Billy Graham (1918-2018): The last of the Great Revivalists

Without a doubt, Billy Graham has had a huge role in shaping American Christianity. His death on February 21, 2018 signals the passing of an era. American revivalism was a movement of spiritual wakening that began in the 1700s with Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. It carried on with celebrity preachers like Billy Sunday and Dwight Moody – but it really reached both its climax and end with Billy Graham.

Reformed roots, but Arminian 

He was born and raised in a Christian home. His parents were members of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. His wife Ruth was also a Presbyterian. He dates his conversion to 1934, when he was sixteen years old. Billy Graham says his conversion happened during an evangelistic campaign. Before he became a full-time evangelist, he served as a pastor of two churches and was also the president of a Bible College. By this time, he was a member of the Southern Baptist Church. Many Southern Baptists are monergistic in their doctrine of salvation (believing that salvation not a cooperative act between the Lord and Man, but rather the work of God alone) but sadly, Billy Graham was not.

Let’s be up front with this fact: Billy Graham was an Arminian. The “Statement of Faith” of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association signals this clearly when it says: “…repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ results in regeneration by the Holy Spirit.” Rather than regeneration resulting in faith (the biblical view found in Reformed theology), the BGEA says faith results in regeneration. First you believe (using your free will) and then you are born again. Regeneration follows faith, rather than preceding it. That’s Arminianism and it was also evident in Graham’s 1977 book, How to be Born Again. Ever since that book was published, Reformed critics have pointed out that you can’t lay out steps for people to follow to be born again – regeneration is a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit who works this, as the Canons of Dort say, “in us without us” (CoD 3-4.12). Telling someone how to be born again is just as absurd as telling a baby in the womb how to be born.

Preached to millions

Graham began doing evangelistic work in about 1944. The first few years were spent in obscurity in the United States and England. But this changed dramatically in 1949. It happened in Los Angeles where Graham was doing a series of revival meetings. William Randolph Hearst was the head of an American newspaper chain. Somehow word about Graham reached him. He liked what he heard. Graham was patriotic and young people were attracted to him. Hearst was also an American patriot, and because this was the time of the Cold War, he was deeply concerned about the communist threat from the Soviet Union. He saw Graham as a figure who would encourage and support American values. Graham could be helpful in shielding America from the Soviet Union’s plans to dominate the world. Hearst sent a two-word telegram to all his newspapers to “puff Graham.” And they did. Newspapers all over the United States were covering Graham’s crusade in Los Angeles. He soon appeared on the cover of leading American news magazines. His crusade in Los Angeles was planned for three weeks, but because of the news coverage, Graham extended it to eight. And this is where the story of Billy Graham’s celebrity status begins.

In 1950, he started the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. The Association started organizing crusades around the world. It also started a radio broadcast called “The Hour of Decision,” and eventually that led to his appearance on television as well. When I was a boy, I can remember watching the Billy Graham crusades on television sometimes. I grew up in a church of Dutch immigrants and I wasn’t used to hearing a preacher without a Dutch accent. He preached clearly. He often had a Bible in his hand, and he seemed to be preaching about what the Bible says. Billy Graham was a skilled communicator. He was simply a preacher, a man who preached with sincerity and seriousness.

Over the years, Graham did over 400 crusades in 185 countries. His largest event ever was in Seoul, South Korea in 1986 where one million people attended a single crusade evening. His last crusade was in 2005. Through television and radio, he has preached to millions of people. Consider this fact: more people have heard Billy Graham preach than any other single preacher in the history of the world. That’s amazing.

Minimized key doctrinal differences

So what were some of the features of Billy Graham’s revival ministry? He preached for individual decisions for Christ. Following in the footsteps of revivalists before him, public relations campaigns were crucial. So was getting the sponsorship of local churches. Graham also made efforts to involve churches by having them send volunteers for his crusades. They would work as counsellors and in other capacities. Local churches would also be involved with follow-up. Billy Graham wanted to make sure that the people who made decisions would be contacted by local churches soon afterwards. Graham even said this was the most important aspect of his work.

This became controversial in the late 1950s because of who he was working with. He worked with evangelical churches, but he also worked with the large mainline churches that were friendly to liberal theology. Converts from his crusades would be directed to become members of these liberal gospel-denying churches. That caused many fundamentalist Christians to become angry with Graham.

Eventually Billy Graham even came to cooperate with Roman Catholic Churches. If someone would come to a crusade and make a decision and identify as a Roman Catholic, then they would be directed back to the Roman Catholic Church for spiritual care. Billy Graham was surprisingly open to Roman Catholicism. At one point he said, “I have no quarrel with the Catholic Church.” In another place, he said, “I feel I belong to all the churches. I am equally at home in an Anglican or Baptist or a Brethren assembly or a Roman Catholic Church.” He was invited to worship alongside Pope John Paul II at a service in South Carolina in 1987, and he would have if not for an unexpected invitation to China.[1] Doctrinal differences were minimized and became irrelevant.

Carrying on the tradition of previous revivalists like Dwight Moody, another important feature of the Billy Graham crusades was the music. Especially at the “moment of decision,” it was important to have the right music played and sung by skilled musicians. Billy Graham had a long-standing relationship with George Beverly Shea. Shea began working with Graham in 1947. Shea would sing a solo before Graham gave his message. That was to prepare the crowd to receive his words. After the message, however, Shea turned the singing over to the choir. They would sing the well-known hymn “Just As I Am” and people would be invited to come forward and make their decision. The music set the mood.

The end of an era

Billy Graham retired from active ministry in 2006. Since then, there hasn’t really been anyone to replace him in American revivalistic evangelism. His son Franklin has done some crusades, but he’s not as popular as his father was. The phenomenon of revivalism appears to have run its course. Revivals as big events with preaching and music can hardly compete with television, movies, and the Internet. With Graham’s death, the era of American revivalism definitely seems to have drawn to a close.

End note

[1] All of this is from Iain Murray’s Evangelicalism Divided, 68-69.

This post is reprinted with permission from Dr. Bredenhof’s blog, Yinkahdinay. The picture is from


Quotes by and on Graham

Fighting segregation

“Millions of people were intensely charged over segregation, and any preacher defying the color line in the South in the 1950s was exposing himself to physical harm and even death….The story is told… of how at one of his early 1950s crusades, Graham asked the head usher to take down the ropes used to segregate blacks from whites. The usher refused. So Graham walked down off the platform and took down the ropes himself. I don’t care what you say, that’s courage right there.”

Dr. Joel McDurmon

On staying free of scandal

“We all knew of evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than my wife. We determined that the Apostle Paul’s mandate to the young pastor Timothy would be ours as well: “Flee … youthful lusts” (2 Timothy 1:22, KJV).”

– Billy Graham on what would come to be known as the “Billy Graham rule” that he and his ministry team crafted back in 1948 in Modesto, California.

On death

“Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”

– Billy Graham, adapting a quote from D.L. Moody

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  1. Andy Chance

    February 22, 2018 at 8:35 am

    I think it might be good to reconsider the death of revivalism. Passion conferences, for instance, draw together large crowds of young adults, while also minimizing doctrinal differences and calling for decisions (of various kinds).

  2. Tim Schouten

    February 23, 2018 at 7:51 pm

    I’m too young to know much about Billy Graham. But there is quite a different perspective here:

    I especially find the following quote striking:

    “He told students in 1964 at Harvard Divinity School . . . “I used to think that in evangelism I had to do it all, but now I approach evangelism with a totally different attitude. I approach it with complete relaxation. First of all, I don’t believe that any man can come to Christ unless the Holy Spirit has prepared his heart. Secondly, I don’t believe any man can come to Christ unless God drives him. My job is to proclaim the message. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to do the work, period.” (Catherwood, 230)

    This quote, at least, is very far from Arminianism.

    Could somebody who knows more about Billy Graham comment on this?

    • glenn tams

      March 3, 2018 at 2:56 pm

      Here are more quotes from Billy Graham that make this article seem slanderous if not slanderous..
      In his book “Peace with God” Billy Graham writes “…being born again is altogether a work of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing that you can do obtain this new birth.”
      In his book “The Journey” he writes “….when we come to Christ, God himself comes to live within us by His Holy Spirit. In fact, even before we believed, His spirit was already working in us, convicting us of sin and drawing us to God.”
      In Acts 2, when Peter was asked “Brothers what shall we do” Peter replies “..repent and be baptized, everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Sounds like Dr. Billy Graham knew his bible well.
      I never could understand the criticism of Billy Graham…. especially after reading many of his books and articles and replies to questions the public asked him in his newspaper columns…. the criticism’s just didn’t ad up to what I’ve read from Billy Graham…. but they keep on coming.

      • Reformed Perspective

        March 3, 2018 at 4:00 pm

        While Reformed folk might think it slanderous to call Graham Arminian, there are those in the Arminian camp who think it slanderous to call him anything but!

        A few points in response:

        1) Dr. Bredenhof is not alone in saying Graham in Arminian. Other prominent Reformed leaders who have made the same claim include Tim Challies, RC Sproul, and Robert Godfrey.

        2) Some quotes to back up that notion include:

        – “If our commitment is genuine, God works in our hearts to regenerate us. Then we have truly been converted — we have been born again by the Spirit of God!” – Enduring Classics of Billy Graham

        – “Believing is your response to God’s offer of mercy, love, and forgiveness. God took the initiative and did everything that was needed to make the offer of salvation possible” – How to be Born Again

        – “…new birth is something that God does for man when man is willing to yield to God.” – How to be Born Again

        – “Faith in Christ is also voluntary. A person cannot be coerced, bribed, or tricked into trusting Jesus. God will not force His way into your life. The Holy Spirit will do everything possible to disturb you, draw you, love you—but finally it is your personal decision. God not only gave His Son on the cross where the plan of redemption was finished: He gave the law as expressed in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount to show you your need of forgiveness; He gave the Holy Spirit to convict you of your need. He gives the Holy Spirit to draw you to the cross, but even after all of this, it is your decision whether to accept God’s free pardon or to continue in your lost condition.” – How to be Born Again

        3) Why might he have some quotations that would seem Arminian-ish, and others that might seem Calvinist? That’s in part because he is Arminian and not Pelagian, and the difference is harder to discern. And, in part, it might be for the same reason that he would point converts to good conservative Christians churches, but also mainline (liberal) and Roman Catholic churches. Because sometimes he minimized important doctrinal differences.

        • glenn

          March 4, 2018 at 1:48 pm

          It would be helpful to know the definition of Armenian you use/refer to, because even that can be cause for debate. The quotes you provided of Billy Graham seem like they can be defended by scripture. I recall many reformed people/ leaders making comments such as ” God did not create robots, or there wouldn’t/couldn’t be Love”… or something along those lines…. suggesting a definite degree of free-will.

          • Reformed Perspective

            March 5, 2018 at 9:46 am

            The specific aspect of Arminianism spoken to here is Who is acting. As Dr. Joel McDurmon has summed up the Calvinist position:

            I don’t believe there’s even an element of human “free will” involved in accepting an “offer” or responding to “altar call.” Before regeneration, the will is in bondage. It cannot respond. It is God’s grace that unleashes the bound will so that it can be free to embrace Christ in faith; and when the Spirit frees the bound will, that will will inevitably embrace Christ in faith.

            The will is not struggling in the sea in need of a lifesaver to grab on to. It is a dead corpse, floating face down in the water, in need of divine resuscitation back from death to life.

            Men don’t have a free will by which they can choose to come to Christ. They have a God who frees them to come to Christ, and once freed, they will. There is no “free will,” only a “freed will.”

            As McDurmon goes on to point out, things can get confusing because many an Arminian might say that his last line is “exactly what Arminians believe.” But while an Arminian might say it is all about a “freed will” and in many other ways sound much like a Calvinist, we mean something very different by “freed will.” A freed will is not now free to make a choice, but rather, once freed will always respond to God’s call – that is what it means to be free.

            So there was no slander in what Dr. Bredenhof wrote.

          • glenn

            March 10, 2018 at 2:05 pm

            Based on what I have read from Billy Graham, he would have no problem with the analogy provided by Joel McDurmon. It seems a “moderate” Arminian and a “moderate” Calvinist say the same things just from different angles….. free will is understood under the umbrella of pre-destination/election. There must be a good reason the canons of dordt reads that the doctrine of Election “should be taught in the church…….. without inquisitively prying into the ways of the most High…..”
            James writes “draw near to God and he will draw near to you” From the comments i’m reading it seems the doctrine is understood to be “confusing” to say the least.
            The criticisms of Billy Graham just don’t ad up… seems people who don’t like his style are jealous of his unprecedented success.

            In the preface to his book “Peace with God” Billy Graham writes,
            ” I am aware that this book will be criticized by some and perhaps applauded by others. The modern Pharisees who draw their self-righteous robes around them will not like it; but neither will the modern Sadducees who deny the foundations of our belief—this is purely intentional on my part. …..Those of you who are looking for a denomination to join will find no help in this book. I suggest you try some other shop. My object is not to get you to a particular church or denomination–but to get you to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ,…”

            Many people can be thankful he took this attitude with him on his crusades…he was not about to get sidetracked and distracted by his accusers…. and that is to his credit…. it’s obvious he reached his objective.
            The disciple’s at one point wanted to shut down someone for “not being one of us”…. but Jesus replied ” Do not stop him …..whoever is not against us is for us…..”( mark 9: 38-41)
            Hopefully you are not saying Billy Graham was “against us” (followers of Jesus)

            Perhaps a better article to have published on the occasion of Dr. Billy Grahams “changing addresses” would have been the one John Piper wrote that Tim Schouten made reference to in the second comment on this article ( I encourage everyone to read it)
            May God continue to bless the work and organisations that Billy Graham left behind.

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