Why Billy Graham’s legacy is complex

News appeared this afternoon that Billy Graham had died at the age of 99. The significance of this moment is clear – he was someone who lived an extraordinary long life, met the great and the good of all the world, changed the lives of countless thousands who were not the great and the good and helped to shape the world that we live in today.

My own feelings on hearing that he died are complex. After all, I took part in one of his great stadium campaigns. I sang in a choir of a thousand voices in a football stadium in 1985, invited my friends (some of whom had their lives changed by that encounter) and prayed like mad for the success of the venture. It was a defining moment for so many people who were involved in it. What’s more I know people whose lives were changed at the Billy Graham Glasgow Crusade in 1955 in the Kelvin Hall.

The methods and the message didn’t change that much over the years.

Very many of those of us who remember those events will be reluctant to simply dismiss what Billy Graham did. We were there. We know the good intentions and the good will that were exemplified by the preacher from the USA.

However, those who believe that Jesus is just about to come back and sort everything out for good don’t always do terribly well at thinking about how we should live in this world. (And that’s a long-standing thing – just look at St Paul and his ideas about marriage). Billy Graham was one such. Believing that Jesus would come back soon and sort everything out he didn’t appear much interested in the world being sorted out by human endeavour. Thus, he had a conflicted relationship with the Civil Rights movement in the USA, chummed up with the likes of Richard Nixon (with whom he was caught out making anti-semitic remarks) and was completely on the wrong side of God’s loving relationship with humanity in his attitude to human sexuality.

I’ve seen a number of responses to his death today from those remembering all these things who paint him as a demon. I don’t believe he was, however mistaken I think he was about some things. In many ways, I think he was sincere but wrong. I don’t think he was a demon because I remember him. I was there.

I’ve also seen responses from those idolising him including some from people responding in public on behalf of organisations whose own private lives were significantly deleteriously affected by views which Billy Graham shared so powerfully. Very obviously, I don’t think Billy Graham an angel either.

Lives are complex and so are legacies. Today on the news of his death I find myself thinking of those who were given purpose, energy and life in all its fullness by an extraordinary missionary preacher and I thank God for that.

I also find myself thinking that the America in which Donald Trump can triumph is part of that legacy too.

White evangelicalism in the USA was undoubtedly bolstered by Billy Graham’s life and work. The lack of condemnation from Billy Graham of the antics of some of those (including his children) who emboldened that community even further travelling on his coattails is a stark reminder that his faith made him able sometimes to proclaim his gospel clearly but see the affairs of the world more dimly.

Notwithstanding Trumpism, Billy Graham’s ideas were perhaps more successful in the church than in the world. Historically the church shifted over the 20th century and the Evangelicalism of Billy Graham became a far more significant factor in church life than ever it would have been without him.

It was an extraordinary life. It was a life that benefited me and it was a life that gave credence to ideas which harm me.

Such is human complexity.

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

To some surprises.


  1. Catherine Mooney says:

    We went to see Billy Graham the last time he came to Glasgow. The bank manager gave us tickets! It was my first time at Parkhead. Never had I seen so many Burberry raincoats. It was a hugely choreographed occasion. The intensity of the occasion passed me by, I had never been any where with so many people before. However his effect was clear, people were very moved. r

  2. Meg Rosenfeld says:

    Kelvin, I take my hat off to you (or, as a dear, sadly departed Portuguese friend of mine used to say, “I take my head off to you”) for being able to sort out 1) your deep respect for Billy Graham the man, and 2) your wholly justified condemnation of some of his beliefs and their unfortunate consequences, and to come up with your conclusion (which I share) that he is awaking in glory–to some surprises!

  3. I never heard of Billy Graham, until I became an Anglican. I was raised as a Catholic and when I was young, only who the Pope was, and perhaps saw Arch Bishop Fisher on TV and being told that he was a Non-Catholic and I shouldn’t watch him or read about him.

    When I became an Anglican, I met some Evangelicals who t raced their history back to his Crusades and extolled his virtues. When I did research for Essays that I was writing for my training, I read about the darker side of his ministry, particularly those you ably describe. I revised my opinion of him, to one of someone who was given a Gift to proclaim the good news, but somewhere mixed it up with bad theology and missed the bit about us all being Children of God, who loves each and every one of us, not a select few.

    I’ve seen the headlines and eulogies for him and have say, that with due respect that his ministry was misused and misdirected down a tangent that has had consequences for many who are victimized daily as a result.

  4. p hall-ropberts says:

    I think billy was a great preachr but he did not accept that god made gay people as well as straight & I couldn’t accept that

  5. Rebecca van Pelt says:

    Billy Graham refused to conduct his meetings in stadiums that were segregated. He understood that we all stood equal before God. He sought crusade support across denominational lines. He ministered to our presidents, regardless of political ties or denominational ties. His sole text book was the Bible. He sole message was the salvation of the individual man through faith in Jesus Christ.

Speak Your Mind