He must have been the most wildly successful preacher in temporal history by the time he died in North Carolina, where he was born 99 years ago. He walked with presidents and kings, commoners and the uncommon, yet never lost the common touch.
They all learned to call him Billy, and he wouldn't have had it any other way. He stood there like an emissary from another world far beyond this one, yet part of it. His thick hair and blue eyes made him all the more compelling a presence, yet he spoke with an authority not his but his Master's--like a prophet of old who walked straight out of the Word he preached, bearing it like tablets of both law and love.
"The Bible says," he would begin and end, having condensed the alpha and omega of the Word into an invitation that millions around the world would accept. Just as the choir in the background sang that old hymn "Just As I Am." Billy Graham's sincerity was as clear as his authority, his outreach as undeniable as the numbers that documented them. By the time of his farewell appearance in New York, he had preached personally and personably to more than 210 million souls. He had borne witness time and again with impressive results--quite a change and yet no change at all from the time Paul had preached on Mars Hill and lit a fire that has yet to be quenched.
"William Franklin Graham Jr.," wrote his biographer William Martin in the well titled work "A Prophet with Honor," "can safely be regarded as the best who ever lived at what he did." As a young man he had become part of the movement called the New Evangelicalism, which refused to accept the ideological/religious boundaries imposed by the staid old fundamentalism, and would preach to all who would listen. And listen they did.
"The ecumenical movement has broadened my viewpoint," he would say years later, "and I recognize now that God has His people in all churches." Or as he put it as late as 1957, "I intend to go anywhere, sponsored by anybody, to preach the Gospel of Christ." Which is what he proceeded to do.
Edward Gibbon, M.P., another thinker, chose to abandon all otherworldly thoughts when he studied more secular pursuits, concluding: "History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind." Yet he would make history his life's study, dedicating himself to Clio, her muse.
For secular society has its devotees, as well as those who are captured and captivated by the religious life. That kind of life everlasting remains free of the cynical tinge that too often appeals to secular saints like Gibbon, who left us with one of the great works of Western history and literature in his Decline and Fall. He has left behind many a guide for this generation to heed: "The winds and the waves," he advised, "are always on the side of the ablest navigators."
In the end, Gentle Reader can choose his own guide to better and more rewarding thought and belief. But he's not likely to find a simpler and simply exalted guide than America's own Billy Graham.