Billy Graham at Fuller

The Legacy of Billy Graham at Fuller Seminary

Eddie GibbsBilly Graham: God’s Ambassador to the Churches

By Eddie Gibbs

Professor Emeritus of Church Growth

The media has commented frequently on Billy Graham’s access to U.S. presidents, royalty, and world leaders. Less in the public eye, but arguably of even greater long-term significance, has been Mr. Graham’s engagement with church leaders around the world. This is a remarkable accomplishment for any evangelist—especially as evangelists are often caricatured as independent “fly-by-nights.”

This has not been how the Graham Organization has worked in organizing its large-scale, citywide and regionwide events. Mr. Graham has consistently demonstrated a deep personal commitment to local churches and respect for their leaders, not only at the local level, but also at regional and national levels.

I watched the Billy Graham organization at close quarters in my role as National Training Director for six Billy Graham missions in England in the mid-1980s. Mr. Graham would consider only locations where there was a strong invitation from the churches of the region, and refused to be swayed by groups of individual enthusiasts, no matter how influential.

During the months prior to any of the missions, there were countless meetings with church leaders in which their insights and concerns were aired and their opinions respected. When the venues were eventually filled with people, on the platform were seated church leaders from across the denominations and representing leading churches in the city, showing their public support.

On a personal level, Billy enjoyed the good will of church leaders from a wide range of traditions: Anglican archbishops, the Patriarch of Moscow, leaders of the Reformed Churches of Eastern Europe, Roman Catholic bishops and the Pope himself, as well as church leaders across a wide spectrum of the evangelical world.

How did a Southern Baptist pastor with roots in a very conservative and separatist tradition achieve this? First, it arose from his gracious and winsome personality. He was a polite Southern gentleman. Second, his ministry, both nationally and internationally, brought him into contact with godly leaders in traditions different from his own, and he had the humility to learn from them. Third, he was always true to his evangelical convictions and his calling as an ambassador of Christ and proclaimer of the Good News. Fourth, Billy was someone you could trust. What you see is what you get. Fifth, Billy remained teachable, and was always eager to learn from those with greater intellects than his own. And lastly, Billy Graham is a 24/7 evangelist. As such he has helped many troubled church leaders renew their own faith.

Eddie Gibbs, a native of England, served on Fuller’s School of Intercultural Studies faculty from 1984 to 2012.

First Person: Working with Billy Graham

Edmund (Eddie) Gibbs, Donald A. McGavran Professor Emeritus of Church Growth at Fuller, worked closely with the Billy Graham Association in the 1980s, serving as National Training Director for six Billy Graham missions in England during that time. Here he discusses his relationship and experiences with Mr. Graham.

How did you come to meet and get to know Billy Graham?

EG: I first met him in July 1981. The Billy Graham organization had been receiving requests from Christian businessmen and groups of churches to see if Mr. Graham would be open to a visit to Great Britain. Three of us went as envoys, to meet with Billy Graham in Nice, in the south of France, where Billy Graham was at the time, with his daughter and son-in-law. We met in a hotel and asked if he were to receive an official invitation, would he consider it, and on what terms?

Billy Graham must have received many invitations to do rallies and meetings around the world. What were some of the decision-making criteria you saw him consider in deciding whether to go to England?

EG: We said to Mr. Graham that we wouldn’t ask him to come to Britain to do on our behalf what we weren’t prepared to do for ourselves. That we believed there was a wave of local church evangelism, and his distinctive contribution would be to have the large central events. “There is no British church leader that can do what you can do uniquely,” we told him. He would be riding a wave, not going into a vacuum—and his ears picked up on that. His rallies would be part of a two-year program of local church evangelism, attended by those who have heard the Good News several times already, and already in touch with a local Christian leader for follow-up.

You mentioned the relationship with the British press, going back to 1954. Could you share a bit about what happened at that time?

EG: Billy Graham’s first high-profile visit to Britain was in 1954, after the Los Angeles Crusade; he was invited by British church leaders. Unfortunately, he began this time in Britain with a press that was cynical about evangelicals and very hostile towards him. A turning point came when a well-known columnist for the Daily Mirror, William Neil Connor—known as “Cassandra”—challenged Billy with a public invitation to meet him at a pub called The Baptist’s Head. And the result of that meeting was that Cassandra became extremely friendly and positive towards Billy. So beginning with a hostile press, the Billy Graham team had three months of meetings at [Borough of London] Haringey, which ended in Wembley Stadium, with banner headlines in the London press saying: “Come Back Later—You’re Welcome Back at Any Time!” It was huge.

He also met the queen?

EG: Every time Billy came to Britain he was the guest of the queen, so there has always been that very warm relationship. At one point in 1984, the queen invited him to preach to the royal family, and she did an unprecedented thing and invited the press—which she never does to a royal household occasion of worship. When Mr. Graham came out, one of the reporters asked him, “Were you nervous, preaching in front of the queen?” He answered, “It was a great honor. But every week, I preach in front of the King of Kings.”

How would you describe Billy Graham from being with him, working with him, and seeing him “up close” over the years?

EG: First, I was struck by his integrity: He kept away from scandals, and he lived a simple lifestyle. I was also impressed by his humility and his focus over the years. Hollywood offered Mr. Graham roles in film; others offered positions in government. I’m sure he was strongly tempted at times, but he always came back, saying, “No, God has called me as an evangelist.”

You mentioned the word integrity. Were there any differences between the Billy Graham you saw on TV and the Billy Graham you saw in private situations?

EG: Not at all! What you saw was what you got with Billy. He was faithful to his message. I remember visiting him at a small hotel during the Liverpool Missions and noticing how accessible he was to everyone there. He would personally invite people to his events, and he wasn’t aloof in any way.

Towards the end of the Mission England’s campaign in 1984—we’d had 64 meetings—I remember his asking us, “Have you got any good sermons? I’ve used mine up.” I’m sure he hadn’t. But it demonstrated his accessibility.

Another time Graham called me and a colleague to ask that we pray with him. We were a bit mystified by this at first, but we went. He’d just received an invitation to go back to the Soviet Union, and he didn’t know whether it was right to accept the invitation so soon after Mission England. So we spent a day just praying with him, providing support.

Many of us in the U.S. and around the world felt that personal connection with Billy Graham, even if we hadn’t met him personally—his talks, his sermons, and his invitation touched so many lives.

EG: That’s right. Let me pitch in on that: At one point, the question was raised in the Guardian newspaper, “Where are all the converts?” So I wrote a letter to the Guardian saying, “50% of the people who are training for the ministry in my Anglican theological college, in fact, committed their lives to Christ during a Billy Graham crusade.” Clearly, his impact was immense. The Guardian was kind enough to publish that letter.

What prepared him to be that kind of leader?

EG: I think he was shaped by a variety of life experiences—and much of it really was, as we say, the “University of Hard Knocks.” He didn’t come on the heels of privilege; he came through hard experiences, severe testing. And he was kind of a brash young man who had to learn through his own mistakes growing up; he learned that he didn’t need all the flamboyance that was fairly typical of upcoming evangelists in the late 1940s.

Did he have any personal mentors?

EG: I think there were a number along the way. If I could name one, I would say John Stott. They were lifelong friends, and John helped Mr. Graham in terms of his theological sophistication. It was out of their relationship that the Lausanne Movement developed in the mid-1970s.

Billy Graham is sometimes equated with evangelicalism. As a theologian yourself, what do you see as Billy Graham’s greatest contributions to evangelicalism in the U.S. and around the world?

EG: Mr. Graham, along with others like Harold Ockenga [Fuller Seminary’s founding president], redefined evangelicalism in America. At the time, evangelicalism was deeply rooted in revivalism and fundamentalism. Mr. Graham ushered in a much broader understanding of the evangelical movement, not only through his preaching, but also through the magazine he founded, Christianity Today. I think that he helped rescue evangelicalism from some of its tendencies toward a more separatist fundamentalism—and he came under criticism from the far-right of the evangelical world for that very reason.

Those divides were probably most pronounced in the ’50s and ’60s. How did Billy Graham respond to criticism? Were there ever bridges built with some of the critics he had in the early years of his ministry?

EG: I think that he had a very tender heart and felt criticism deeply. But I think he knew what to do with it. As a man of prayer, Billy left those criticisms with God rather than retaliating—I never knew him to retaliate. And I think he was always a bridge-builder because he refused to defend himself. He always held out a gracious hand to those who would disagree with him.

Some were upset about his willingness to work with the World Council of Churches, for example, or with those from Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic traditions. However, I think he was wise to have never put a doctrinal condition on his partnerships: If you were a Trinitarian Christian with respect for the authority of Scripture, you were welcome.

In Liverpool, England, for instance, there was a large Roman Catholic participation in one of his missions, with many people coming over from Ireland. As you can imagine, this was pretty controversial in a place like Liverpool. At one of the preparation meetings we even had the Orange Order—a strongly Protestant fraternal organization—showing up to protest. So you’ve always got that attack.

But one of his great gifts was listening. In each of the six missions that I was involved with in England, he would always ask for a full briefing on that region, you know: What were the economic conditions? What was the culture? What was the humor? So he prepared very well. He didn’t just sort of parachute in. And that was helpful in dealing with these controversies, as well.

Billy Graham was instrumental in the early days of Fuller Seminary, serving on the Board of Trustees and working with founder Charles E. Fuller. What do you admire most about the legacy and ministry of Billy Graham, both at Fuller and more broadly?

EG: I think Billy Graham’s legacy was to redefine evangelicalism in the years after World War II, so that it had academic credibility as well as evangelistic fervor. Those two things were really crucial to the movement. As a result of Mr. Graham’s contribution, the evangelical world is much richer, I think, more gracious. I also think that he put high-visibility evangelism on the map in a way that made it credible to his generation, in keeping with Charles Fuller.

I think that both of them had a very significant ministry after World War II: a ministry of “come home.” After World War II the U.S. experienced a disruption of its populace—many returned from fighting overseas, but there was also a lot of internal migration and disconnect from the local church. I think that as Mr. Graham began in Los Angeles and traveled throughout the U.S., particularly in the 1960s and the 1970s, it was a message of “come home,” because so many people in the U.S. had come from small-town, rural situations. They’d gone to the big cities and lost contact with the church. I think that Mr. Graham’s great ministry was bringing people back to Christ and reconnecting them with the local church. He was always insistent that any invitation to faith should be with the full backing of local churches.

A lot of the work that you have been involved in concerns figuring out a way to engage churches with popular culture. In a sense would you consider Billy Graham one of those early leaders, pioneers in terms of the church being involved in popular culture?

EG: I’m glad you brought that up because we know the relationship of the gospel to culture is a complex one. And Mr. Graham, because of his contact with world leaders, didn’t just think in churchly terms—he really thought in terms of the broader picture of economics and politics. He also was in touch with popular culture. We think of his relationship with Johnny Cash, for example, or meeting with Bono, or the famous Woody Allen interview.

And he also talked with ordinary people—I noticed that with Mission England. It’s difficult for someone with such a high profile, but Billy was interested in people, in individuals, of every walk of life. He had time for folks—not just for other high-profile individuals, but for the ordinary folks. And I think that kept him in touch with what was happening, broadly speaking.

There is so much said today about the “evangelical voting block” and its role in politics. Billy Graham was ministering in the political arena much earlier, in the sense that presidents looked to him for advice and counsel. Why would they do that? He didn’t have a political science degree or a law degree.

EG: He didn’t, but they turned to Billy for two reasons: First, they felt that he had the pulse of the nation. You just see the enormous draw that he had, filling huge stadiums with 100,000 or more folks. So here’s somebody who meets far more people that any politician, that has preached to more people than any other individual on God’s earth.

Also, he was a pastor to presidents, willing to pray with them. Now, on two or three occasions he was probably too naive in terms of politicians wanting their photo ops with him or appearing at crusades in order to further political agendas. And he got hurt by a couple of presidents on that score. But having said that, Billy was someone you could trust. What you would say to him in private he would not speak in public.

He learned that lesson early on in his life, so he was trusted. It was interesting that Billy was hurt by the whole Nixon affair, and yet he never deserted him. The easiest thing would have been to walk away, but he didn’t do that. I think that shows the stature of the man.

In terms of your own work, you’ve written a book called Church Next, in which you look at where the church is going and who is going to lead it. Looking to the future, do you think there is a possibility of another person having the kind of role that Billy Graham has had?

EG: There’s always the possibility that this type of individual will arise, perhaps also from the most obscure beginnings. Who’d have thought that the Billy, with his origins in the independent Baptist tradition, would be sitting down with the patriarch of Russia? He even asked for Billy to be with him when he was dying! That’s something only God can do.

But I would say that I think Mr. Graham represents the end of an era: I’m not sure that we will have a similar figure in the immediate future. Our society today is less cohesive, and we are increasingly in a post-Christian society, so I don’t think anyone can have that central role in quite the same way. We do need a spokesperson who can gain the ear of the world—but it’s in God’s hands.

If you were to speak to a group of emerging church leaders and pastors about Billy Graham and the lessons we can learn from his ministry, what would you share?

EG: I would want to share with them the need for focusing your life and ministry, because you’ll get distracted by any number of things. So find out how God has uniquely called and equipped you, and stick to that, as Mr. Graham did.

Secondly, be ambitious for the people around you—support and advocate for them. One of the impressive legacies of Mr. Graham is that he had the same staff around him since his Youth for Christ days in the late ’40s. That’s a remarkable record, when you think of it, and I’ve been privileged to know many of those who were immediately around Mr. Graham. He was ambitious for them, and I think that’s a sign of good leadership. I’d say, be ambitious for the people around you.

Thirdly, don’t lose your confidence in the power of the gospel to bring about transformation of people’s lives.

His internal spiritual reservoir—where did that come from?

EG: He was never far from the Scriptures; he was sustained by the Scriptures. Also, I think that Ruth, his wife, had a great influence. They say that behind every great man is a great woman. And that would be true of Billy and Ruth.

Dr. Gibbs, do you have any final, personal comments about Billy Graham?

EG: The last time I met with Mr. Graham face-to-face was in June 2002. I went up to Montreat, North Carolina, because he had invited me to his home with a small group of Scottish evangelists who were training at the Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove. To see Billy at that stage of life—really an old man and physically infirm, yet still with warmth and the presence of Christ—humbled me.

“Eddie, would you pray for me?” he asked. It was powerful just to stand at Billy’s shoulder and to pray for him. I’m over 70 now myself, and it was meaningful to see the grace of God in somebody’s life over the years, to know that it never fades. You may be physically weak, but the Spirit of God’s presence is within you.