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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.