45: Nathan Hatch

45: Nathan Hatch

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 45 •
NATHAN HATCH

Author, historian, president of Wake Forest University and former Provost of University of Notre Dame

I’ve known Billy Graham since I was a child because my father and mother grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina and were part of the same circle of young people in which he grew up. My father was a Presbyterian minister and I went to Billy Graham meetings as a boy and as a teenager. I know Leighton Ford, his brother-in-law, and Jean, one of his sisters, well. I was always deeply aware of what he was doing and followed his career intently, even more so after I became a historian focusing on the history of American religion.

So I have a personal connection as well as a more academic connection to Billy Graham. It goes without saying that Billy Graham was a huge phenomenon in the second half of the twentieth century. I put him in the same category as another important figure, Father Theodore “Ted” Hesburgh, a Catholic priest who is of the same generation as Dr. Graham and was president of the University of Notre Dame for thirty-five years. Like Billy Graham, he was also a counselor to presidents. Since I was privileged to work at the University of Notre Dame for thirty years, as both a professor and provost, I came to know Father Hesburgh very well. Both he and Dr. Graham are towering figures. Above all they are men of deep faith and generosity, unfailingly gracious to others, who see the best in people and live out their Christian faith in ways that are magnanimous and deeply appealing. Although one is in the Protestant evangelical world and the other in the Roman Catholic world, they have many similarities in their deep sense of calling, their deep compassion for people, and their ability to relate to people.

In a world where religion often takes a strident tone and can be at the heart of the culture wars, Billy Graham stands out in focusing on what is absolutely essential in terms of the love of God for humanity and how people can live lives of faith in the most meaningful way.

I think of him as a deeply generous person, and if there’s anything else that characterizes his life, it’s his deep integrity. Obviously, an organization as large as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has huge financial capacity, and yet Billy Graham never enriched himself. He lived on a salary and was scrupulous about everything he did, and that’s in marked contrast to many evangelists. I think the generosity and the integrity of Billy Graham are absolutely striking.

Both Dr. Graham, a minister, and Father Hesburgh, a priest, are authentic witnesses to the love of God in Christ. What is so special about them is that there is no dissonance between what they speak about and how they live. What they believe is exemplified in how they live their lives and how they treat people. Their very lives draw people to their message. The closer you are to these two men, the more you admire them. Some leaders may be great leaders and get a lot done, but as you get closer you think, I’m not sure I like all of that. But in the case of Dr. Graham and Father Hesburgh, their lives and their messages are in harmony.

Billy Graham was a constant learner. There was a maturing over the years, particularly as he traveled abroad and listened and dealt with other cultures. In his youth there probably was a sharper tone in certain ways, but that was in the Cold War era, when Soviet communism was seen as a serious challenge to Christianity. His thinking on global issues such as the dangers of nuclear weapons and the benefits of arms-control agreements evolved over time. He came from a fundamentalist evangelical background but became a world Christian who engaged mainline Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox — any variety of Christian. He was able to see the world with that wide view and probably spoke to more people about Christianity than anyone in history.

Billy Graham always gave himself unrelentingly to the service of people, and he was not corrupted by power and acclaim. He refused to get sidetracked by things he thought were peripheral, and he saw himself as an evangelist of the Gospel. He was bringing good news, and he just stayed to that task. He has been a leader of extraordinary power and vision.

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