Billy Graham
Billy Graham; drawing by David Levine

“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.

Graham found his mate in Ruth Bell, found her at Wheaton College in Illinois, “a doctrinal evangelical conservatory set in the tawny plains south of Chicago.” She was the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries in China, “born in the muddy provincial city of Tsingkiangpu in the wind-raked reaches of northeastern China.” Ruth seems to have had every quality hoped for. “Reared in such a running hyperbolic moral dialectic between their own churchly decorums and the lurid brutishness [of China] around them, Ruth and her sister were instilled somewhat precociously with a rather livid sense of righteousness and perdition.” One of Ruth’s uses for Graham turned out to be the very circumstances of the geography of her birth. It provided, then and now, a nice ornamental root of Chinese place names and exotic missionary anecdote to the scrabby shrub of Graham’s written and spoken discourse. “My wife, who was born and raised in China, recalls that in her childhood days tigers lived in the mountains.” And so on.

Validation by the powerful and well-known is a natural wish of one absorbed in number, one for whom any remaining pocket of smallness or obscurity is a defeat. And this need for validation will multiply in those lives that are marked by the exploitation of personality. Graham is anything but an exception. His “vulnerability was that, while he contended that he looked on all his associations now in government and commerce as mere openings for a fuller propagation of his ministry, at the same time he also was given to a compulsive entrancement with all those larger affairs and offices of the world.”

Current evangelism is as far as one can go in the pursuit of faith without works. Graham has brought to perfection the notion of a global parish, that is, no parish at all. He is relieved of the need to make private visits, to gather boxes of old clothes in the church basement, to perform weddings, bury the dead, to encourage rummage sales and pie-suppers. Not only is he relieved, but the saved are also, if they like, outside the demands of works in community with others. With their salvation kits, they are like patients making a single visit to a clinic and who are thereby recorded in the cure statistics. The commitment does not require one to attend Mass or to go about ringing doorbells, selling the Watch Tower, refusing blood transfusions and military service, making hasty recalculations of the procrastinating Day of Judgment.

In the matter of charities, the very rich Graham organization is again rather impersonal and drawn to the global and far-flung. Floods, earthquakes, and famines have brought forth checks from Minneapolis. The occasions are noted by John Pollock and others but since few figures are given perhaps the charities do not make a point in this world of digits. In many respects, evangelism itself is considered a charity. Under “social concerns” in the index to Pollock’s official biography, one is led to several pages that describe evangelistic conferences, given over for the most part to evangelism’s organizational and theoretical problems. The early civil rights movement, despite its religious groundings, did not seem to stir Graham—except perhaps to stir to alarm. Bleached optimism, complacency about the “greatness of America,” and the almost divine dispensation of citizenship, an aggressive acquiescence in the least adventurous possibilities of propriety: all of this gives to Graham a special whiteness of style.

In speaking of demonstrations, he was inclined to promote his own large gatherings. “I have been holding demonstrations myself for fifteen years—but in a stadium where it was legal.” At a meeting with Martin Luther King, he said, “So let me do my work in the stadium…and you do yours in the streets.” Perhaps Graham feared some usurpation of his authority and of the national attention as the cameras directed themselves to the hymn-singing “fellowship” in Selma and other southern cities.

Marshall Frady, with his high sense of American scenery and his creative ordering of the meaning of character as it displays itself in history, writes about Graham and King that they were “like the antipodal prophets of that continuing duality in the American nature between the Plymouth asperities and the readiness for spiritual adventure, between the authoritarian and the visionary.” Of King: “The genius of his otherwise baroque and ponderous metaphors was that they were the rhetoric of the human spirit gathering itself to terrific and massive struggle.”

Nixon: for Graham’s involvement here perhaps “ordeal” is too strong a word, but certainly he experienced personal bafflement and embarrassment. Graham was powerfully attracted to Nixon, who first of all was the president. They may have had little in common, but then neither of them has much in common with others. They shared successful impersonality. Graham’s “polyethylene blandness” met Nixon’s polyethylene deceitfulness and these impervious surfaces were very agreeable. Conservatism, self-righteousness, simplification, tirades against Satanism—sufficient bonds, perhaps.

To the numb and static vocabulary of Graham, the bad language of the Nixon tapes was a personal affront and a spiritual distress of the first order. Or perhaps it was the first and last order. The will to power cannot be admitted by Graham, who in his own driven will falls back upon the “stewardship mentioned so many times by Christ.” And what did he decide when he could no longer fail to name something askew in Nixon? “I think it was sleeping pills. Sleeping pills and demons.” As Frady expresses it, “Thus he has made his final peace with it: it had all been an exterior, artificial, demonic, chemical intervention. The fault had lain, not in Nixon, but in the dark stars and dark winds of the underworld.”

As the emblem to the Graham biography, Frady quotes from Billy Budd. And he returns to this theme in the matter of Nixon, telling of a visitor to Graham reading out Melville’s passages on Claggart’s evil. The visitor must have been Marshall Frady himself. Who else? In thinking of Graham, he writes: “There was also something about his equally abiding eager innocence throughout his relationship with Nixon that somehow strikingly evoked, more than anything else, Herman Melville’s moral fable Billy Budd.”

It must be said that Billy Budd’s innocence is of a very different quality from the innocence that may perhaps be blinking behind the glare of Billy Graham. Billy Budd’s radiance is inseparable from the symbolic nature of his condition. The Handsome Sailor and his miraculous glow are part of the mystery of being and he is unaccountable, without a past, without connections. He is an orphan; he is illiterate; he has a tragic but necessary flaw of nature, the stutter that overcomes him in moments of excitement. His innocence cannot protect itself against evil because he is literally struck dumb.

Billy Graham is always speaking; that is his profession, if one may use the word about his “calling.” He is in a constant witnessing for God through himself. His “glow” is shrewdly protected from harm and even the house in which he lives is surrounded by high fences and patrolled by guards and by killer dogs. The anonymity of the Handsome Sailor, his strange sweetness and his lack of all the instincts and powers of self-protection seem almost the opposite of the driven, blameless if you like, life of Graham as he lives it out in incorporated goodness.

A daily acquaintance with the Bible and its language: for the evangelist of our day some impediment, a sheetrock of linguistic impermeability refuses assimilation. Words and rhythms, parabolic intensities are set apart, like old stained glass windows shining in a slab of concrete; and these unfriendly materials, incoherent, simply stand there in a barbarous union, illicit and shameless. This is a world of only one book in a sense and thus even the Bible becomes an object, a thing, in its solitary fluency. It is property.

In Billy Graham’s words, angels are God’s “secret agents”; they are God’s “heavy artillery” in the battle against Satan. The meeting of the beautiful word, angel, with heavy artillery and secret agent is the music of current evangelism. To leave aside words and encounter some of the “ideas” of Graham’s thoughts: UFOs may be angels, although it is not certain; and do not forget the winged gull that made a dinner for the beleaguered Eddie Rickenbacker adrift in the South Pacific.

All of that is now. And what is the future, the final disposal of the old crusader? The philanthropy is to be “that immemorial last ambition of the powerful and notable,” in this case the fourteen-million-dollar Billy Graham Center and Library. It is to be “a great auto-battery-shaped edifice of tannish brick with long thin arched windows like Popsicle sticks extending from ground to roof.”

The television ministry: “the means of Graham’s greatest single impact on his own country.” It is “a massive closed system with its own vision and terms of evaluation and its own independent dynamic for self-preservation.” Almost impossible to recall the lonely and stricken aspect of the old evangelical tent and street corner, the listeners with hangovers and prison records, the hand-organ performances on a desolate evening, the forbidding, charitable soup kitchen. Or the rural gravity of Dinah, the anxious refinement of the elder Gosses.

Coda: my own recent experience of the “intense inane” of television preaching. During a miscellaneous, mere two hours: the coarsest beggary and the most impudent misappropriation of the Scriptures.

I am watching on the coast of Maine. First a local, out of Bangor, Pastor Ronnie Libby with his resentfully modest question-and-answer program about “God’s Plan.” The first question addressed itself without discretionary pause to the everlasting content of TV evangelism. It arrived under the name of tithes, or “the first dime of every dollar.” The old prophet Malachi was imported, dragged along by his ancient hair, and without mercy. “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of Hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.”

What is the storehouse? asks Ronnie Libby for us, in the way of evangelists. The storehouse is where you get your spiritual food. And where do you get your spiritual food? “Well, more and more get it from a television ministry like this. So that is where your tithes will go, if you would not ‘rob God,’ as Malachi expresses it.” Box number in Charleston, Maine.

Pastor Libby goes on to a few inchoate questions, one about Ezekiel’s interesting “wheel in the middle of the wheel.” He gives a puny answer. Soon, “a break for funds.” We are told that “God is using this Thursday night program. He wants us to continue.” The credits roll by: Wardrobe by Henry Segal; transportation by Chrysler/Plymouth; flowers by Bucksport Nursery.

Sunday morning and the air is shaking with the videotapes of elaborate, competitive, well-known national ministries: Robert Schuller, Rex Humbard, James Robison, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Ernest Angley, Jerry Falwell. Personal style and regional colorations provide a sort of choice on the channels. A single evangelist will have short presentations on the smaller stations, programs that rant and beg a bit more openly than the same preacher’s hourlong service before live audiences seen on the larger subsidiaries of CBS, ABC, and NBC.

Robert Schuller—in bluish-gray and black velvet academic robes he has the gray-haired assurance and look of comfortable health, in the face of administrative and building costs, that college presidents either have or acquire. His large California audience of well-dressed, pleasantly worshipping citizens looks out upon the minister amid real fountains, gladiolas, and tropical plantings. Schuller is a West Coast Norman Vincent Peale and his “Hour of Power,” with its theme of “possibility thinking,” is not far from copyright infringement. On one of his programs he was offering “God’s Gift for Your Self-Esteem,” and this morning a rather more murky title, “Trust the Crust”—the crust of bread that somehow through trust manages to augment.

“Nobody has a money problem, only an idea problem.” Schuller is drawn to words like “management” and to other suggestive business-school locutions. His present establishment gradually came about by way of “10,000 of $500 each, and then a million dollar gift and then another million dollar gift.” This year, 1979, he is on his way to the construction of a huge cathedral made entirely of small pieces of glass—and for this some millions are still to be gathered in.

Rex Humbard, out of Akron, Ohio, offers a family-style program, with children and grandchildren singing in lacy dresses. His importunate, very successful, work is called the “Outreach Ministry.” On one of his smaller programs, he spoke, in a mood of frantic solicitation, of his acute need. He wants over a million for his ministry—and soon. In a variation on the tithing system, he suggests for his “seven-day crusade to save America,” that one consider “a dollar a day for seven days, or ten dollars a day, or a hundred dollars a day…depending, of course.”

“Rex, here is my vote of confidence and my special gift.” In an unexpected manic aside, he suddenly reduced, so to speak, his vision and called upon those who were illiterate or blind to send their offering and find a friend to read the message that would be sent forthwith. A toll-free number flashes on, holds. One number for Akron, and one for Toronto and the Canadian trade.2

Ernest Angley, a dreadful and menacing faith healer. This dumpy little primitive in a wig specializes in screams and awful slaps to the head of sick Christians. Thump, “I command no more sugar in the blood.” Soon, he is pulling someone’s deaf ear and saying, “See, he can hear.” Then a back pain victim is slapped on his head, thump. “I dare yuh to find yuh back pain. Bend over any way yuh want. It’s gawn.”

“Stand up with yuh walker, yuh cane, yuh wheel chair. Get out there and come walking.” To one woefully thin man, a blow on the head: “I command no more cancer. I command yuh to gain weight.”

Jimmy Swaggart, a hysterical, good-looking, youngish preacher from Baton Rouge, combines loud, gasping old-time gospeling with shrewd, good country-music new-time gospeling. For his Study Bible, the complete St. James version, with 200 pages “plus” of new annotations, many of them helpful messages from himself, you will need $40 here and $50 in Canada. (Credit cards acceptable. Toll-free number.)

On the other hand, Swaggart rages over “money ministries” and “merchandising the Gospel.” He says, “I don’t care where I am on the ratings” if to rise higher he would have “to trim the sails of This Book,” the Study Bible.

Swaggart is the cousin of singer Jerry Lee Lewis, who “in 1957 was edging Elvis on the charts,” but who has gone down from drinking. Why do you drink so much, Jerry? Why the pills? Jerry answered, “I do it because I keep passing the casket. My mother, my little boy, my older son, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jr.—all dead.”

James Robison, out of Fort Worth, is a handsome, distressing, successful preacher with many things to sell, many needs, and troubling matters on his mind. He offers a bumper sticker reading: Freedom of speech, Freedom to preach. The admonition desperately relates to his outrageous beggary, and also to his legal problems. Without giving a clear notion of the indictments against him, Robison squanders a good deal of his costly TV time announcing that he has hired the luxurious services of the famous criminal lawyer, Richard “Horse Race” Haynes, whose most notorious recent employment (not mentioned) was the successful defense of millionaire J. Cullen Davis on a murder charge.

“James, why would you need a famous criminal lawyer?” Robison asks himself, again speaking for us. There is a drifting hint that “Horse Race” has some spiritual inclination in the case, but also he is “well versed in constitutional as well as criminal law.”

One of Robison’s brazen inspirations is the notion of “selling out for God.” Luke 14:31 assists him in the discussion of the terrible inflationary cost of “discipleship.” The verse reads: “What king going out to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh with twenty thousand.”

“Selling out for God” does not appear to be a loose and fortuitous metaphor in the haphazard vocalization of spiritual transactions. Instead, it seems to have a literal intention, urging a quick gathering of assets and a more hasty transfer. Robison told of a man who sold his business, giving everything to his “commitment” to the Robison ministry. The man’s son, David, was compelled to find another job, now that his father’s business was committed. The first day on the job, David picked up “an innocent looking wire” and was electrocuted. “I called the father right away, of course, and asked if he thought his commitment had killed his son. And the father answered: ‘Satan tried to pull that trick on me, but I didn’t buy it. I know where my son is.’ ”

Robison wants fifteen million dollars to pay for his assaults on the Bastille of Prime Time and for whatever assaults upon himself he has hired Richard “Horse Race” Haynes to counter in the courts.

A remembrance from a story about Ruth Carter Stapleton and her therapeutic ministry. To a woman not looking her best, Mrs. Stapleton advised: “Jesus wants you to have some conditioner put on your hair. He wants you to get some make-up. He wants you to look nice.” Poor He, poor He.

This Issue

August 16, 1979