Billy Graham has emerged as unquestionably the most famous and influential Christian preacher of any theological tradition for the last century and perhaps the last millennium.
For Evangelicals he is a revered and beloved icon who in large measure defines who they are. Indeed, Billy Graham was, and is, the prototypical "Evangelical."
As the theological conservatives emerged as the losers from the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies of the 1920s and 1930s, many of them, having lost their cultural moorings, were insecure and hardening and ossifying into a rigid cultural as well as theological Fundamentalism that preached and practiced withdrawal from engaging an ever more secular culture.
And then Billy Graham emerged with breath-taking suddenness in the late 1940s. Extremely talented, dazzlingly telegenic, oozing charisma, and preaching a basic, but uncompromised Christian Gospel, Billy Graham was the perfect figure to become the public face of an evangelical American Christianity ready to re-engage the culture and to do so with an outstretched hand and a smile on its face.
Billy Graham, the son of a Charlotte North Carolina dairy farmer, was undeniably Southern and provided a conduit into a renewed full participation in the nation's cultural life for those millions of Christians in the South and Southwest who longed for such participation and national acknowledgment and were also yearning for a way to separate themselves from Jim Crow segregation. Graham's tough and uncompromising stand against segregation in his evangelistic crusades across the South played an under-appreciated role in galvanizing support for him and his ministry across the southland.
Within a decade Billy Graham had become the most popular preacher any American had ever seen or heard of and also had become an international figure as well as the confidant of U.S. presidents.
He was also criticized, not only by the mainline Protestants who were well to his left theologically and politically, but also by those to his theological right, the Fundamentalists North and South, who detested his willingness to work, in his city-wide crusades, with those well to his theological left in the interest of saturation evangelism.
For most of the last century, at least America's Protestant Christians have been divided by what has historically been called the Fundamentals. These basic tenants have been, perhaps best delineated by a pastor friend of mine from Houston, who described them as the five "v's": 1) The veracity of Holy Scripture; 2) The virgin birth of Jesus; 3) The vicarious death of Jesus on the cross to purchase our salvation; 4) The victorious, physical resurrection of Jesus on the first Easter Sunday; and 5) The visible return of Jesus to the earth to judge the quick and the dead.
Both Evangelicals and Fundamentalists would pledge allegiance to those theological convictions while mainline Protestants would often have doubts or questions about one or more of these theological constructs. However, the differences between Evangelicals and Fundamentalists have to do more with how one relates to those questions both inside and outside of the church. Evangelicals engage and seek to work with those with whom they disagree while Fundamentalists call for "withdrawal from doctrinal error" in seeking doctrinal purity over cooperation or "compromise." Even today, perhaps the quickest way to discern whether someone is an Evangelical or a Fundamentalist is simply to ask them what they think about Billy Graham. If they love him they are Evangelicals, if they don't they're Fundamentalists.
Billy Graham has been the preacher upon whom at least four generations of Evangelical pastors have sought to model themselves. Graham, with his enormous success, uncompromising commitment to biblical truth, and sterling personal character and integrity, made it "respectable" again in American society to be a biblical and overtly Evangelistic preacher in a way it had not been since the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies of the 1930s and 1940s.
If there were to be an Evangelical Mount Rushmore, Billy Graham's famous visage would be the first to be chiseled into that monument. No one else would be even close.
Very few, if any, Americans of any type have been the object of as much sustained adulation and praise as Billy Graham. Most human beings would have been adversely impacted by such long-term hero worship. That makes perhaps his greatest attribute, his humility, even more impressive. Any one who knows the man knows that he really means it when he says the first question he is going to ask God is, "Why me?"
On a more personal note, I will forever be in Billy Graham's debt for many reasons. Foremost among my debts is the fact that I grew up with a devout Christian father because of Billy Graham's ministry. My father, at the time a non-church going man, was born again as a Christian during a Billy Graham Evangelistic Crusade at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas, in the early 1950s. I was six-years -old at the time and because Billy Graham asked my father to come forward and give his heart to Jesus I grew up with a Christian father as well as a Christian mother in a Christian home. How do you say thank you adequately for such a gift? All I can do is join tens of millions of Christians the world over in saying, "Thank you, Billy, for everything!"