Book Review: A Prophet with Honor – The Billy Graham Story (Oct – 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

Reviewed by Shaun Casey
October, 1992

Billy Graham is often characterized as either the high priest of American civil religion by his detractors or as “the most important single thing God has done since the Apostle Paul” according to one of his devotees. Harvard Divinity school alumnus William Martin, B.D. ’63, has entered this thicket of interpretive dissonance, and the result of his labor is a superbly crafted narrative that offers an interpretation from which both despisers and lovers of Graham can learn much. Martin writes a critical biography that portrays Graham in all his faults and strengths (there are plenty of both) as perhaps the central figure in the emergence of Evangelicalism in this century. This single fact of placing Graham within the historical web of American church history makes the book worth reading.

What makes this work a model of the biographer’s craft is how effectively Martin negotiates conditions which could be characterized as simultaneously the biographer’s fondest dream and worst nightmare. In the Foreword, Martin describes the conditions under which he accepted Graham’s request that he, Martin, write a critical biography. Martin was granted full access to Graham, members of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and the archives at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, yet he was given complete freedom to write as he saw fit. Martin sets out how he proceeded under the commission to write a book that had the endorsement of a subject not known for granting access to potentially negative assessors.

There are four sets of issues which I found particularly interesting in Martin’s treatment of Graham. These are Graham’s carefully cultivated relationships with U.S. presidents from Harry Truman to George Bush, his evolving stance on social and political issues such as the Vietnam War, race, and nuclear weapons, his relationship to liberal Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, and finally the character and persuasive power of the man himself.

Graham’s long association with presidents began inauspiciously with Harry Truman. By 1950 Graham was winning popular acclaim as an evangelist, yet he had little success in the political realm. Despite unsuccessful efforts to secure a meeting with Truman in 1949, Graham continued to importune the White House. Finally, with the aid of Massachusetts congressman John McCormack, truman granted Graham a private meeting. The meeting itself seems uneventful, but upon leaving the White House, Graham and his entourage broke protocol and gave reporters an account of what Truman had said and relayed the story of how they had prayed together. Graham obliged reporters’ requests to reenact the prayer and posed while kneeling on the White House lawn. Needless to say, Truman, who was not known for his piety, was not happy and regarded Graham as a publicity seeking religious huckster.

Graham’s preference for Republican presidents was whetted by the Eisenhower years, especially by the budding relationship with Richard Nixon. yet the ascendance of Lyndon John presented an interesting detour in Graam’s march through politics. Graham and LBJ had maintained a relationship since the latter had been elected to the Senate. But shortly after the Kenedy assassination, the relationship took on a new depth, primarily the result of Johnson’s initative. As a native Texan and as a lifelong student of conservative Protestantism, martin is uniquely equipped to chronicle this symbiotic relationship in which both men sought to gain from the other’s company. As LBJ put it, “… we bragged on each other. I told him he was the greatest religious leader in the world and he said I was the greatest political leader” (303).

Graham’s relationship with Nixon was long and complex and is well told in this book. Perhaps nowhere else are Martin’s talents as a researcher and writer more evident than at this juncture. In February 1991, Martin furnished Graham with a copy of the manuscript of the book to allow Graham to check for factual errors and Graham acknowledged that much of what he read about his relationship with Nixon surprised him. Upon seeing the extensive evidence Martin compiled regarding Graham’s efforts in Nixon’s 1972 reelection and the extent to which Nixon’s staff used him, Graham remarked, “I felt like a sheep led to slaughter.”

One has to ponder if this revelation gave Graham pause after having offered his imprimature to the Persian Gulf War barely a month earlier as he spent the night with George Bush on the eve of the war. The extent of Nixon’s manipulation of Graham coupled with Graham’s bitter disappointment with the Watergate scandal leave the reader amazed that Graham would continue such close relations with politcians. Equally puzzling is Graham’s insistence that preachers should not be involved in the political arena and yet the clearly documented thread running throughout 40 years of his ministry is the studious cultivation of political leaders. The moral of the story would seem to be that whenever a would-be vicar of Christ chooses to walk hand-in-hand with Caesar it is the latter who maintains the stronger grip.

Woven into Graham’s ministry and political life is a thread of evolving stances on various social issues the country faced during the decades of his public career. Graham’s record on issues such as race, the Vietnam War, and nuclear issues present a complex constellation of changing positions. To his credit, he did not allow the overwhelming individualism of Evangelical piety to prevent him from eventually taking relatively progressive stands on all three sets of issues. Martin painstakingly details the shifts, retreats, and advances on a number of important social issues. By the mid-1980s Graham could speak of the three conversions of his life: his first acknowledgment of Jesus as his Lord and Savior, his determination to work for a racially just society, and most recently, his commitment to work for world peace for the rest of his life.

The only time I ever had the opportunity to hear Graham speak in person was in the early ’80s when he addressed a predominantly secular audience at M.I.T. on the question, “Can There Be Peace in the Nuclear Age?” Much to my surprise, Graham mesmerized this audience throughout his speech as he detailed the magnitued of the nuclear threat. Equally astonishing was how quickly he lost the audince when he revealed his punch line that lasting peace would not happen until Christ returned to establish the millennial reign on earth. Graham has been surprising skeptics like me for most of his career.

I have to confess that I have never found Billy Graham to be a personally compelling figure. I have tended to see him as a rather innocuous evangelist who has probably helped a lot of people yet who lacks any sense of boundary between his work and his political relationships. My casual perceptions have not been overthrown in this biography. Perhaps it is a standard of judging the effectiveness of a critical biography if one’s casual perceptions are challenged and a deeper and thicker description is given to replace one’s prejudices. By that standard, Martin has written a masterpiece.Wineskins Magazine

Shaun Casey, M.Div. ’83, is a second[year Th.D. student in religion and society at Harvard Divinity school He graduated from Abilene Christian University in 1979 and received a master of public administration degree from the Kennedy School of Government in 1989. He has worked for churches in Mississippi and Massachusetts. (This review reprinted with permission from the Harvard Divinity Bulletin 21:3 (1991-92).

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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