An Interview with Mark Noll and George Marsden on Billy Graham

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In 1998 Mark Noll wrote, “The passing of Billy Graham will make the end of an important historical era.”

I wanted to ask Noll, along with his friend and former colleague George Marsden, about the life and legacy of the great evangelist, who died on February 21, 2018.


It’s often said there will never be another Billy Graham. Assuming you agree, why not? In other words, is it that the world has changed, or evangelicalism has changed, or simply that a man with the combination of Graham’s gifts and circumstances are so rare?

Noll: All of these are solid reasons for why Graham’s ministry will not soon or ever be duplicated. My own sense as a historian trying to look at circumstances is that several things came together to make Graham so effective and influential: his own charisma and his life-long faithfulness to his preaching vocation, but also the fact that he emerged (a) immediately after World War II when audiences were prepared for a fresh gospel message, (b) just as leaders like Carl Henry and Harold John Ockenga were leading a wide portion of northern American fundamentalism toward a broader and more positive evangelical witness, (c) when an audience consisting of the moderates of conservative Protestantism and the conservatives of moderate Protestantism were able to work together, and (d) just as modern means of communication like TV were making possible wide impact by photogenic personalities.

I do believe that both evangelicals and the broader Christian world have enjoyed faithful leaders of equal gifts, but that the circumstances surrounding their activities have not duplicated the circumstances that Graham was able to engage fruitfully.

Christian historians also want to speak of God’s divine providence as the ultimate cause of all things, even if we are never able to see all that God can see in his direction of the world.

Were there sociological or cultural conditions in the aftermath of World War II that prepared the country, in some sense, for the expansion of Billy Graham’s ministry?

Marsden: During and just after World War II there was an upsurge of interest in religion in America at just about every level, from healing-oriented tent revivalists to intellectuals. Especially in the late 1940s even some mainstream thinkers talked about whether some sort of Christian renewal might be necessary if Western civilization were to recover from its recent debacle. The war and its aftermath also generated popular interest in religion as veterans and others married, moved to the suburbs, and raised families. Youth for Christ already had an effective ministry during the war, and Billy was only one of quite a few effective evangelists of the time. His personal charisma and effective intense preaching style just brought him to the top among these. The combination of a traditional gospel of personal salvation and declarations that the future of civilization was at stake (in the age of anxieties over the bomb and the Cold War and also about the corrupting influence of prosperity and mass culture) helped him speak exactly to the mood of the times for many people

Why were the 1957 Madison Square Garden crusades and the painful rupturing of relationships with fundamentalists so significant in the ministry of Billy Graham and the acceleration of neo-evangelicalism?

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Marsden: Up until 1957 most people would still have referred to Graham as a “fundamentalist,” even though some of his associates, such as Harold Ockenga, had been trying to build a less strident “new evangelicalism” since the early 1940s. By the 1950s many of the stricter fundamentalists were making separation from denominations that tolerated liberals into a test of fellowship. Billy’s willingness to cooperate with New York local churches whose denominations were associated with the National Council of Churches was the last straw for these ultra-fundamentalists—such as Bob Jones, John R. Rice, and so on. Their break with Graham probably helped his reputation and also helped consolidate the idea that there was an “evangelical” movement distinct from fundamentalism. The founding of Christianity Today around that same time also helped. It became possible for the next decades to say that “an evangelical is someone who likes Billy Graham.” That gave the impression that the diverse movement was more unified than it was, but it did build evangelical identify and influence.

What would you say are the long-term effects of Graham’s influence on evangelicalism?

Marsden: One can’t measure the influences of those who have been converted by Graham or inspired by his example. As I said, he was pivotal in building a sense of an evangelical identity and of moving that identity at least a slight bit away from all the negative images associated with fundamentalism in the public domain. He also did a lot to establish the integrity of the movement, particularly by his personal integrity. His respect for intellect was also a significant factor. His influence helped in supporting leaders and building institutions that worked to overcome some of the anti-intellectualism of the fundamentalist heritage.

How important was Billy Graham to 20th-century evangelicalism?

Noll: In my view Billy Graham was important for showing many, in the world and in the church, that a strong evangelical message could reach into the modern world, did not need to be stress the traditional don’ts of fundamentalism, and could remain relatively free from partisan political concerns. Graham was certainly important as an individual, but his influence was multiplied by Decision magazine, his fine staff of communications and music specialists, and by the many institutions with which he was associated (Christianity Today, Wheaton College, Gordon, and Fuller seminaries, and many more). It is also hard to measure the importance of a widely known public celebrity—probably not as important as the age of celebrity-seeking might assume, but important nonetheless for opening doors and gaining audiences for those associated in some way with the celebrity. In my view, Graham wore his celebrity status with the right kind of Christian humility and (with only a few lapses) discretion.

Billy Graham has said that if he had it to do over again, he would spend more time in the Bible, more time with other believers in community, and more time with his family. I know historians are often reluctant to play “what if?” but I’ll ask it any way: how do you think history might have been different if Billy had spent more time in study, in the church, and with his family?

Noll: Right, “what if” usually tells more about the what-if-er than actual events. The main question here is how Graham balanced his various vocations. Almost all believers feel they could do better with the vocation of parenting; almost all feel they need to be better students of Scripture; and all feel that they should do more in kingdom work as well. My own sense is that most of Graham’s public activities have been positive, though it would be wrong to conclude from their positive effect that others should aspire to “be like Billy,” unless they had the same call from God.

You have written eloquently on the explosion of Christianity in the Global South. Graham famously attracted massive crowds around the world, some in places quite closed to the gospel. Is there any connection between these crusades and the growth of global Christianity?

Noll: My own sense of the spread of Christianity in the Global South is that outside influences, whether from missionaries or from visiting preachers like Graham, have usually played a crucial role—but a relatively small role. The larger story is what happens with those who, so to speak, tend the spark that the outsiders might bring in. So, yes, there is a connection between the Graham meetings and the growth of non-Western Christianity, but probably not in any direct and simple sense, and—importantly—remembering that local Christian developments are mostly the result of Christian actions by local populations.

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