The International Billy Graham
The worldwide audience of millions that watched the funeral of Billy Graham on March 2, 2018, saw much they probably expected and perhaps a few things they did not. Among the latter might have been the participation of three individuals who were by no means famous in the UnitedStates.
Sami Dagher, who brought a tribute, is a Lebanese church planter who cooperated with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) on many occasions. Robert Cunville, who offered a prayer of thanksgiving, is from the Khasi tribe and a native of Nagaland in northeast India. Cunville coordinated Billy Graham’s preaching tour there in 1977. Rev. Billy Kim Litt.D. ’92, who offered his own memorial, was the first Asian-born president of the Baptist World Alliance; he was also Billy Graham’s translator when in 1973 the American evangelist addressed a crowd in Seoul estimated to include 1.1 or 1.2 million people (pictured above).
The presence of these three at the funeral reflected a crucial aspect of Billy Graham’s preaching career that has not received the attention it deserves.
Almost everyone knows how important Graham’s life and ministry became for proclaiming the gospel in the United States. But, considered from a wider angle, it is almost certain that an even greater and longer-lasting impact came from what he did outside of the United States.
I was privileged to hear Graham preach on a number of occasions. Yet none of these occasions left an impression anything like Jerry and Claudia Root and I received in July 1989 during a trip to Romania organized by Coach Don Church ’57 and sponsored by the Wheaton Alumni Association. It was the last summer before the dramatic, but peaceful revolutions that brought down Communism in Eastern Europe.
We had flown into Budapest, Hungary, where we then caught a train for Oradea in Transylvania. At the Second Baptist Church in Oradea, Wheaton faculty had, for several summers, been helping with the church’s extensive program of lay theological education.
But before we could get on the train in Budapest, we were amazed at seeing big posters plastered all over the Hungarian capital announcing a forthcoming preaching mission by Billy Graham. Then, when we arrived in Oradea, it was even more remarkable to see the Romanian Baptists almost literally on fire with anticipation for the chance to watch Graham preach on transmissions from Hungary’s state-owned television. In particular, they were busily arranging for ethnic Hungarians to watch with them who could provide simultaneous translation of Graham’s message (already translated from English into Hungarian) from Hungarian into Romanian.
BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN
Then we found out more interesting details. Four years earlier, Billy Graham had been allowed to preach in seven Romanian cities, including Oradea, where one of the pastors at the Second Baptist Church, Paul Negrut, had coordinated the evangelist’s visit. When Graham preached at Second Baptist, their modest-sized sanctuary was jammed to the rafters, and more than 30,000 additional listeners gathered outside the church to hear the sermon broadcast over loudspeakers.
Graham’s message featured his standard themes—the need for Christ, the blessings of salvation, the possibility of choosing now to follow Jesus—and all without obvious reference to the Communist regime or its harsh treatment of Christian believers. Yet in his public statements during the trip, he spoke positively of Romania’s rich religious heritage, and he referred generally to the importance of basic human rights. Later reports revealed that Graham also cautioned Romanian authorities against the regime’s plans to level the Second Baptist Church building in Oradea on a pretext of urban renewal.
Our Romanian Baptist hosts enjoyed some friendships with ethnic Hungarian Baptists who also lived
in Oradea. But tensions between Hungarian-speaking and Romanian-speaking groups in Transylvania had always been high. Only two years before we arrived in Oradea, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had initiated attacks on ethnic Hungarian villages, and these attacks were fueling heightened ethnic tensions nationwide during that summer of 1989.
Yet for the chance to hear Billy Graham preach on television, the Hungarians and Romanians in Oradea were cooperating to an unprecedented degree.
A second salient fact comes in a splendid essay by William Miller, one of Graham’s most reliable biographers. It is found in a book arising from a conference organized at Wheaton by Edith Blumhofer, director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (Billy Graham: American Pilgrim, ed. Andrew Finstuen, Anne Blue Wills, and Grant Wacker, from Oxford University Press, 2017). Miller’s chapter, “God’s Ambassador to the World,” includes a striking fact concerning Graham’s preaching in Hungary that summer of 1989. For his final service, about 110,000 people jammed Budapest’s largest stadium; at the invitation, 27,000 people came forward to receive Christ or reaffirm their commitment.
It was the largest proportionate response Graham ever received in his entire ministry. In Hungary. Before the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Four notable conclusions can be drawn about Billy Graham’s international activities, which are treated here in ascending importance.
MINISTRY AMID TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATION
Graham’s overseas crusades used technological innovations that gave his gospel message an ever-expanded hearing.
A 1954 London Crusade at the Harringay Arena was the first time the Graham team had used telephone lines to send the evangelist’s message to other locations. When he returned to London in 1964 for a crusade at Earl’s Court, his messages were broadcast live with closed-circuit television, another first. Two decades later in 1985, on another return visit to England, the BGEA deployed satellite technology for the first time to broadcast the evangelist’s sermons.
Evangelical Christianity in its modern form may be said to have begun with the spectacular revival tours of George Whitefield in the eighteenth century. Through the modern media, Graham was Whitefield redivivus, brought back to life.
THE NEWS MEDIA
A second regular feature of Graham’s overseas activity has received more attention than any other.
When Graham traveled on behalf of the United States government—or was perceived to be acting as an informal Ambassador Extraordinaire—the world press paid attention.
The high point of this attention came in 1982 when Graham returned from a meeting in the Soviet Union to say that he had witnessed scant religious persecution. The media fur flew, with much tut-tutting about the evangelist’s political naiveté. This occasion was probably one of the few times when Graham spoke incautiously; it probably helped him frame the more judicious remarks he made during his 1985 visit to Romania. Yet obsessive attention to this one moment can obscure how wide, and almost always productive, Graham’s informal political activities were.
A GLOBAL AMBASSADOR
A big book would be required to do this subject justice, but a few highlights stand out. As a young 34-year-old, Graham was sent by the Pentagon to visit American and allied troops fighting the Korean War. The visit brought some comfort to the soldiers, but Graham also reported that his chance to view Korean believers who had endured dislocation, impoverishment, and violent persecution affected him even more. He went as a quasi-official U.S. representative; he returned with a deeper appreciation for the suffering church worldwide.
As a regular practice, Graham often conferred with high governmental officials either before or after his overseas preaching missions. As only one example, in 1992 and 1994, the evangelist met with Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton before being allowed to preach in North Korea.
A striking example of the long-term effects of this political involvement, in fact, concerns North Korea.
Partly as a result of those Billy Graham visits, Samaritan’s Purse, directed by Franklin Graham, has been able to bring humanitarian relief into that otherwise sealed-off communist nation.
However important Billy Graham was for political history, believing observers should recognize his even greater significance for salvation history. With much less publicity, at least in the United States, than for political questions, Graham’s overseas effectiveness in more strictly Christian terms was dramatic.
Individuals who were converted, or who confirmed their faith, during his 1954 London crusade or in the Australian meetings of 1959 included many individuals who later became leaders of their churches—and churches of several denominations.
Australian historians with many connections to Wheaton College, including Mark Hutchinson and Stuart Piggin, have carried out detailed research on the effects of Graham’s 1959 crusade in their country. In a 1989 article, “Billy Graham in Australia, 1959—Was It Revival” published in volume six of Lucas: An Evangelical History Review, Piggin summarized the evidence:
- a striking leap in church attendance, church membership, and enrollment in theological seminaries;
- unprecedented publicity for a positive image of Christianity in a society that had become increasingly secular;
- and even a measurable decline in crime especially in places where the campaign had been concentrated.
When in 1973 Graham preached at the first large integrated religious event in South Africa, observers noted a similar advance in strictly Kingdom terms. In his sermon, Graham affirmed, “Christianity is not a white man’s religion.” But beyond these words, as a Zulu participant said, “Even if Billy Graham doesn’t stand up to preach, this has been enough of a testimony.” But of course he did preach, and the preaching, along with efforts to prepare for the preaching and follow-up its effects, advanced the cause of Christ.
FELLOWSHIP AND SOCIAL RENEWAL
Graham preached, his appearances stimulated Christian fellowship and provided long-lasting encouragement for believers to work together for evangelism, social renewal, and the strengthening (or the creation) of Christian organizations.
As we witnessed in Romania in 1989 with Hungarian and Romanian believers overcoming ethnic antagonism to watch television with one another, so Romania experienced on a larger scale in 1985 when Graham preached in Baptist, Orthodox, and Catholic churches, with representatives of these communions—who had almost nothing to do with each other—cooperating!
In 1972 Graham experienced a tepid welcome in Northern Ireland, but Catholics along with Protestants warmly greeted his short preaching tour in the Republic of Ireland where Catholic-Protestant conflict went back nearly, it seemed, to the dawn of time.
The number of such notable occasions could be multiplied beyond counting where Graham crusades stimulated a new sense of the body of Christ working in its divergent members for common kingdom purposes. Yet even this extraordinarily important result of Graham’s ministry cannot touch the supernally significant international gatherings that Graham helped plan, where he regularly keynoted, and that the BGEA took the lead in funding.
The World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin (1966) and the International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne (1974) were landmark events in the history of modern Protestantism that magnified East-West fellowship, prompted a vast array of regional and global cooperative initiatives, and gave evangelicals in the Majority World an influential platform for instructing their brothers and sisters from the shrinking “Christian West.”
Then at three International Congresses for Itinerant Evangelists held in Amsterdam in 1983, 1986, and 2000, Graham and his team directly stimulated cooperation, encouragement, and inspiration among men and women whose callings most closely matched the evangelist’s own. In William Miller’s estimation, the 2000 gathering assembled “representatives of more countries around the world than any event, religious or secular, in the history of the world.”
In all likelihood, no single evangelist—whether from Lebanon, Nagaland, Korea, or the far reaches of Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Pacific—will ever achieve the recognition that came to Billy Graham. But as they returned to their places of ministry, these itinerant evangelists multiplied the work of the much more famous Graham many times over.
What Jerry and Claudia Root and I experienced in Hungary and Romania in 1989—and what the presence of Sami Dagher, Robert Cunville, and Billy Kim represented at Billy Graham’s funeral—was not the only permanent mark of Billy Graham on history. It is, however, hard to imagine that any other marks will endure for the cause of Christ and his kingdom as much as the mark left by the international Billy Graham.