Reinhold Niebuhr was one of the most influential theologians and philosophers of the twentieth century. His famous book, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (Charles Scribner’s Sons 1932), made a huge impact when it was published. His main thesis is that human beings are more prone to evil as a group than as individuals. Human beings may be selfish and wicked, but they can also reflect the better angels of our nature. For him, faith and individual agency are vital in the renewal of societies and nations. The book in many ways prefigured the emergence of Hitler and Nazism which plunged Europe into darkness for more than a decade.
The American protestant pastor and evangelist Billy Graham who died last week epitomised the ideal of Nieburh’s moral man in an immoral and unjust society. Graham passed away peacefully in his sleep on Wednesday 21 February in his home in Montreat, North Carolina, USA, aged 99.
For everyone on earth, there is a day to be born and a day to die. It is appointed to a man once to die, and then there comes the judgement, says the Old Book. Death sums up a human life more than anything else. Death exposes the vanity of life. All the pomp and power and pageantry will come to an end sooner or later. For some, it comes peacefully in their sleep; for those less fortunate, it comes violently. It is often granted to the righteous to die peacefully.
No one knows the day or hour. Indeed, the French writer and existential philosopher Albert Camus once declared that a man has never started to live until he has come to terms with his mortality. It was perhaps for this reason that the old psalmist in the Old Testament Bible counsels everyone to number their days “that they may apply themselves unto wisdom.”
William Franklin Graham Jr was born on 7 November 1918 on a dairy farm outside Charlotte, North Carolina, of Scottish-Irish Presbyterian stock. Graham was brought up on a diet of rural Calvinistic values. He had to wake up at 2:30 am to milk the cows and shovel off tons of manure. At a tent revival organised by the travelling evangelist Modercai Ham, the sixteen-year-old Graham made the life-changing decision to commit his life to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.
In 1936 he enrolled at Bob Jones College, a Christian liberal arts institution in Greenville, South Carolina, but soon left because he found the atmosphere rather stifling. The following year he transferred to Florida Bible Institute, where he apparently bloomed. He found in his new academic home “a unity of God’s people who sincerely held Jesus at the centre of their lives”. During a solitary walk in the woods one evening, he knelt down and offered his future and destiny to serve the Lord as pastor and evangelist if this was His will for his life. Happy is the young man who discovers his life-purpose and vocation early enough. Graham was one of those lucky ones. Barely in his teens, he declared: “My one purpose in life is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which, I believe, comes through knowing Christ.” In February 1939 he was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister.
He later proceeded to the better-known Wheaton College Illinois, where he graduated in 1943, majoring in anthropology — a discipline that broadened his mind and enabled him to see beyond the narrow waspish culture of his forebears. At Wheaton he also met the woman that would become his wife, Ruth Bell, daughter of medical missionaries in China. It was a marriage made in heaven.
In 1944 Billy Graham began his ministry as a pastor with the Youth for Christ evangelistic mission. In 1950 he founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, BGEA. His style combined the traditional open tent crusades in football stadiums with broadcasting in radio and television in over 140 countries. He ministered directly to more than 200 million people, and, indirectly, 2 billion. Some 3 million people are said to have responded directly to his altar calls.
Billy Graham has won more souls to Christ than any single individual in history. His secret lay in a simple message: “Jesus loves you. Let Him into your life and your sins will be forgiven.” He often startled his audience with a rather unsettling question: “What would happen to you if you died on your way home?” It was an existential question that demanded an existential decision. For decades his Hour of Decision broadcast, delivered in a uniquely mellifluous voice, haunted listeners throughout the world. A mentor of mine, a brilliant chemical engineer, confessed to me that after listening to the Hour of Decision in his undergraduate dorm room in Ile-Ife in the early seventies, knelt down and tearfully surrendered his life to Christ.
Graham’s secrets lay in the simplicity of his message, his purity of soul and the radiance of a consecration that shone through his persona — a man with no guile. He preached a simple gospel of grace, repentance and holiness. He was steadfast in avoiding the scandals over money and sex that bedevilled tele-evangelists such as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. He made it a policy never to be found alone in a car or room with another female other than his wife — later to be known as “the Billy Graham Rule”. He also empowered the BGEA board with strong leaders while placing himself on a fixed, modest salary. All the funds from his speaking engagements and books went to God’s work and for humanitarian action. He never boasted of miracles nor did he pitch his faith on prophecy (not that these are not important). He preached a simple message of faith, love, repentance, forgiveness and salvation.
How I wish our avaricious and grasping “General Overseers” in Nigeria could learn from this humble pastor who was a Field Marshal in God’s vineyard!
Billy Graham was the moral sentinel of America and easily one of the towering figures of our century. He condemned the debaucheries of our decadent age; objecting to homosexuality and same-sex marriage on moral grounds. A counsellor to presidents and monarchs, he reinvented the Christian faith to meet the worldview demands of our cruel, nihilistic age. He was a friend of American presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and the two Bushes. According to Clinton, “When he prays with you in the Oval Office or upstairs in the White House, you feel he’s praying for you, not the president”.
He was particularly close to Queen Elizabeth II of Britain. Billy Graham was one of the architects of the ecumenical movement. He financed the Lausanne Conferences on World Evangelism; working tirelessly for unity in the body of Christ. A confidante to a succession of popes, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Belmont Abbey College, a conservative Catholic institution — the first protestant leader to be so honoured.
He was also close friends with Martin Luther Jr, whom he once bailed out when he was jailed in Alabama. He forbade segregation in all his crusades while ensuring that his evangelistic associates were mixed-race. He once warned white Americans that their racial arrogance will stand in judgement against them at the gates of heaven.
The passing of his beloved Ruth in 2007 was one of the lowest points in his life. He himself was gradually overcome with several geriatric illnesses which necessitated his eventual retirement. The BGEA is currently headed by his son Franklin Graham.
Tributes have come from far and wide. President Donald Trump has tweeted: “The great Billy Graham is dead. There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man.” Vice-President Pence described him as a matchless voice that “changed the lives of millions”. Barack Obama describes him as “a humble servant who prayed for so many – and who, with wisdom and grace, gave hope and guidance to generations of Americans”. The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby noted that “the debt owed by the global church to him is immeasurable and inexpressible”. Back home in Nigeria, Musa Asake, Publicity Secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria, described Billy Graham as “a faithful preacher who worked for God and has gone to be with the Lord”.
An ancient Jewish belief holds that the earth has been saved from perishing because of the devotions of a secret conclave of 30 holy ones, the Tzadikim Nistarim. I believe Billy Graham belonged among the Tzadikim. Regardless of your religion or belief system, we can agree in the innate value of having devout and righteous men and women who redeem the earth and serve humanity with loving-kindness, truth, justice and compassion. Billy Graham was such a man. In the inimitable language of Paul the Apostle, “he was all things to all men”.
Billy Graham made friends across racial, class and religious barriers. He disagreed with his son Franklin Graham when he made rather uncomplimentary remarks about Islam. The awards and honours showered on him during his lifetime are far too numerous to be recounted here. He leaves behind five children and several grandchildren and great grandchildren. President Donald Trump has ordered that his simple coffin will lie in state on Capitol Hill before being moved for final interment on Friday 2 March in his hometown of Montreat, North Carolina. His funeral will be graced by present and former American leaders, among other distinguished personalities.
Years ago he commented on the prospects of his own death: “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now…I will have gone into the presence of God.”
It is a fitting epitaph to a remarkable life.
(Dr. Obadiah Mailafia is a development economist and former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. [email protected]).