The Legacy of Billy Graham at Fuller Seminary
“We’re Going to Lose Billy One of These Days”
By Lauralee Farrer
Chief Storyteller and Vice President of Communications
My family did not really know Billy Graham, though we always acted like we did. My parents were part of a wave of evangelicals in the United States called one of the Great Awakenings. Of course, they did not think of themselves as anything so lofty as part of a movement. The only journey they knew of was the one they took as young musicians in the ’50s driving westward from Austin, Texas, to work for Manna Music in offices located at the “Crossroads of the World” in Los Angeles. One of the first publishing companies devoted to Christian music, Manna was started by Roy Rogers and his band mate from the Sons of the Pioneers, Tim Spencer. The song that kept them in business—“How Great Thou Art”—was a favorite of the Graham crusades, was recorded by everybody from George Beverly Shea to Elvis, and put chipped beef casserole on the dining room table throughout my youth.
In the early days, my parents and their gang of musician friends sang in Graham’s choirs when his crusades came to Los Angeles. There was a time that dad and Billy would have recognized one another in a crowd. I remember an occasion at the Hollywood Bowl where a lanky man stopped at our seats to say hello to my parents, and whispers of recognition hissed from people seated nearby. My folks, Don and Bette, witnessed the magnetic draw of Graham’s God-fueled sermons, of how—as my great aunt would have put it—“the Lord done laid his hand” on the willowy preacher from North Carolina. Decades later, not long after my father died, my mother often mused, “We’re going to lose Billy one of these days.”
My experience as a young person with the juggernaut that Graham’s multifaceted organization eventually became was briefer and disappointing. I did not apply to sing soprano in a choir, but as a filmmaker to work with his film company. I was turned down with the now unthinkable explanation that women were not hired where travel with men was required: too much temptation. Graham, people bragged back then, needed to be above reproach. It was clear I was supposed to find this honorable—my parents did—but it always made me feel shame. It was some time before it came to the surface for me that the “evil” the scripture was admonishing them to “avoid the very appearance of” was, in this case, me. As I have heard and read the various obits of Billy and his achievements, his stumbles, his character, and that golden life lived above scandal—I also know that some paid for his privilege of being above reproach.
Still, this experience did not tarnish my opinions of Billy—and we did, like most, call him “Billy.” Our belief in him, in his influence, in his iconic status was part of our history; it was important to us. Besides, we grew up in an atmosphere defined by “just as I am—poor, wretched, blind.” The songs we sang on repeat told us that people were flawed and in need of salvation. We never questioned that and we didn’t punish people when it turned out to be true. We watched Billy from afar, like a celebrity cousin we knew before he was somebody, and we marveled at the venues in which God allowed his witness, feeling ourselves strangely privy to those places because of Billy. Later, on family walls, paintings of Graham and of Martin Luther King Jr. hung side by side as symbol of our own aspirations that the gospel might do the work of reconciling race where all else failed: I see now that we overlooked a partnership between the two that fell far short of what it might have been. We were inordinately proud—no, filled with courage—to think that King preached with him, that Graham bailed King out of jail, that overt gestures against segregation were part of the Graham crusades. This implied to us that two great icons of the faith walked together, that belief was a deeper tie than race, that there was hope of kinship. I believe this still. But we were asleep to the privilege that gave Graham a stadium and King a jail cell, and that gave Graham 60 more years than King to preach the gospel.
The day my mother warned of has come. What came to mind when I heard we had lost Billy was an expression of my father’s: a light has gone out. When the news was announced at Fuller during the integration lectures, a young employee next to me gasped along with the audience—and with readers and audiences all over the world. “I became a Christian at one of his crusades,” she explained. “I was five.” No wonder my folks loved and admired Billy Graham so—imagine what a life-changing experience it must have been for two deeply devoted young people to sing endless verses of “Just As I Am” as thousands made their way to the altar to accept Jesus as savior. I have a vivid memory of cold air and the crush of people and raised voices singing “just as I am, though tossed about, with many a conflict, many a doubt.” The truth is, I have no way of knowing whether I was actually there or whether some treasured memory of my parents has just been absorbed as my own. With Billy’s death, all of the people I know who might confirm that story one way or the other are now gone. May they all rest in peace.