President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan greet Billy Graham at the National Prayer Breakfast held at the Washington Hilton Hotel on February 5, 1981. (Photo Credit: White House Photo Office)

Billy Graham 1918-2018

on February 21, 2018

Evangelist Billy Graham, who died today at age 99, was one of the great figures of the last century, of America and the history of Christianity. He preached to millions globally, helped make Evangelicalism America’s largest religious group, and knew every USA president since Truman. Indeed, he knew almost every major world leader and celebrity of the last 70 years. An episode of the recent Netflix series The Crown focused on his 1950s visits to Queen Elizabeth. He’s the only major character from that series, except for the royals themselves, who was still alive at its broadcast, highlighting his incredible longevity.

Graham of course was deservedly much admired and loved as evangelist and humanitarian. But he had his controversies. Among them was his closeness to Richard Nixon, which included a taped White House conversation in which the two men disparaged Jewish influence. Decades later upon its revelation Graham, who always worked for strong interfaith relations, apologized profusely.

In the early 1980s my organization, the IRD, then freshly founded to rebut Mainline Protestant support for anti-democratic Marxist revolutionary causes, critiqued Graham for going to Moscow and praising the Soviet Union’s supposed religious liberty. Here’s a May 13, 1982, New York Times quote:

Another critic of the evangelist’s comments was Dr. Edmund Robb, a Methodist clergyman who heads the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

”I am more than a little perplexed,” said Dr. Robb, who considers himself a friend of Mr. Graham. ”His statement that he has not seen any evidence of religious persecution is just not believable. We all know of the plight of religious dissenters who are in prison this very day.”

The Methodist minister was also disturbed about comments Mr. Graham made in a sermon in Moscow when he said Soviet believers should obey the laws of their Government.

”I think it is presumptious for an American living in a free society to go to a totalitarian society and exhort those people to respect their government and obey the laws,” Dr. Robb said.

He said the evangelist might have misinterpreted Chapter 13 of the Book of Romans in the New Testament, where Christians are told to obey secular authorities.

I Saw Your Sons at War: The Korean Diary of Billy Graham
Billy Graham shared his experience visiting soldiers during the Korean War in his book, “I Saw Your Sons at War: The Korean Diary of Billy Graham” published in 1953.

The IRD also criticized Graham’s similarly uncritical visits to North Korea in the 1990s in which he schmoozed with then dictator Kim Il Sung as he had with Soviet chieftains. A few years ago I visited the Billy Graham Museum in Charlotte and was a little startled by the large display celebrating Graham’s friendship with Kim.

Graham, who was a fierce critic of communism in the 1950s, justified these friendly visits and others to Communist bloc countries as means for delivering the Gospel to audiences who may not otherwise have the opportunity. If a church in Pyongyang or Moscow was full of stooges for the regime, then maybe the Holy Spirit would convert them with his preaching, he reasoned. Graham recounted that even as the Reagan Administration publicly was alarmed by his Moscow trips, his friend President Reagan privately wished him success.

Now in heaven, Graham hopefully has meet some souls converted by his preaching in imprisoned societies. Was reaching them worth praising or at least minimizing the crimes of their tormentors? God is the judge. Perhaps those trips were his calling, just as others were called to public witness against those murderous regimes.

His controversies aside, Graham was exceptional for not compromising Gospel essentials in his proclamation while befriending countless nonbelievers who were impressed by the sincerity of his service to God and humanity. He never claimed to be more than he was, not a towering intellectual, but a rural North Carolinian dairy farmer’s son summoned to preach. His gifts were courage, magnetism, savvy, perseverance, energy and, above all, faith. May the fruits of his labors be blessed for many more generations.

  1. Comment by Jason on February 21, 2018 at 11:03 am

    “Was reaching them worth praising or at least minimizing the crimes of their tormentors?”

    So we should just sit by and let people go to eternity in hell because their country’s leaders are slime? Because you have to be nice to them to take the saving message of Christ to their people?

    I’m really disappointed in you Mark. I would think you would want Christians to use every tool at our disposal to take Jesus to every single person on the planet.

  2. Comment by Jim on February 21, 2018 at 3:42 pm

    Jason, too harsh! Mark is asking a question, not delivering a judgement.

  3. Comment by Scott on February 21, 2018 at 3:57 pm

    I, too, thought this eulogy was disappointing. I don’t understand why Mr. Tooley felt it necessary to underscore Rev. Graham’s alleged “warts” when the evangelist led so many to Christ and built so many bridges between Protestants and Catholics. I found the eulogy on Patheos by Fr. Longenecker to be much more fitting than this one.

  4. Comment by Mike Smith on February 21, 2018 at 8:51 pm

    The irony of questioning Dr. Graham’s judgment on preaching the gospel in Communist countries surely can’t be lost on someone whose judgment must be questioned for writing such a thoughtless article.
    Was winning someone to Christ worth it? God forgive us for even entertaining the thought! Remember Wesley’s charge? You have nothing to do but save souls. I’m certain Fr. John would’ve seen the Baptist preacher’s efforts as worth it. As do I.
    As an evangelical United Methodist pastor concerned for the future of our denomination, it doesn’t fill me with hope for a good outcome when even our leading conservative voices think they’re leading by doing something like this.

  5. Comment by Lester Hemphill on February 24, 2018 at 7:21 am

    Billy Graham was human and not infallible.

  6. Comment by Lester Hemphill on February 24, 2018 at 7:29 am

    You say that Billy Graham knew every USA president since Truman? Does that include Donald Trump?
    Many people think that he is the antiChrist.

  7. Comment by Jason on February 26, 2018 at 9:34 am

    As they did with Barack Hussein Obama & Slick Willie Clinton.

  8. Comment by Look4truth on February 26, 2018 at 10:19 am

    If you were a bit observant, I think you would easily identify a few more deserving candidates.

  9. Comment by Ted R. Weiland on February 24, 2018 at 8:57 am

    How tragic that Graham substituted the biblical plan of salvation with the man-made sinner’s prayer (asking or accepting Jesus into your heart), found nowhere in the Bible.

    “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you–unless indeed you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 13:5)

    Listen to audio series “I Had a Dream: Judgment’s Coming. Are You Under the Blood?,” beginning at

  10. Comment by Wayne Worsham on February 26, 2018 at 9:42 pm

    Ted, actually you are correct on the sinners prayer. The normal Christian birth is repent, believe, be baptized, receive the Holy Spirit (see David Pawson). Getting those out of order does NOT mean you are not born again but it does cause you to not be running on “all cylinders” when things get rough. Never the less, I would consider Billy Graham one of the greatest since the Apostle Paul.

  11. Comment by Donald on February 24, 2018 at 9:32 am

    The above responses to the editorial illustrate the reasons why so many Americans are turned off by the evangelical movement. Dr. Graham had an incredibly fruitful ministry and our nation and national churches most likely stand under God’s judgment for the way we have squandered the fruits of his ministry: emptying congregations, sewers of filth entering our homes, untold millions murdered by “doctors” performing abortions, a national media which embodies the croaking frogs foretold in the Apocalypse, once-faithful seminaries now promulgating pablum (add your own insights here).
    To me, the death of Dr. Graham has caused me to once again ask myself this question: what have I done with the gifts and grace Christ has given ME. All other questions about the ministry of others and about his ministry should be left to the providence of the Almighty.

  12. Comment by Rebecca on February 24, 2018 at 10:40 pm

    The problem is, was his ministry as fruitful as it seemed? Did meeting with soviets help or harm the Christians in Russia at the time? Obviously, he did great work, but I for one never watched him preach a single time, and I’ve never read any of his books. I think he did a great job with Franklin Graham, and love the work of Samaritan’s Purse.

  13. Comment by Donald on February 25, 2018 at 3:16 am

    You cannot prove this assertion either way, so it is an example of chasing the wind. I would point to the revival of the Christian churches in Russia through denominations such as the Methodists and Baptists as well as the independent Pentecostals and also the Orthodox Church as indicators that the Holy Spirit is much more active in the renewal of the Church there than we see in our American churches. Graham’s mission likely had some impact. But for we in the 21st Century to attempt any genuine evaluation of his work is simply beyond our ability and looks much more like sour grapes than a genuine effort to reach some impossible standard of ‘truth.’

  14. Comment by Dorothea E. Schweitzer on February 24, 2018 at 4:31 pm

    Billy Graham did what he was called to do. “Love the Lord and preach the gospel.” May the same be said of us.

  15. Comment by Fr. Hans Jacobse on February 24, 2018 at 11:08 pm

    I was glad to see the criticisms reiterated because they recall the deep religious oppression that occurred, and in some place still occurring, in totalitarian regimes. That is not to say the Billy Graham’s visits to those countries did not help believers (they did), but he had a blind spot because his ill conceived statements contributed to the exoneration of the regimes in the eyes of secular fellow-travelers in the West as well as among the ignorant. It would have been better not to say anything at all.

    The man’s ministry cannot be reduced to these statements alone of course, but to deny them or to criticize those who makes them ignores history.

    Rebecca, you ask did his visit to Russia help or hurt the Christians? Mostly it helped because an outsider came in to talk about Christ. This was light and fresh air, especially for those who out of necessity believed secretly. Where it hurt was that that his statements were used to deny religious persecution was actually occurring both within and outside of the Soviet Union.

  16. Comment by Vance on February 26, 2018 at 12:29 am

    Back in the 1980s, a representative of Brother Andrew’s organization, Open Doors, told me that Billy Graham didn’t actually say there was no evidence of oppression of Christians in Communist Russia, but rather said that while he saw no evidence of it *while he was there.* In other words, the Russians made sure Rev. Graham didn’t see the truth. They controlled what he was able to see. This may or may not be true…I don’t know. But that’s what a rep of Open Doors said back then.

  17. Comment by Vance on February 26, 2018 at 12:31 am

    The above should read: “…but rather said that he saw no evidence of it *while he was there.*” (Strike the first “while.”)

  18. Comment by Donald on February 27, 2018 at 10:13 am

    For those who still want to beat up Rev. Graham with the ‘Russia visit,’ compare his simple statement with laudatory comments of individuals such as Joseph Kennedy, the editors of Time and Life magazines, the New York Times and other media outlets who lauded Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro along with Che Guevara. I’ll believe Dr. Graham before ever believing any news outlet that tries to convince me the inheritors of those ‘journalists’ are able to tell the truth about anything

  19. Comment by Karen Reid on April 5, 2018 at 11:54 am

    Billy Graham said he was welcomed everywhere; Jesus had “no place to lay His head.” Graham died and lay in state, while the world mourned; Jesus “endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2), and the world rejoiced. Billy Graham had his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but God’s Word says, “You adulterous people! Don’t you know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 2:2). And Jesus warned, “WOE TO YOU when all men speak well of you, for so they treated the FALSE PROPHETS BEFORE YOU” (Luke 6:2).

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