An Interview with Billy Graham’s Best Biographer


The 20th century’s most influential evangelist, Billy Graham, died on the morning of February 21, 2018, at his home in Montreat, North Carolina. He was 99 years old.

William Martin is the author of the best narrative biography of Billy Graham, A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story (William Morrow, 1991), written at Billy Graham’s request, with unprecedented access, but with the promise of complete academic freedom.

In March it will be reissued by Zondervan with four new chapters, bringing Billy Graham’s life up to the present, along with with information about the ministries of his children.

Martin currently serves as the senior fellow for religion and public Policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute, which interviewed him about Billy Graham’s life and legacy.

The following is adapted from the transcript of that interview (with some additions) and posted with permission.

Why was Billy Graham so widely known and admired?

Graham, of course, achieved a great deal more than most people ever think about achieving in a lifetime. He was probably the dominant religious leader of his era; no more than one or two popes, perhaps one or two other people, could come close to what he achieved.

He was the key leader and the major spokesman of the evangelical movement during the last half of the 20th century. That movement has become one of the strongest in all of world Christianity and world religion, and he played the major role, though not the only important role, in that.

Through what means did Graham come to exercise this level of influence?

1. Crusades

He did it by his crusades, held all over the world in more than 80 countries; he preached in person to more than 80 million people and live over television to more than 200 million people. Just in itself, that was important in that it brought many people directly into Christian churches for the first time, and it plugged an even larger number back into their churches, into their Christian faith, on a much higher voltage line than they’d previously been connected to.

2. Conferences

He organized conferences that brought evangelical leaders from all over the world—people who thought they were pretty much alone—and brought them into a sense of being part of a great movement. These conferences also taught them and showed them how to cooperate with each other, so they could accomplish a great deal more.

3. Training Evangelists

Graham sponsored conferences in Amsterdam in 1983, 1986, and 2000, where his organization personally trained tens of thousands of evangelists in how to do the everyday nuts-and-bolts work of personal evangelism. And there were smaller versions of those conferences in other countries. Those are the people who will be Billy Graham’s true successors. I’ve often been asked, “Who’s going to be the next Billy Graham?” I think it’s not any one person, but these tens of thousands of preachers trained by his organization.

4. Media

Graham was one of the true pioneers in the use of radio and television, including satellite television, in ways that went beyond what we often think of as “television evangelists.” He was really quite creative in that. He founded Christianity Today magazine, which has become the flagship publication of evangelical Christianity.

5. Political

He was a friend and counselor to virtually all of the Presidents since Harry Truman, and, of course, it meant a lot to evangelicals to think, This is our man, and our man is welcome in the halls of power, not only in this country but in other countries as well.

6. Public Stature

He’s one of the best-known, most admired people in the world, showing up repeatedly on lists of “most admired” people in the country or the world.

You have described Graham as a statesman not only for evangelicalism and Christianity but for the United States. Can you explain?

Interestingly, he sought the association with Presidents assiduously during the late 1940s during Truman’s administration; that turned out not to be successful, an embarrassing episode that still embarrassed Billy Graham all his life. Truman thought he was a publicity seeker.

But Graham was much more successful in his association with Dwight Eisenhower and became a friend, a confidante, a golfing partner, and that’s where he met Richard Nixon . . . Throughout Eisenhower’s administration in the 1950s, when Graham would go to foreign countries to hold crusades, he would ask the White House if there were any messages that it would like for him to deliver. And he would often meet with heads of states in other countries, and when he came back he would debrief and say, “This is the situation as I see it, here are the things that would need to be understood and recognized.“

The Soviet Union and other Communist countries counted him as an enemy. They saw him as very much an anti-Communist and a spokesman of the United States, so he was barred from some places or resisted in some places because he was seen as an ambassador without portfolio.

Tell us a little bit about Graham’s complicated relationship with the Presidents and how it evolved throughout the years.

During the 1950s, Graham was certainly one of the two or three most famous religious people in the world. That was an advantage for him. It spoke well of evangelicals for their major spokesman to be walking in the halls of power in this country and in other places. And it didn’t hurt the President. For the President, whether it was Eisenhower or Johnson or Nixon or Reagan or Clinton or the Bushes, for the President to be a friend of Billy Graham’s meant that people could look and say, “That man must be a good man, perhaps even a Christian man; therefore, since he is a friend of Billy Graham’s, his policies must be good policies, perhaps even Christian policies.“

So Billy Graham gave as good as he got in those exchanges, and sometimes, of course, he was manipulated, particularly with his relationship with Richard Nixon. And he came to recognize that. After Watergate, he understood that he had been used to support Nixon and Nixon’s policies when they were really more interested in his support than his love. And when the conservative Christians became involved in politics in the latter part of the 1970s, he cautioned against getting involved in what came to be called the Religious Right, or the Christian Right. He said, “My friends, it’s easy to get manipulated. They have information you don’t, and you can be used in significant ways that will come back to embarrass you,” as it had embarrassed him.

So after that, he played mainly a friendship role in dealing with the Presidents. He had been a friend of Ronald Reagan’s for a long time and he visited the White House many times during Reagan’s administration, but he said, “We never talked about politics. He really just wanted to talk about the old days in Hollywood.“

And he was a longtime friend, long before they were involved in politics, of both the senior and junior Bushes.

In doing my interviews with him, what I typically did was read and go through things and look at films and all of that and then go and spend two or three days with him asking questions, partly because at the time he was still active, and it was just difficult to fit into his schedule, even though he made time for me when I needed it. But I saved his relationships with the Presidents to last because I knew that would be touchy and difficult, and there were some people in the organization who thought I should not have included that material, but of course there was no choice about that. We talked about Nixon particularly and Watergate and how he had been misled. I had found memos, talking points, and other things in Nixon’s archives that Graham was not aware existed. What they were saying is, “We’ve got to work on Billy Graham and here’s what we need to get him to do and the questions we need to ask”—essentially, “Here’s the way we’re using Billy Graham.” Charles Colson told me, “Well of course we used him; that’s what we did with people.” And John Erlichman and H. R. Haldeman talked to me about that. And Graham said, “I couldn’t believe some of those memos that you showed me until I saw them,” including some of the things that he had said. And he put his arms back on the couch and he said, “I knew what I had said to the President, and I knew what he’d said to me, but when I read all those memos that had been circulating in the background, I felt like a sheep led to the slaughter.” It was a moment when I felt like I had presented him with materials that had pained him—deeply. And instead of denying it, he was absorbing the force of it. I don’t have a moment that sticks with me any more clearly than that one.

How did Graham seek to avoid scandal?

In 1948, he was in an early revival in Modesto, California, with some friends who later worked with him for decades. He said, “Boys, it looks like God has something special planned for us. I want you to go back to your rooms and write down on pieces of paper, ‘What are the problems that evangelists have faced over the years that have brought their ministries to shipwreck?‘” They were gone a while, and when they came back, their lists were pretty similar: sex, money, misrepresenting their statistics, and criticizing local preachers—coming in and skinning the local preachers to make themselves look good. And they decided, in what came to be called the Modesto Manifesto, that they wouldn’t do that any longer.

So the policy of Graham and his organization was always that a man should not ride in a car, have a meal in a restaurant, or be in an office with the door closed with a woman other than his wife at any time, and they really stuck by that. In fact, later on he had a companion who would always go into his hotel room before he entered to make sure that no woman was in there, in part because in Paris a photographer had planted a woman in a room and was going to sneak in, pop out, and take a picture of them.

They also determined to be open and transparent about the money they received; and not long after that, he put himself on a salary rather than depending on what were called Love Offerings, a collection that would actually have brought in a great deal more money to him.

As for statistics, instead of “evangelistically speaking” (some evangelists counted arms and legs instead of heads), they always took the official count of the local police department, or whoever was doing that.

Last, they vowed always to try to cooperate with and boost the local churches rather than to criticize them.

So early on, they said, “Here are the problems we could face. Let’s put hedges around ourselves to protect ourselves from these things.” And they really stuck by that over the decades.

What would you identify as the highlights of Billy Graham’s career?

1. London [March 1–May 12, 1954]

In 1954 Graham held a long crusade in London at Harringay Arena. If you talk to people in the organization, they all will say that Harringay was a crucial time. Not only was it successful for the people there, but it filled the stadium, the arena, so much that they branched out by having landline relays; that is, by broadcasting directly over telephone lines to theaters and churches and other places. By the time the crusade was over, that was being done in hundreds of locations in a number of cities throughout Great Britain. That grew continually, especially with the rise of satellite television, so that in 1995 Billy Graham preached from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to 185 countries and an audience estimated to be 1 billion people hearing him live. And really, those extended meetings started with Harringay.

3. Christianity Today [October 1956]

4. New York City [May 15–September 1, 1957]

His greatest legacy may be one that will be impossible to measure, in the tens of thousands of itinerant evangelists that his organization trained. I don’t think any single person will be the next Billy Graham, in part because evangelical Christianity has become, in significant measure because of what Graham did, so large and diverse and multi-faceted that no one person can dominate it, regardless of talent or dedication. It’s just not going to happen. There are too many parts of it to say, “Let’s look to this one person.” But there’ll be all of these thousands of people who will become, as they say, “little Billy Grahams.” And he has said to them, in the conferences at Amsterdam, “You are my successors.” It’s important to remember that Billy Graham is not an office in the Christian church that has to be filled, like pope or bishop. There will be people carrying on the work inspired by him. And that’s what’s important. I think Billy Graham will be remembered as a person of integrity and, in the words of scripture, “a workman who needeth not to be ashamed.“

Your work has you interact with university students around the country. How much awareness do they have of Billy Graham—one of the most influential and famous men of the late 20th century—both in terms of who he is and what he did?

I have been surprised at the broad lack of awareness of who Billy Graham is. Even 10 years ago, more than half of my students did not recognize his name. Awareness of his life and significance is greater among evangelical young people, of course, but unless they happened to attend one of his last round of stadium crusades, even they may have little appreciation for his vital role in the expansion and vitality of evangelical Christianity around the world. Fame is fleeting.


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