I have tended to think of George Whitefield and Billy Graham as the two titans of evangelism in the English-speaking world. But Michael Hamilton makes a good case that Dwight Moody was an even more important predecessor for Graham, because of the way that Moody fused traditional evangelical beliefs and piety with the flexibility and power of the parachurch organization. Hamilton is one of the most astute scholars of modern evangelicalism, so whatever he says on the matter is worth considering.
If there were a Mount Rushmore for English-speaking evangelists, Graham would be the fifth in granite, alongside Whitefield, Finney, Moody, and Sunday. For the most part, it’s easy to imagine why huge crowds pushed and shoved to hear them preach. George Whitefield—short and cross-eyed, with the voice of a tornado—cavorted, posed, and wept on outdoor platforms as he brought Bible dramas to life. Charles Finney had terrifying eyes that drilled out soft spots in the soul, his fiery preaching about the wrath of God going straight to the exposed nerves. Billy Sunday was charming, with jazzy suits, movie-star looks, and a smile that lit up auditoriums. But up on stage, after joking and mugging and flattering the VIPs, he would throw down his hat, rip off his tie, and jump onto the pulpit—sometimes waving a large American flag—attacking sin and beseeching sinners to come to Jesus.
Dwight Moody’s appeal is harder to figure. Of grandfatherly mien, he was portly and genial. He preached less about sin and more about love. All the old drawings of him in the pulpit give the impression he must have been stolid and ponderous. Yet it was Moody—more than Whitefield, Finney, and Sunday put together—who was Billy Graham’s true predecessor. It was Moody whom Graham admired; Moody who, in fact, made it possible for Graham to do what he did. For “Crazy” Moody was the architect who drew up the plans and laid the foundation for 20th-century evangelicalism. Then Billy Graham took over the project and built it to dimensions beyond any of Moody’s craziest dreams. By the start of the 21st century, the Moody-Graham project had reshaped the skyline of American Christianity and had launched a new kind of ecumenical movement that reached into every corner of the globe.
It’s easy to forget that Billy Graham’s early pulpit style owed more to Whitefield and Sunday than to Moody. He pranced and shouted until his hair was a mop. He clenched his fists, pointed his fingers like pistols, and spoke so fast that German newspapers called him “God’s Machine Gun.” Graham’s eyes were arresting—sharp blue, blazing out from dark sockets. His preaching, like Whitefield’s, was sometimes performance art; it produced this description in 1950 by an astonished Boston reporter:
He prowls like a panther across the rostrum. . . . He becomes a haughty and sneering Roman, his head flies back arrogantly, and his voice is harsh and gruff. He becomes a penitent sinner; his head bows, his eyes roll up in supplication, his voice cracks and quavers. He becomes an avenging angel; his arms rise high above his head and his long fingers snap out like talons. His voice deepens and rolls sonorously—the voice of doom. So perfect are the portrayals that his audience sits tense and fascinated.
Like Sunday, Graham’s early preaching seamlessly blended God and country, most often in warnings about the threat of communism. “Either communism must die, or Christianity must die, because it is actually a battle between Christ and anti-Christ,” he said. The answer was “old-fashioned Americanism. Through the ideals of early Americanism we built the greatest nation ever to exist in all history.”
But Graham’s future lay behind Sunday in territory that Moody had staked out. Moody’s genius had been his ability to draw together and fuse traditional evangelical touchstones—a Bible-based, conversion-centered faith; simple preaching and popular songs; extensive publicity and self-promotion; and a restless “I-must-keep-working-for-the-Lord” style—with newer elements like dispensational premillennialism and an urgency for foreign missions. He then poured this mixture into a new institutional mold—the parachurch organization. After Moody, evangelical visionaries weren’t so much churchmen as entrepreneurs launching their own non-denominational start-ups, employing lay workers to carry out highly specialized missions.
At the same time Moody was creating a new evangelical synthesis, an anti-supernatural form of Christianity calling itself modernism (or liberalism) began entrenching itself in the seminaries and headquarters of the large northern Protestant denominations. When conservatives tried and failed to push them out of these “mainline” denominations in the 1920s, the center of evangelical gravity shifted from the denominations to the parachurch network started by Moody. It turned out that the independence and non-denominational character of the parachurch gave evangelicals a tremendous advantage. They could bypass denominational leadership and go directly to the people with a simple, vibrant evangelicalism that transcended denominational differences. Billy Graham would exploit this advantage better than anyone before or since.
Whitefield also operated in a parachurch mode, in a time when it was shocking for an Anglican minister to cooperate with “dissenters” like Baptists and Presbyterians. But Whitefield hardly left any organization. Aside from his Bethesda Orphanage in Georgia, and to an extent the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist movement, Whitefield was the organization. In his generation, John Wesley was the great evangelical organizer, and his organization eventually became the Methodist Church.
Moody and Graham will have both left greater institutional legacies than Whitefield, though it remains to be seen how much of a factor the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association will continue to be in its founder’s absence. But in his time, Graham employed the parachurch model to a massive evangelistic and entrepreneurial effect, the likes of which the world had never before seen.