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Billy Graham: Locating the Legacy of America’s Pastor

“Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation” is the subtitle of the book, “America’s Pastor,” an acclaimed sort-of-biography by acclaim-worthy Duke University historian Grant Wacker.

Wacker discussed recently his book at the Cushwa Center of the University of Notre Dame with a crowded hall full of historians of American Christianity who have been invited to enjoy the hospitality of that center for now three decades.

Wacker’s book was critiqued by Richard Bushman, expert on Mormonism and much more, and Christian Smith, a sociologist who strains beyond the disciplinary confines of his field.

Both were laudatory, and, after three hours of my note-taking, I find that I (almost) never heard a disparaging word, though questions were apt and expertly handled by the panel of three.

Some seasons ago, we historians enjoyed a dry run or preview of the book at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois, the evangelist’s alma mater.

There and then, many participants talked about how their students, even at evangelical-rooted colleges (including Wheaton), have a hard time locating and relating to much of Grahamism.

Graham, now far into his 90s and afflicted by Parkinson’s disease, cannot participate in book-related events, but, humble though he is – according to all accounts which were heard at Notre Dame – he could take justifiable pride in the record of his achievements as “America’s Pastor.”

This is not a review of the rich, 400-paged, hyper-indexed Wacker book, but an attempt in a brief space to locate him.

The author is by no means uncritical, but he did not need to blame or praise Graham, whose stature and record among America’s religious leaders have been much appraised and appreciated.

The more critical assessments from early in the evangelist’s career are remembered but are not focal or newsworthy any more.

Wacker told us of letters to Graham in his prime, delivered weekly by the semi-truck full, or when Madison Square Garden was overflowing nightly during the 1957 “Crusade.”

Certainly no other Christian figure has been heard by as many people and potential converts as has Graham, who led rallies in 90 nations.

The friend of U.S. presidents, the intentionally nonpolitical preacher was inevitably drawn into politics, and is remembered there for a mixed record, for example, in the “social justice” areas.

Now how would I frame him? More and more, I would locate his years as one episode in the long career of episodic American religious phenomena.

At Notre Dame no one could come up with the name of a true potential successor, and most agreed that his legacy is mixed. But they also saw Graham as a leader in a revival that came and went.

In its peak years, foes and friends alike planned strategies in light of where Grahamism might go.

Some thought his version of Christian gathering and activity was becoming and would remain normative. But that was in the 1950s, and the episode was replaced during the fabled 1960s and ever since.

As implied here, Graham once belonged to the public, but now he belongs to the historians and sociologists.

That should surprise no one and does not detract from his legacy. It merely shows that the moment and movement that he enjoyed and fashioned, or which in many ways fashioned him, is now past, thanks to cultural shifts.

Several commentators, led by Wacker, stressed that changes in family structure and ethos during and after the 1960s helped form our current “episode” with its declining religious participation and favor, and with its polarization in theology, politics and practice.

All of these changes make it hard to conceive of any forthcoming “America’s Pastor” or a flock for one.

That does not mean that religion as such will fade, and its record will only show “decline.”

But it calls for new assessments, strategies and for the religious, new resourcing in the reservoirs of hope – which, in his “episode” – Graham drew upon and, remarkably, fed.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. A version of this article first appeared on Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and is used with permission. You can follow Sightings on Twitter @DivSightings.