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Viewpoint: Mourning the death of Billy Graham, evangelist

By Clay Oglesbee, Red Wing

Billy Graham died on Wednesday, Feb. 21. He lived to be 99 years old—to such an age that many persons no longer recognize, if they ever knew, the significance and scope of his evangelistic ministries all over the world during the last half of the 20th century.

The opening words of his Wikipedia entry capture the little bit the general public knows about him: "William (Billy) Franklin Graham Jr. (November 7, 1918 — February 21, 2018) was an American evangelical and an ordained Southern Baptist minister who became well known internationally ..."

There was much more to Reverend Graham than that.

Here in Minnesota, he expanded Northwestern College and began to conduct revivals at that time. He launched KTIS and based the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Minneapolis until 2003.

His revivals evangelized over 200 million people in about 185 countries; he brought millions of people to some degree of faith-renewal, or conversion, to Jesus Christ. He was an evangelistic innovator who used revivals and mass rallies, as well as radio and television technologies, to reach a wider and wider public, one that ultimately became global.

His evangelistic work made him a sought-after counselor and companion to national and international leaders. He became a confidante to American presidents from Truman to Obama. He was also a personal friend and frequent supporter to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in part because Graham often conducted integrated revivals in southern states during a time of adamant segregation.

Graham's politics were largely conservative, yet he moderated his views at times by willingness to open himself to the implications of the gospel, and by conversation and prayer with a wide array of persons and leaders. While he adopted many "conservative" opinions, for example, on the equality and rights of women, or full inclusion of LGBTQ persons, he also took risks more typically described as "liberal" for causes like racial integration and limiting the nuclear arms race.

Graham was an independent evangelical, made so by his understanding of the full impact of the gospel. He refused to join Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, saying, "I'm for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice."

Called at one time, "the Patriarch of American Protestant Pastors," he said of public and personal Christian witness, "Our greatest contribution to world peace is to live with Christ every day."

Graham was also a person who grew in his understanding of Christian evangelism. While he had his limits with regard to social ministry, and though his courage sometimes failed him when it came to racial justice, he stood with other evangelicals at Lausanne, Switzerland in 1974 when they wrote: Because men and women are made in the image of God, every person, regardless of race, religion, colour, culture, class, sex or age, has an intrinsic dignity because of which he or she should be respected and served, not exploited. Here too we express penitence both for our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive.

You might be wondering what Billy Graham's evangelistic and social outreach ministries would have been like had he been a young evangelist today, during these early years of the extremisms of our globally-aware 21st century. There are some clues.

First, of course, he was always about offering salvation or redemption for every human soul. He knew that God always loved every person and showed no partiality.

Second, we know Graham was about global evangelism, reaching out to all ethnicities and races—African, Asian, Middle-Eastern and Latin American people in his revival campaigns. He left no one out.

Third, he was also concerned with social justice and peace among all God's people. He spoke against injustice, poverty, violence and warfare. From the earliest days of his revivals, he ordinarily advocated equality, justice and opportunity for all. He opposed violence and racial hatred. It's true, he wasn't always as clear and strong on this as he might have been, but he was not silent.

Fourth, we know that he was respectful of other religions. He often defended persons of Jewish faith, and after 9/11, out of care for Muslims, he stopped calling his revivals "crusades." He did not wish to offend nor to diminish the possibilities of outreach across faiths.

Using a Christian advice column for many years, he once wrote, "God did not create the strife between races, nor did He intend for it to be that way ... . When one group or one race claims it is superior to another, pride has taken control — and pride is a sin. Instead, God wants us to learn to accept each other and love each other — and this becomes possible, as we turn our lives over to Christ and allow Him to change us."

Let each of us pray to God for the fulfillment of the resurrection hope for the Rev. Graham. May those closest to him be comforted now. "Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word." (Luke 2:29, NRSV).