Today’s post is from Byron R. Johnson, distinguished professor of the social sciences at Baylor University, director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, and co-author of the book The Angola Prison Seminary: Effects of Faith-Based Ministry on Identity Transformation, Desistance, and Rehabilitation (2016).
Billy Graham preached to more than 215 million people in more than 185 countries. He met with at least a dozen presidents and heads of state. Graham appeared in the top ten of Gallup’s most-admired men in the world 61 times, far more than any other person. Ronald Reagan is his closest competition, making the list 31 times. So why is the celebrated Graham going to be buried in a plywood casket built by prisoners in Louisiana? The answer helps us understand a key facet of the man’s character.
In addition to having an effect on presidents, and millions of everyday people across the world, the Graham family also had a big effect on those the Bible says should not be overlooked: prisoners. The Graham family has been connected to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a.k.a. Angola, a maximum-security prison once known as the bloodiest prison in America. Most of the prisoners at Angola are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole—meaning they will eventually die and be buried in the Angola prison cemetery.
Franklin Graham preached at Angola, and George Beverly Shea sang there. In fact, Shea sang to more than 800 prisoners at Angola in 2009. He was there to perform and to give to the prison an organ he had received from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association earlier that year for his 100th birthday. The Graham family would donate funds to help build a couple of chapels at Angola.
Graham died last Wednesday at 99 years old, and despite his fame and profound global influence, this humble religious leader will be buried in a simple plywood box built by an unlikely person. Richard Liggett, a convicted murderer, led a team of prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary that built caskets for both Graham and his wife, Ruth, who died in June 2007 at age 87.
Liggett meticulously built coffins for many fellow prisoners before dying of cancer in March 2007, nearly 31 years into his sentence. Liggett would tell then-Warden Burl Cain that of everything that ever happened in his life, the most profound thing was to build the coffins for Billy and Ruth Graham. Franklin Graham purchased the coffins after seeing them during a visit to the prison in 2005.
The plain wood coffins are made of plywood and were lined with mattress pads made from Walmart comforters covered by fabric. They are adorned with brass handles and a cross on top and are said to cost $215. According to the former warden of Angola, the Graham family also asked that all of the inmates who worked on the coffins’ construction have their names burned into the wood.
I have a particular interest in Angola, because I led a Baylor University research team in completing a rigorous five-year study of the infamous prison and the Angola Bible College that has attracted so much attention from Christian and correctional leaders over the last the two decades. The Bible College, founded in 1995, and the 29 inmate-led congregations at Angola, have played a critical role in transforming one of the most violent and corrupt prisons in America into one that has become an unlikely model for other states. At least a dozen other states have launched Bible colleges as a result of the Angola experiment.
Graham received many honors during his lifetime, including the Templeton Prize in 1982. At the award ceremony, Sir Geoffrey Howe introduced Graham and stated, “It is with the Bible that he has armed himself above all else. His characteristic refrain, ‘The Bible says . . .’ exposes both the foundation of his preaching and the explanation for his extraordinary combination of humility and authority.” The former British Cabinet member’s observations were spot on. Graham’s Angola casket is a fitting reminder of the evangelist’s connection with some of America’s most forgotten people.
The life and work of Billy Graham will be celebrated in a conference sponsored by Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, on November 6 and 7, 2018. It will feature addresses from Ed Stetzer, Grant Wacker, and Anne Blue Wills.