61: William Martin

61: William Martin

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 61 •
WILLIAM MARTIN

Senior Fellow, Religion and Public Policy, Rice University’s Baker Institute; author of A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story

In 1979, Texas Monthly published an article I wrote about Billy Graham, whom I had met briefly at a crusade in 1975. Apparently, he thought the article was compelling because in 1985 he invited me to write the story of his ministry. He sent me a note saying that it was time for someone outside his organization who had appropriate academic credentials to look at his work and assess its place in history, if any.

Over the years, the assignment turned into a full-fledged biography, which surprised me. In fact, I am still on the case, over twenty-seven years later. I spent five and a half years on the first version of the book, but I have nearly finished an updated version with four new chapters.

Billy was remarkable throughout the entire time when I was doing research for the book. He was always open. He told me to look at his organization and be critical. He gives people a lot of room to do their job. He hires people he trusts, and tells them, “Just do what you do.” He’s like a master painter who comes in and says, “Here is the easel and the frame. Now paint something really good.” Then he brags about them a lot. He never tries to take credit for what others are doing.

Billy assured me that his organization had a lot of money, and the costs of writing the book, which he expected to be significant, could be covered. I responded, “I appreciate that, but I don’t think I’ll have trouble getting a sufficient advance to write the book, and I would rather not take any money from you to do this.” He replied, “That’s great. I don’t want this to be a kept book. I want it to be your book. I don’t even have to read it.”

As part of my research for the book, I spent time with Billy and immersed myself in his organization. Shortly after I attended his eight-day crusade in Washington in the spring of 1986, I had the opportunity to be present at a ten-day International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists in Amsterdam that summer. The gathering was Billy’s long-term dream, designed to share simple, practical knowledge that he felt would help men and women go about the task that had occupied his life: helping people answer the question, “What must I do to be saved?” The event was not designed for prominent church leaders, but for everyday, mostly unknown preachers.

The conference would not have been possible without Billy Graham. His organization recruited and vetted the participants. They put it together, raised the money, and paid for it. They invited some 8,200 itinerant evangelists from 173 nations, seventy-five percent from Third World countries. Some of the participants overcame great obstacles to be there. A Sri Lankan evangelist spent forty hours dodging gunfire and bombs and picking his way around landmines as he crossed sixty miles of civil war zone on his way to the airport in Colombo. Others bore the scars of persecution inflicted by people hostile to them and the Gospel they preached. Billy said that when he met men who had gone to prison, who had been beaten and reviled for trying to do what he had been able to do with great reward and honor, “I felt like a worm.”

Those ten days of instruction and stirring messages from leading luminaries of evangelical Christianity enabled the participants to go back to their countries and preach the Gospel more effectively than ever before. Billy actually spoke only a couple of times, but his final words galvanized the conference. “You are witnesses to that light. Go preach the Good News to your nations. You are His messengers. The Glory of the Lord is upon you, for the Lord has turned our darkness into light that we may proclaim the salvation of our God through all the nations. Do the work of an evangelist.”

Billy had a realistic sense of human nature. The scandal surrounding the television evangelists, Jim and Tammy Bakker, hit the news when I was interviewing him in Asheville in 1987. Since I had written a lot about televangelists, reporters barraged me with phone calls. In between calls, Billy called unexpectedly and asked for my help in talking to the media. He explained, “You know, of course, that we made rules for our organization years ago that have protected us from much of this. However, if I say that, I sound like I’m being self-righteous, and I can’t be sure that I won’t fall sometime in the future myself.”

I conducted in-depth research on the way President Nixon’s administration used Billy Graham. I found evidence that clearly revealed their intent to manipulate him, including notes on the precise things they wanted him to say or write. He was not aware of any of this, and the information stunned him when I shared it. After our conversation, he stretched out his long arms, put his hands on the back of the couch and stated, “I knew what I had said to the President, and I knew what he had said to me, but when I saw all those memos that circulated in the background, I felt like a sheep led to the slaughter.”

Integrity was the quality that meant most to him. People would say, “You can split him all the way down, and he’s going to be the same.” Thus, when he realized that Nixon and his aides had manipulated him, he found it very difficult. It was especially hard for him to believe that Nixon himself would do this. He must have had a much more optimistic view of Nixon’s religiosity than most people who knew him.

One day, after I had spent several hours interviewing Billy and visiting with Ruth, I was being driven down a steep, icy road by a handyman who acted as caretaker for the Grahams’ property and whose wife helped Ruth with the cooking and housework. As he maneuvered the four-wheel-drive Jeep down the narrow, treacherous road, he volunteered, “You’ve been visiting with some mighty good people today. My wife and I have been knowing Mister and Miz Graham for fifteen years, and I’m telling you they are the same inside the house as they are outside.”

Everyone recognizes Billy’s humility, but he also had ambition and he sometimes experienced a tension between the two. Sometimes, he would say, “I wish I would never see my name up in lights again.” At other times, he would point out that he didn’t see enough signs announcing his mission. The dean at his college confided that Billy always wanted to do something big for God.

Billy Graham’s photographer, Russ Busby, who may have known him better than anyone, once commented that Billy’s biggest asset was his humility, but that he also had an ego like the rest of us. However, when his ego asserted itself, Russ explained, Billy always brought it back under control quickly. “Billy Graham is human, but he works on it,” Russ told me. “It takes a big ego to be a big preacher, but the difference between Billy and the others is that when God wants to speak to him, at least He can get his attention.”

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