shopping Center.”
Graham had in his youth several hapless excursions into love. As one of his relations put it, “If you ask me, Pauline was the greatest love to ever hit him. She really sent him into somersaults.” In the midst of his attachment to Pauline, Graham was converted. (“I’m saved, Mother, I got saved!”) This took place at a tent revival under the command of Reverend Mordecai Ham: “A tall, strapping, rigid figure, bald and fractious-tempered and florid of face…. He derived directly, in fact, out of the old furies of those brush evangelists of the frontier, having presided once at a bonfire of dubious literature in Mineral Wells, Texas…. Not incidentally, he also served in that long unspoken collaboration in America between gospel drummers and the baronies of commerce. In particular, he was one of his era’s most gaudy and livid anti-Semites.”
It is not suggested that Graham had any notion of Ham’s secular obsessions or that he was aware of anything except “the majesty of God, I think, that hit me as I heard Ham preach about it.” Graham’s own conversion shares the peculiarity of his later evangelistic successes: the conversion of people already pious Christians. In the crusades, it is not reckoned that Jew or Moslem or Hindu will depart from error and it is hard not to believe that most of the thousands entering the tabernacle, astrodome, or playing field are more than “almost persuaded” as they enter. The “coming forth” to sign with Christ as your “personal Savior” is what the event is all about. It takes up most of the time when the lines are long, as they usually are.
Pauline, the first love, could not go along with the way salvation took hold of Graham, and she eventually “married an army aviator…who soon joined Cal-Tex Oil. Her life with him then proceeded as an uninterrupted thirty-year gambol of champagne receptions in Singapore patio gardens, sundown parties on the jasmine-spilled terraces of Kuala Lumpur.”
The conversion meant preaching, Bob Jones College, and later the Florida Bible Institute where Graham met Emily, a plausible religious girl, but alas another heartache. Emily gradually began to “evince certain signs of restiveness.” When she broke with him, the expression on Graham’s face “was that of a harpooned seal.” Traumas gathered but never without the provision of the instruction that might be gained from them. At the Bible Institute two young Christians were discovered in a situation of “serious moral defection.” Proper deportment in matters of language, smoking, drinking, and sex as the message of the Crucifixion no doubt did not begin with the shock at the Institute. In such matters, Graham always seems to be relearning what he has always known.
Wallace (World Publishing Company, 1968).↩
Wallace (World Publishing Company, 1968).↩