Among the millions who have been influenced by the Rev. Billy Graham’s revivals, writings and sermons are countless pastors and religious scholars. Whether they hoped to emulate his compelling, plain-spoken style or sought to avoid some of the missteps he made and regretted, few who have stood in a Southern church pulpit over the past 50 years could say they were unaware of his sway.
When the Baptist preacher died Wednesday at age 99, some of his fellow religious leaders commented on his legacy.
The Rev. William Barber, president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, noted Graham’s willingness to challenge notions of racial supremacy that permeated white churches in the American South relatively early in his ministry. Barber recalled that Graham often said, “It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.”
Barber said: “Though segregated public meetings were the norm in the South, he met with Dr. (Martin Luther) King and agreed to challenge segregation before Jim Crow laws were overturned. Though he was initially used by (President Richard) Nixon’s Southern Strategy, he saw the dangers of being a court prophet and stepped away from the religious right in his later life. He challenged the war economy and its commitment to nuclearism in the 1980s. His life was about following Jesus and he knew that meant an ongoing commitment to be changed by love.”
Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, said, “The death of Billy Graham is the passing of a hero to the Southeastern Seminary family, and we were blessed to experience his love and prayers for our school. He is now with our Lord. For those of us who believe the gospel he so faithfully proclaimed for decades, we rest in the hope that he is now with Jesus and we will see him again. We are grateful for the legacy he leaves of bringing many souls to Christ.”
The Rev. Brian Burgess, pastor of Beulah Baptist Church in Statesville, told his friend, the Rev. Rob Lee, that: “Graham embodied integrity, faithfulness and the power of God through his life. Although his message simple, God used him in a mighty way.”
On Twitter, Bishop Michael Burbidge, now bishop of the Arlington Diocese in Virginia and former bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, said Graham was “a powerful witness to the beauty of Christianity. He was a devoted servant who brought people to a closer encounter with Christ.”
Milton A. Hollifield Jr., executive director-treasurer of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, said: “Although it is natural to be saddened when hearing that evangelist Billy Graham has died, I also rejoice that he is now in the presence of the Lord he loved and served throughout his life. Numerous times Mr. Graham stated that he was anxious to go to heaven. God raised up Billy Graham for a specific time and purpose in history and empowered him to proclaim God’s Word all over the world. Billy Graham believed that his primary purpose in life was to help people come to a personal relationship with God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I am thankful that he was always true and faithful to this calling of God upon his life and ministry.”
Nancy Petty, pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, grew up in North Carolina and attended at least two of Graham’s crusades. She said, “There was this sense, even to a kid in junior high school, that people looked to this man who represented decency and integrity and something that was authentic. It was about being a godly person, a moral person. For a generation and a period of time in this country, he represented something really important, particularly for people of faith.”
The Rev. Christopher Chapman, pastor of First Baptist Church in Raleigh, said one thing he admired about Graham was that he constantly looked for ways to do better.
“The legacy that a lot of us would hold onto, even if we didn’t agree with every approach he took to Bible interpretation, was the genuineness in everything he said and did. There was a humility along with the boldness that is not always there with political or religious figures, not thinking of himself as great and constantly tweaking. And one of his strengths was a focus on the heart of the Christian message: grace, and not judgment.”
Grant Wacker, a Duke University Divinity School professor and author of a book about Graham, said that Graham was better than any evangelist since the 18th century at using available media to relay his message, whether it was radio, television, newspaper or the internet.
“This is where Graham was a genius: He knew how to draw upon the trends of the times and then use them for his purposes.”