History, Not Progeny, Will Define Billy Graham's Legacy
Evangelist Billy Graham’s distinctive legacy encompasses a public ministry marathon spanning more than six decades. And the lion still has a roar, with a forthcoming new book, which chronicles the emotional and spiritual preparations necessary for aging well, based on his personal experience, to make the later years the most fulfilling season of life.
It has been said the world will not see another like Billy Graham in our lifetimes. In fact, his influence has been so broad and his impact so far-reaching we won’t know, this side of heaven, the extent of his legacy, no matter how clearly defined. Media reports through the years have portrayed him as a man of consistent conscience, compassion, and peace, who never veered from his calling to faithfully preach the Gospel.
If an individual’s reputation involves how he or she is perceived today, legacy is a reflection of how that person will be viewed generations from now. Legacies stand the test of time for select persons, like Graham, who have made a significant impact on their era or culture. They only have meaning when considered in a redemptive-historical context of concurrently operative spiritual, political, and cultural forces, and how that individual influenced behavior, opinion, or history.
Consider: Graham has been called “Pastor to Presidents," “America’s Pastor,” and “God’s Ambassador to the World,” and was a media statesman who made the Gospel message relevant during a time when our nation found faith after WW2, lost its conviction, and is now regaining and rediscovering faith again. He has preached the Gospel to more than 215 million people in live audiences in 185 countries—more than anyone in history—and countless millions more by television, radio, and the Internet. He was a churchman who defined and gave credibility to the Evangelical movement and had a seminal influence or involvement in founding more than 30 ministry organizations.
Among other accomplishments, he also sponsored several international world evangelism congresses, passing the baton to future generations.
In addition, Graham modeled spiritual, moral, and financial integrity. He provided leadership influence by example in racial/denominational reconciliation and civil rights, and pioneered ministry behind the Iron Curtain, in the former Soviet Union, China, and North Korea. He also facilitated rapprochement between Christians and Jews; Catholics and Protestants; Fundamentalists and Evangelicals, and was an influencer of influencers on the world stage, including presidents and world leaders. He made more consecutive appearances on the Gallup and other “Most Admired Men” polls than any other individual, and much more.
Last week, the 92-year-old evangelist laid in an Asheville, North Carolina, hospital bed, recovering from pneumonia, as the May 23 edition of Newsweek was put to bed, and was discharged the day the Web edition was posted. Thankfully, Graham was never in any distress from the congestion that quickly cleared from his immediate response to antibiotics.
To opine that raham’s legacy is dependent on the next generation's choices would be like codifying actor Martin Sheen’s career by writing a story about the latest attempts at “winning” by his son, Charlie.
But one would have never gotten that impression from reading a feature article (http://bit.ly/ldB7YE) in that issue, timed to Graham’s well-publicized illness and recovery. That story was as premature in its contextualization as it was counterintuitive to the universal outpouring of genuine concern and positive coverage from media outlets across the country and around the world.
Contrary to the implications of the misleading headline, “The Fight Over Billy Graham’s Legacy,” the story never connects the dots to any such legacy. It focuses instead on the evangelist’s progeny, with an anecdotal narrative about sibling rivalry among his offspring—pre-occupied with perceptions of their shortcomings, while completely ignoring their collective contributions and accomplishments.
Few, if any, families—whether House of Windsor or the Smiths in Arkansas—could bear up to media scrutiny without revealing similar struggles. But the individuals whom Newsweek described as “child,” “children,” and “kids,” are now mature adults, aged 53 to 66. Their father is not responsible for decisions they make as adults.
Graham is grateful that all five of his sons and daughters have gone into full-time ministry, though not in a comparative or competitive manner. Each is involved in a niche venture that reflects a unique personality and calling. Every member of the Graham clan has lived the redemptive Gospel that they preach, and represents the truth that God is a God of second chances.
It is true that Graham’s family will carry his name to future generations. But neither his heirs, nor the evangelist himself, will dictate how, or for what, he is remembered—or even get to vote. To opine that Graham’s legacy is dependent on the next generation's choices would be like codifying actor Martin Sheen’s career while he is hospitalized by writing a story about the meltdown tour or latest attempts at “winning” by his son, Charlie. One has to look at the father’s entire body of work.
Ultimately, Graham’s legacy will be defined by historians and scholars, reflected for future generations in the complete, compelling story of God’s providence and calling on him. His faithfulness to that call resulted in a consistent influence that transformed lives and made an unprecedented impact on the world stage over nearly seven decades. In actual fact, however, the evangelist has traveled lightly during a lifetime spent deflecting any accolades and attention to the One he serves, and will eventually be buried next to his wife Ruth in a simple pine box, crafted by Angola Prison inmates.
In an era where confidence in institutions is crumbling, and even religious organizations are being scrutinized, Graham stands as an example of how to finish well. Unfortunately, a narrative about positive contributions to the common good by Graham or his family was not part of the hypothesis, nor the thesis, for the Newsweek story.
A. Larry Ross has served as media representative and spokesperson for evangelist Billy Graham for the past 30 years. He is president of A. Larry Ross Communications, which provides cross-over media liaison emanating from or targeted to the Christian market, with a mission to “restore faith in media,” by providing Christian messages' relevance and meaning in mainstream media.