He is a “man who walked with princes and kings,” biographer William Martin said. Professor of Religion and Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, Texas, Martin was approached by Billy Graham in 1985 and asked to “look at his ministry and assess its place in history.”
The second edition of his biography, A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story, was slated for a March 2018 release in anticipation of what would have been his 100th birthday in November 2018, and as it turns out, coincides instead with his passing on February 21.
“What I thought would take me two years took five (for the first edition), and now over 30 years (in releasing the second edition),” Martin told AFA Journal in an interview for a feature article in the March 2018 issue. The 700-page book is the fruit of “nearly five years of total immersion in the life of the famed evangelist,” as Martin describes in the preface, as well as countless years of research and “a good visit with each of the Graham progeny.”
Graham himself read the biography after the first edition released in 1991 and told Martin, “I think you know me better than anybody except Ruth. You see things about me that I don’t allow myself to see.”
In reviewing the book, I too discovered a Billy Graham of whom I had not been aware previously. Although I grew up knowing the name and legacy of Billy Graham, I had not experienced the ministry of Billy Graham, living and dynamic, as had the generation or two before my own. From Martin’s close attention and straightforward narrative on Billy Graham’s life, I learned about all sides of the man, who was not without mistakes, but was certainly a larger-than-life character.
As Martin said about him on the day of his death:
Billy Graham represented core American values in a singular way. Though he made some missteps, he remained free of scandal. He achieved his success by hard work rather than by inheritance or luck. He used the latest technology and media, but depended on the loyalty of a small group of friends who were with him for decades. He hobnobbed with the famous, the wealthy, and the powerful around the world, yet seemed surprised that people were interested in him. He often seemed to have the kind of wonder of a small-town boy. He was both genuinely humble and genuinely ambitious and aware of the tension between those inclinations. He was not a perfect man, but he was an uncommonly good one.
Among other things, I was surprised to learn that this preacher had a major influence and held a role of friendship with a series of U.S. presidents, acting as sort of unofficial counselor for men from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Richard Nixon. The difference between the reputations of those two presidents is wide, but the loyalty of his friendship with each of them was the same.
Graham’s character, it seems, was straightforward, honest, but complex. In a way, he demonstrated the old biblical adage of being “as wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). He might have been almost simple in his deep integrity but was well able to hold his own in leading the most powerful people around the globe.
In that way, he held fast to his own opinions, policy, and practices, despite his detractors. And detractors he had, even in his glory days, something I had not before heard about. It seems he was just strict enough about keeping to his conservative principles to create enemies on one side of the spectrum and open-minded enough in his ministry and theology to anger those on the other. From politics to civil rights to domestic conflict, his own positions may have been clear, but he could be gentle in his judgments on others.
In fact, that is now the strongest impression I have of Billy Graham and his influence and example: He had commitment and passion for what he knew to be true. But he also was humble enough to allow and accept those who differed from him. As he once said when challenged about his theology and ecumenical attitude on ministry: “We are all Christians, and we love one another.” This should ring true as the standard for our modern day evangelicalism and Christianity.