For a few decades the most prominent leader within the religious movement known as “evangelicalism” has been evangelist Billy Graham. He is well known for his large evangelistic crusades that draw thousands of people. Billy Graham is a religious celebrity, and he is revered by millions of evangelical Christians around the world. Indeed, some evangelicals attribute their conversion to Christianity to the ministry of Rev. Graham.
Evangelism is an important Biblical task, of course, and successful evangelistic campaigns, where people turn to Jesus Christ for salvation, are causes for praise to God. In this respect it is natural that many Christians would hold Graham in high esteem. Nevertheless, Reformed Christians are not able to support Graham’s ministry. Billy Graham is an Arminian and a Baptist, and these are obvious doctrinal defects from a Reformed (i.e., completely Biblical) perspective. Even beyond this, however, the history and practices of Billy Graham should raise the alarm for any conservative Protestant.
Increasingly Less Conservative
To put the matter succinctly, the history of Billy Graham’s career has been one of moving away from the truth toward compromise and error. It does not seem that many people are aware of this fact, but it raises important questions about his priorities. Brad Gsell, an elder in the Bible Presbyterian Church, raises these concerns in a short book entitled The Legacy of Billy Graham: The Accommodation of Truth to Error in the Evangelical Church (Fundamental Presbyterian Publications, 1998). In short, Gsell states that “[t]he tragic flaw of Billy Graham is that he has increasingly through the years accommodated error in order to gain greater influence” (p. 49).
In his early years Graham was a member of a very conservative Presbyterian church. “Graham’s parents were Presbyterians. Although Graham later became a Southern Baptist, the Graham family appears on the charter membership roll of the Bible Presbyterian Church of Charlotte and his father was an elder in the church” (p. 9). In the late 1930s Graham attended the very conservative Bob Jones College (now Bob Jones University, or BJU). By the late 1940s he was conducting large evangelistic crusades and was strongly supported by fundamentalist (the most conservative evangelical) churches. BJU even conferred an honorary doctorate upon him.
Directing Converts to the Pope
However, Graham began to change in the 1950s. As he became increasingly successful and popular, he began working with theological liberals (and later the Roman Catholic Church) in his evangelistic activities. “By the mid-1950s Graham’s decision to accommodate the world and the apostate religious leaders and to forsake his former sound Biblical position was firmly established” (p. 11). As a result, many of the fundamentalists withdrew their support for his ministry.
By the late 1950s Graham was working closely with Bible-denying liberal churchmen in some of his crusades. Prominent heretics, like Episcopal Bishop James Pike, were active participants in Graham crusades by the 1960s. Numerous clergymen affiliated with the National Council of Churches (NCC) and the World Council of Churches (WCC) were involved with Graham’s ministry. “The NCC and WCC are comprised of Modernistic churches and have long promoted radical religious and political causes. Graham initially denounced these organizations, but he has long since dropped his opposition” (p. 20). Indeed, he has even attended WCC assemblies and praised their work.
By the late 1970s Roman Catholic churches were also participating in Graham’s crusades. Roman Catholics who responded to Graham’s evangelistic appeal were then directed back to Roman Catholic churches. Does this really matter? “If Billy Graham is right in his present position and policies, then Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox and a host of other heroes of the faith were wrong” (p. 30).
Aside from his accommodation of theologically liberal heretics and the Roman Catholic Church, Graham was also willing to pander to the brutal Communist rulers of the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. During a “1982 visit to the Soviet Union, Graham outraged people everywhere when he attempted to downplay the persecution of believers in the Soviet Union” (p. 46). That country contained official, state-sanctioned (and thus pro-Communist) churches as well as underground churches of genuine believers who were persecuted by the Communist government. Graham publicly identified himself with the former, much to the chagrin of the persecuted Christians. “The Soviets wasted little time in using Graham’s visit for major propaganda purposes” (p. 46).
There are others, besides Gsell, who have warned about Graham’s drift toward error. Presbyterian minister Iain Murray, in his book Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000 (Banner of Truth Trust, 2000), includes two chapters describing Graham’s influence on evangelicalism, and demonstrating his move from a more conservative stance to a willingness to embrace proponents of error and heresy. In Murray’s words, by the 1980s Graham “had come to accept the primary idea of ecumenism that there is a shared experience of salvation in Christ which makes all differences of belief a very secondary matter” (p. 69). Murray also points out that two prominent evangelical leaders (both Calvinists, by the way), Martyn Lloyd-Jones from Britain and Francis Schaeffer from the USA, expressed their concerns to Graham about his drift. But their concerns were ignored (pp. 75–77).
Gsell sums up the situation this way: “Billy Graham, a man with great gifts and abilities, changed his position in the mid-1950s from one of unswerving obedience to Scripture no matter what the cost, to one of accommodation. This was done in order to gain wider influence and respectability both in the world and in the church” (p. 60). Graham started out in a conservative Presbyterian church, then became a very conservative Baptist, then a wishy-washy Baptist. The direction is from a position of more truth toward a position of less truth.
All of us are sinners, of course. But a lifetime of drifting further and further away from Biblical doctrine is grievous, especially for a prominent Christian leader. Because he is a popular leader, others have been willing to follow his example and downplay the significance of doctrinal truth. There are clearly numerous reasons for the current sorry state of Christianity, but “considering the influence Dr. Graham has exerted, it is not unfair to say that his accommodation of truth to error has played an unparalleled part in the confusion and error seen in the evangelical church of our day” (p. 61).
Billy Graham is a very successful and popular Christian leader. But success and popularity are not to be the standard for Christians. God’s Word, the Bible, is the standard, and by this standard Graham falls far short. It’s great that some people have turned to Christ through his ministry, but his Arminianism and other errors mark him as one who cannot receive support from Reformed Christians.
- Michael Wagner
Michael Wagner is a home schooling father, an independent researcher and writer, and the author of Christian Citizenship Guide: Christianity and Canadian Political Life. He has a PhD in Political Science from the University of Alberta and lives in Edmonton with his wife and eleven children.