A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story, William Martin. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018 (Updated edition, originally published in 1991).
Summary: An in-depth biography of the life of Billy Graham, chronicling his evangelistic crusades, shaping influence on evangelicalism, his pivotal role in organizing consultations and training to mobilize world evangelism, and his relationships with presidents and international leaders, as well as his associates, and family members.
It may have begun at a prayer meeting for revival during a Billy Sunday campaign that took place in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1924. The leader of the group, Vernon Patterson, prayed at one point that “out of Charlotte the Lord would raise up someone to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth.” At the time, “Billy Frank” Graham was six years home. Converted as a teenager during a Mordecai Ham revival along with Grady and T.W. Wilson, who would be part of his inner circle, this marked the beginning, first of a fascination with preachers, then his early fumbling efforts, and continued growth, marked particularly by his ability to invite people to come and follow Christ. Vernon Patterson probably never would have imagined how God would answer his audacious prayer
William Martin traces the life of Billy Graham from his beginnings to his last years, ending shortly before his passing in 2018 in his 99th year. One fears, in reading a book like this, encountering either a hatchet job or a hagiography. Martin offers neither, although his deep regard for his subject is evident. He offers us an account of one who was flawed but not false–a prophet worthy of honor. He narrates the theatrics and relentless style of his early years, the gender stereotypes that shaped both his own marriage and those of his daughters, softened only in late life, and his early tendencies to over-reach with publicity, such as his kneeling in prayer for reporters in front of the White House after a meeting with Harry Truman, an unforgivable offense to Truman. We learn of his loving but distant relationship with his children, who were mostly raised by Ruth while Graham was involved in nearly endless travel.
Martin traces his relationships with presidents, from Eisenhower to Trump, and the fine line between being “America’s pastor” to being used, or sometimes intentionally giving political support to political figures, most notably Richard Nixon. Many have suggested Graham learned his lesson with Nixon to, in Nixon’s own words, “stay out of politics.” At times his presence was admirable, such as when he led the nation in prayer after 9/11 or counseled with the Clintons after the Monica Lewinsky affair. Other times were more questionable such as when he all but explicitly endorsed John McCain and Mitt Romney in their respective campaigns and was captured in a photo-op with candidate Trump, while maintaining that he was non-partisan. Graham was not without awareness of the ways he was being used, but also saw these relationships as a platform for gospel ministry–whether with U.S. or foreign heads of state, including those in the Soviet Union. He established, in constrained terms, a precedent expanded by evangelical pastors, including his son, in the current era, a precedent receiving both approbation and intense criticism within an evangelical community divided by politics.
Yet for Martin, these flaws are over-shone by the honorable accomplishments and character of this man clearly gifted by God. Martin helps us see the deep commitment Graham had to integrity in all his financial dealings and his irreproachability in matters of marital fidelity, modesty of means, and checks to his ego. It was integrity which led to the integration of his crusades, and growing awareness of the need to extend this to crusade planning (although many black leaders would also criticize him for not going further in his criticism of racial injustices). He advocated with, and then for Lyndon Johnson, in the expansion of social programs. Above all, there was his confidence in the Bible as the Word of God (“the Bible says”) that led to his spiritual authority in calling people to publicly “come forward” to follow Christ.
Of course there were his crusades, his systematic methods of preparation, counselor training, and follow-up, his use of technology, his recruitment of an ethnically diverse team of associates and partnership with other evangelists like Korea’s Billy Kim–all multiplying the impact of his own ministry. He helped lead an evangelical movement out of the backwaters of fundamentalism, parting ways with Bob Jones and allying with Carl Henry to launch Christianity Today. Though not a theologian, he played important roles in the founding of Fuller and Gordon-Conwell seminaries, as well as serving for a time as a Bible school president.
It might be that the crowning achievement of his life were the consultations at Berlin and Lausanne that propelled the cause of world evangelism forward, and his training conferences for evangelists from around the world, culminating in Amsterdam 2000. Many wondered who would succeed him. Although formally, his son Franklin did, Martin’s inference was that in reality it was the tens of thousands of evangelists his organization helped train from every part of the world.
This is an updated work, with an additional section chronicling the last years–the passing of those in Graham’s circle, including Ruth, the consolidation of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association under Franklin, the lives, struggles, and ministries of his other children, and Graham’s declining health. One of the high points in this section is Graham’s final crusade in New York City in 2005, marked as were others with many who responded to his message.
This work, while not an “authorized” biography, does reflect the unprecedented access Martin was given to Graham, his family and associates and archives. I appreciate Martin’s willingness to narrate the flaws as well as the remarkable accomplishments of Graham. He reminded me of the ways my own life was marked by Graham’s ministry and the evangelicalism he helped shape.
Martin’s account also leaves me with deep sadness that Graham never quite escaped a partisan engagement with political figures, and one wonders if evangelicalism might have plotted a different course had he given more decisive and principled leadership in this respect. Most prophets in scripture were outsiders to the courts of king, rather than from the assemblage of “court prophets” who typically told kings what they wanted to hear. Nathan, with David, seems one of the few exceptions. Micaiah is another. It is hard to be a prophet with honor within the halls of power, and while in other respects Graham truly was a prophet with honor, in this regard, his life may be a prophecy of warning to others.