Where Did the “Billy Graham Rule” Come From?

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A recent Washington Post profile of Vice President Mike Pence quoted a 2012 piece which said “he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife.”

Not surprisingly, revelation of this practice was met with a fair bit of mockery and criticism online.

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(Mollie Hemingway has a roundup of other reactions, including her own perspective.)

Since this is an Evangelical History blog, let’s trace the popularization of this “rule” and its connection with Billy Graham.

On October 24, 1948, Billy Graham begin a series of evangelistic meetings in Modesto, California—about 90 miles east of San Francisco.

Graham was a couple of weeks shy of his 30th birthday. He was with his close friends and associates, George Beverly Shea (age 39), Grady Wilson (age 29), and Cliff Barrows (age 25). They were lodging at a motel on South Ninth Street in Modesto.

GrahamBarrowsShea
Left to right, Shea, Graham, and Barrows, late 1940s.

In November, Graham initiated discussion with the men about problems they had witnessed among other evangelists, actions that had undermined the integrity of the gospel message, revealed hypocrisy, and ruined lives. Graham recounts the story in his autobiography:

One afternoon during the Modesto meetings, I called the team together to discuss the problem. Then I asked them to go to their rooms for an hour and list all the problems they could think of that evangelists and evangelism encountered.

When they returned, the lists were remarkably similar, and in a short amount of time, we made a series of resolutions or commitment among ourselves that would guide us in our future evangelistic work. In reality, it was more of an informal understanding among ourselves—a shared commitment to do all we could do to uphold the Bible’s standard of absolute integrity and purity for evangelists.

[1. Money]

The first point on our combined list was money. Nearly all evangelists at that time—including us—were supported by love offerings taken at the meetings. The temptation to wring as much money as possible out of an audience, often with strong emotional appeals, was too great for some evangelists. In addition, there was little or no accountability for finances. It was a system that was easy to abuse—and led to the charge that evangelists were in it only for the money.

I had been drawing a salary from YFC (Youth for Christ) and turning all offerings from YFC meetings over to YFC committees, but my new independent efforts in citywide campaigns required separate finances. In Modesto we determined to do all we could to avoid financial abuses and to downplay the offering and depend as much as possible on money raised by the local committee in advance.

[2. Sexual Immorality]

The second item on the list was the danger of sexual immorality. 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).

[3. Attitude Against the Local Church]

Our third concern was the tendency of many evangelists to carry on their work apart from the local church, even to criticize local pastors and churches openly and scathingly. We were convinced, however, that this was not only counterproductive but also wrong from the Bible’s standpoint. We determined to cooperate with all who would cooperate with us in the public proclamation of the Gospel, and to avoid an antichurch or anticlergy attitude.

[4. Publicity]

The fourth and final issue was publicity. The tendency among some evangelists was to exaggerate their successes or to claim higher attendance numbers than they really had. This likewise discredited evangelism and brought the whole enterprise under suspicion. It often made the press so suspicious of evangelists that they refused to take notice of their work. In Modesto we committed ourselves to integrity in our publicity and our reporting.

So much for the Modesto Manifesto, as Cliff [Barrows] called it later years. In reality, it did not mark a radical departure for us; we had always held these principles. It did, however, settle in our hearts and minds, once and for all, the determination that integrity would be the hallmark of both our lives and our ministry.

BillyGraham and Cliff Barrows praying
Barrows and Graham praying

So there it is. An unwritten “manifesto” (no document exists) informally and coincidentally named after a town that means “modesty” in Spanish. The four men covenanted together to keep these commitments for the sake of gospel integrity.

After citing the story in his careful study of Graham’s ministry, historian Grant Wacker notes:

Over the years Graham received intense media scrutiny, but hardly anyone accused him of violating any of those four principles.

The most controversial of these four commitments, of course, was their desire to avoid even the hint of sexual impropriety. This is certainly more complicated in the modern work force.

For a defense of Graham’s practice, see this thoughtful post from Samuel James.

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