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Billy Graham was the face of evangelicalism for two generations

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Image courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

Billy Graham, who died Feb. 21 at the age of 99, was the face and voice of evangelical Christianity for two generations.

He was believed to have preached to more people than anyone else — nearly 215 million in 185 nations and territories. Hundreds of millions more saw him on TV and online, heard him via radio, read his newspaper column, and saw him in movies produced by his film outfit.

Though the media varied, his message stayed the same: Give your life to Christ and become a new person.

“Jesus said it’s possible to start life all over again,” he said at his 2005 farewell crusade in New York City — his 417th, since his first in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1947. “That’s why he said you must be born again.”

Despite a few image flaps — a very few, considering his six decades in the public eye — he remained among the most admired men, as revealed by numerous Gallup polls starting in 1948.

“He stands out above other evangelists,” said sociologist William Martin of Rice University, author of the Graham biography A Prophet With Honor.

Martin called the Rev. Graham the individual most responsible for the growth of modern evangelicalism, a vigorous conservative Christianity that emphasizes Bible truths, individual salvation and spreading the message to others.

“He made evangelicals aware of being a movement of consequence,” Martin said. “He brought people together and showed them what they have in common.”

Graham seemed born to make an arresting public presence: 6-foot-2 tall, with sharp nose, square jaw, swept-back hair, intense blue eyes casting a hooded, piercing gaze.

He developed a preaching style to match: pacing a stage, clutching a leatherback Bible in one hand, pointing or chopping with the other, baritone voice booming his message. In face-to-face talks, however, he presented a humble, engaging side that often won over skeptical journalists.

Born Nov. 7, 1918, William Franklin Graham Jr. was the oldest of four children in a dairy farming family near Charlotte, N.C. He became a believer at a revival in Charlotte in 1934, a service that featured the hymn Just As I Am. He later made it a standard invitation hymn at his crusades.

Although he never styled himself an intellectual, he attended three schools: Bob Jones College in Cleveland, Tenn.; Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College) near Tampa, and Wheaton College in Illinois. At Wheaton, he earned a degree in anthropology, an unusual field for a minister. He was ordained a Southern Baptist clergyman in 1939.

Also at Wheaton, he met Ruth Bell, the daughter of a missionary to China. They married in 1943, a bond that would last nearly 64 years and produce five children. She died in 2007.

In 1945, Graham became vice president of the fledgling Youth For Christ. His boss, Torrey Johnson, later pastored what is now Boca Raton Community Church and hosted a speech by Graham there in 1981. Johnson passed away in 2002.

Under YFC, Graham held youth rallies across the U.S., Canada and Europe. Although he said God gave him success, he acknowledged it was jump-started by media magnate William Randolph Hearst.

In 1949, goes an oft-told story, Hearst was impressed by the young evangelist — and when Graham planned a three-week crusade in Los Angeles, Hearst telegrammed two words to his newspapers: “PUFF GRAHAM.” The crusade stretched more than seven weeks.

Graham won another ally during a crusade in Columbia, S.C. The audience included publisher Henry Luce, who then had articles written on him in Time and Life magazines. The evangelist formed his own Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in 1950 in Minneapolis, when he was president of Northwestern Christian Schools there.

Dubbed by many “the nation’s pastor,” Graham often stood with leaders during public tragedies. He prayed in Oklahoma City with families of victims after a terrorist bombing. He joined President Bush, plus other religious leaders, at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., to mourn the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

Graham was also there to console victims of natural disasters. He and son Franklin gave spiritual and material aid in South Florida after Hurricane Andrew. They also visited New Orleans neighborhoods destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

At first, Graham voiced a fierce conservative mindset. During the 1950s and 1960s he called communism “anti-God, anti-Christ and anti-American,” according to biographer William Martin. Starting in the 1970s, however, he mellowed and put the gospel ahead of the Cold War, speaking in communist Hungary, then the Soviet Union and China.

“Nowhere … did Christ command us to go only into the western or capitalist world,” Graham said. “Nowhere did he say to exclude the communist world.”

He pled for the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to eliminate nuclear, biochemical and laser weapons. “We should seek the good of the whole human race, and not just the good of any one nation or race,” he said, according to Martin.

Graham insisted on integrating crusade crowds, even during the segregation era. In 1953 in Chattanooga, Tenn., he personally pulled down ropes separating white from black sections. The head usher resigned in protest.

Graham preached in places shunned by other conservative Christians as bastions of evil – such as New York, where he held six crusades between 1957 and 2005. His worldwide crusade trek reached Asia, Africa, South America and Europe. The German press in 1954 called him “God’s machine gun” for his rapid-fire delivery. At a rally in 1973, he addressed 1.1 million people in Seoul.

He often took chances for the gospel, even appearing on TV shows like Laugh-In and The Tonight Show. Fundamentalist Christians sometimes accused him of compromising the message.

Some observers also saw a naivete, as in his 1982 Soviet Union visit, when he said he saw no direct evidence of repression there. He befriended every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama — although the welcome was often warmer from Republican presidents than Democrats.

The coziness bred scandal in 2002, with the airing of a taped conversation three decades earlier. The tape had Graham agreeing with President Richard Nixon that Jews had a “stranglehold” on the media and were harming America.

The revelation drew a rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League, which had given him an interfaith award in 1969. In response, Graham said he didn’t remember saying such things, then apologized, saying that prejudice “has no place in the human mind or heart.” Abraham Foxman, then-president ADL, accepted the apology.

Martin suggested that the evangelist “got too close to rulers. It was one reason he didn’t get involved in the religious right. He said it was too easy for preachers to be used by people who don’t have their best interests at heart.”

Graham helped bring a blue-suit respectability to evangelicalism, by introducing professional accounting and management standards. He and his team also vowed never to be alone with any women but their wives.

The practices helped him avoid the scandals that tarnished some Christian leaders, such as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. “Integrity means you’re the same on the inside as on the outside,” he told the National Religious Broadcasters in 1988, at the height of those scandals. “We cannot hide.”

The Charlotte Observer caused a minor flap in 1977 with news of a “secret” $23 million fund. But Graham explained that the fund supported causes like Campus Crusade and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Growing physical problems — including a pelvic fracture, macular degeneration, hearing impairment, and Parkinson’s-like tremors caused by fluid on the brain —  eventually forced the evangelist to curtail activities. In 2000 his eldest son, Franklin, took over as CEO of the Graham organization, then moved its headquarters to Charlotte, N.C., three years later.

After the final New York crusade, the elder Graham mainly worked on several books in his cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In 2006, he published The Journey, offering lessons on how to live as a Christian.

Besides Franklin, two other descendants have carried on Graham’s fervent evangelism: daughter Anne Graham Lotz, who heads a group called AnGel Ministries, and grandson William Franklin Graham IV, an associate evangelist with BGEA.

Among Billy Graham’s many awards were the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Southern Baptist Convention, of which he was a member, placed a 9-foot statue of him near its headquarters in Nashville. He was the namesake of a center for evangelism at Wheaton College, and a museum of his ministry and memorabilia in Charlotte. And the street in front of the museum was renamed Billy Graham Parkway.

Graham was even inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame ­­– the first non-musician there — because his crusades showcased the likes of Christian rockers Jars of Clay, jazz great Ethel Waters and country star Johnny Cash.

None of the accolades swayed Graham from his basic message — which he sounded in one of his last major public sermons, at a 2006 rally led by son Franklin in Baltimore.

“You’d better decide for Christ here and now, because you never know when your time is coming to leave this world,” he told more than 35,000 listeners, perhaps speaking of his own mortality as well. “Whoever you are, you come and say yes to Jesus. Let him bring his peace into your heart and give you a new start in your life.”

This report was supplemented with wire services and material from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

— Jim Davis 



Written by Jim Davis

February 23, 2018 at 2:17 am

Ash Wednesday starts the Lenten season today

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Ash Wednesday service

Lt. Donelson Thevenin, a Navy chaplain, distributes ashes on the forehead of a Marine on Ash Wednesday 2014 in the library of the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer. (Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

Boisterous Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday celebrations give way today to Ash Wednesday, the start of six weeks of Lent. The season is a period of solemnity before Good Friday, the traditional observance of Jesus’ death, which will fall on March 30 this year.

Ash Wednesday takes its name from ashes daubed on the faithful as a sign of penitence, with the traditional words, “Remember you are dust and will return to dust.”

Lent is a somber season marked by prayer, introspection and repentance. For Catholics, it also includes fasting and abstinence from meat on Fridays for those 14 years and older.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

February 14, 2018 at 1:00 pm

Holiday Almanac: Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication

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For Hanukkah, the menorah has two extra branches, for the eight days of the holiday. (Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com)

Tonight starts Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Feast of Lights. Hanukkah, whose name is Hebrew for “Dedication,” recalls the Jews’ recapture of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem from a pagan tyrant.

The founding events took place 165 years before the traditional date of Jesus’ birth, when Israel was ruled by a Greco-Syrian king named Antiochus Epiphanes. The king banned Judaism and had a pig — a ritually unclean animal — sacrificed in the Jerusalem Temple.

The Israelites finally revolted for freedom of religion, led by the five Maccabee brothers. They miraculously defeated the Greek army and set out to rededicate the Temple, but ound only one day’s supply of oil for the Great Menorah or candelabrum. In the story’s second miracle, the oil lasted for eight days, long enough to purify a new supply.

Jewish families commemorate the victory by lighting a small, eight-branched menorah at home, while singing seasonal songs such as Maoz Tzur, or “Rock of Ages.” One more candle is lighted each night, until by the last night, the whole candelabrum is ablaze.

Hanukkah also features festive foods: latkes, or potato pancakes for East European Jews; sufganiot, or doughnuts filled with jelly or chocolate for Mideastern Jews. Both are deep-fried in oil, recalling the miracle of the Temple lamp.

A more subtle holiday custom is the dreidel, a four-sided top that children play with. The sides of the dreidel have Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimel, Hay and Shin. The letters form an acrostic for a sentence: Nes gadol hayah sham, or “A great miracle happened there.”

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

December 12, 2017 at 7:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Holiday Almanac: Advent, the season of Christmas

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Advent candle and wreath, by jruppit on sxc.hu.

Advent candle and wreath, by jruppit on sxc.hu.

Today starts Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas. Advent is celebrated mainly in traditional churches, especially Episcopal, Lutheran and Roman Catholic.

The season’s central symbol, the Advent wreath, is a leafy horizontal circle with four candles, a new one lighted each Sunday. Each church lights a large wreath, and homes of the faithful often have smaller versions. Although the custom originated in western Europe, Hispanic Catholic parishes have adopted the wreath as well.

Another Advent custom is the Jesse tree, often decorated by children in church schools. It’s is named for Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot shall come out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Jesse was the father of King David, who was an ancestor of Jesus.

The Jesse tree, which doesn’t have to be a pine, is draped with homemade representations of biblical prophecies — scrolls, the Lion of Judah, seraphim, David’s harp and other symbols — believed by Christians to have foretold Jesus’ life. The tree therefore connects Christmas with centuries of scripture.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

December 3, 2017 at 10:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tongues of fire: Today is Pentecost Sunday for Christians

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Dove in a sunburst at St. Jude’s Church, Boca Raton, symbolizes the Holy Spirit. (Photo by Jim Davis)

Pentecost, the day that Christians say the Holy Spirit of God descended on the first believers, is celebrated in churches worldwide today. On this day, according to the New Testament, the apostles of Jesus saw the Spirit in the shape of “tongues of fire,” giving them power to preach and evangelize.

Taking its name from its timing, just short of 50 days after Easter Sunday, Pentecost is often called the “birthday of the church.” It’s the Christian equivalent of Shavuot, the Jewish Festival of weeks, which fell this year on Tuesday, May 30. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans celebrate Pentecost with bright red vestments and church trappings, symbolizing the flame of the Spirit.


Written by Jim Davis

June 4, 2017 at 12:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Laying down the law: Jews celebrate Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks

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Torah scroll at Beth Yaacov Synagogue, Geneva. Public domain via Wikimedia.

Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, began at sundown yesterday (May 30). Shavuot celebrates the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

The holiday is the third of the three Jewish “pilgrim festivals,” along with Passover and Sukkot, meant to recall the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt and subsequent wanderings in the Sinai desert. Shavuot follows Passover by seven weeks — a “week of weeks.”

Shavuot is actually considered a triple holiday. Besides the Sinai event, Shavuot also marks the harvesting of wheat in Israel and the ripening of the first fruit in the Holy Land. Traditional Jews decorate their homes and synagogues with plants and flowers.

Synagogues observe Shavuot also with the reading of the Ten Commandments. In addition to the regular holiday service, congregations read the biblical story of Ruth, who converted to Judaism and became the grandmother of King David. Some scholars believe David was born and died on Shavuot.

In recent years, Reform and Conservative synagogues have increasingly held confirmation ceremonies on Shavuot, as their young men and women take their place in the Jewish community.


Written by Jim Davis

May 30, 2017 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Holiday Almanac: Easter this year unites Eastern and Western Christians

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Stained-glass window

Resurrection window at Nativity Church, Hollywood, Fla.

Christians celebrate today as Easter, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter, the greatest holiday of the Christian year, ratifies for believers the claim of Jesus to be the Son of God.

As related in the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the body of Jesus was wrapped and buried in a rocky tomb near Jerusalem. Women came three days later to embalm the corpse, but found it missing. Jesus then began appearing to various groups of his followers, with the commission to “make disciples of all nations.”

Sunrise services are common Easter Sunday celebrations, especially at the public beaches of South Florida. The events are often sponsored by two or more churches, or even by whole ministerial associations.

This year, Catholics and Protestants celebrate Easter on the same day as the world’s 200 million Eastern Orthodox Christians, who reckon some holy days by the ancient Julian calendar instead of the contemporary Gregorian calendar. The two celebrations are sometimes separated by more than a month, but they coincide roughly every four years.

At most Orthodox churches, the observances start with the Resurrection Service the previous night. At midnight, the pastor carries a lighted candle in the darkened sanctuary to proclaim, “Come, receive the light from the light that is never overtaken by night …” The flame is passed on to his congregants’ candles.

Then the pastor and choir sing hymns outside the church, often leading the congregants in a procession. When they return, the church furnishings have been changed into white, for the resurrection.

The priest proclaims, “Christ is risen!”, in Greek, Russian, Arabic or other languages. The congregation then re-enters the church for the Pascha, the Easter liturgy.

Sunday worship features an Agapé service, in which the biblical story of Jesus’ resurrection is read in several languages. At the end of the service, Greek Orthodox churches bless and distribute eggs colored red, to symbolize the resurrection.


Written by Jim Davis

April 16, 2017 at 12:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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