The homegoing of William Franklin Graham spells the end of an era. Not of modern American Evangelicalism, of which he was a key architect, but of his style of mass evangelism. As an evangelist he stood in a line that went back to 18th-century preachers to mass audiences like George Whitefield and Daniel Rowland. In some ways, of all of these preachers Graham was the greatest: he was heard by far more people than any of these remarkable preachers. Between 1947 to 2005, some 214 million heard his stentorian voice proclaim the simple gospel message that Jesus Christ saves sinners. While he was not a doctrinal preacher like Whitefield—historian Grant Wacker once said Graham had but one message, namely John 3:16—his life and witness were ones of remarkable integrity and oneness of purpose.
Converted in 1934, the North Carolinian Graham went on to study at Bob Jones College, Florida Bible Institute and Wheaton College, where he met his future wife Ruth Bell (1920–2007). It was at Wheaton College that the inimitable Christian educator Henrietta Mears (1890–1963) was instrumental in helping Graham realize that the Scriptures are infallible, a recognition that was utterly bedrock to his preaching over the years to come.
In 1949, Graham was thrust into the national limelight during revival meetings in Los Angeles. The newspaper titan William Randolph Hearst had told his editors to “puff Graham,” and the evangelist was soon famous from coast to coast. His preaching in the United Kingdom during the 1950s brought a real measure of renewal to churches in that country, and his 1957 New York crusade, as he called his series of meetings, filled Madison Square Garden for an amazing sixteen weeks. The New York meetings were also significant in that they spelled a distinct change of direction in Graham’s evangelistic methodology. Contrary to Fundamentalist orthodoxy, the world that Graham had basically inhabited to that point in time, Graham was now prepared to work with a broad swathe of Protestant churches. This policy change inevitably led to fierce criticism from those who would describe themselves as Fundamentalists.
Although this decision to broaden his ecclesial base of support was controversial, Graham never regretted it since it gave him access to far more people than would have been in the case if he had remained a Fundamentalist. His honesty and integrity also gave him access to every American president from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama, a remarkable fact given the significant differences between these twelve presidents. But Graham also never lost his down-to-earth approach to life and Christianity, which made him an enormously popular speaker around the world. In fact, there were 56 times between 1955 and 2013 that Graham was voted among the Gallup Poll’s “10 Most Admired Men in the World.” Again, though, true to his modest nature, if Graham were to have one thing remembered about him it would be this: he was saved, not because he was a great preacher, but for the simple fact that Jesus had loved him and died for his sins. And that will preach any day!