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Remembering Billy Graham

I haven’t made it a practice to comment on current events in our blog—we’re a library after all and have enough work to do seeing to the past without also taking on the present and the future.

But the recent death of Billy Graham has seemed an exception—and so you are welcome to keep reading, or if the subject is not your cup of tea, to move along and keep browsing our website.

Two years ago I was asked to write an “afterward” to a book of essays on Graham. (Billy Graham: American Pilgrim, was published by Oxford University Press in 2017 and edited by Andrew Finstuen Anne Blue Wills, and Grant Wacker.) My job was to try and answer the “what next” question: will there be another evangelist in Billy’s mold, and if so, who?

I worried a lot about that article. No historian wants to get caught prognosticating, after all, but even worse, I had read plenty of surveys that showed large numbers of people simply did not know who Billy Graham was. For many younger Americans he was a distant memory (or in some cases, a rock impresario).

Nevertheless, I dutifully ticked through all of the “next Billy Graham” candidates—family members, evangelical bigwigs like Rick Warren and Max Lucado, prosperity preachers like T.D. Jakes and Joel Osteen. One thing seemed reasonably certain at the time, that if another Graham-like figure was to come on the scene, he (or she) would come from the “next Christendom,” where the majority of Christians now live, in Asia, Africa, or Latin America.

At the time, I had no idea of the biggest problem facing my prognosticatings. In 2016 many people were already declaring the demise of evangelicalism—in fact, many evangelicals themselves were admitting that they had lost the culture wars and would need to adjust to being, as one of them put it, the “away team rather than the home team.” But that was all before the election of 2016 and the dramatic role evangelicals would play in the election of Donald Trump.

Not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I would write the article if I were given the assignment now. Two years ago I was skeptical of any radical changes in the offing—paradigms, I wrote, shift far less often than we think they do. Since then, we’ve become less sanguine. Many of my fellow historians of American religion have issued sharply critical denunciations of evangelicalism, some declaring its final demise, others wondering whether the category even made sense in the first place. Without a doubt the evangelicalism that Graham represented, the white, middle-class nexus of Wheaton College, Christianity Today, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, is no longer with us. “Evangelicalism” today looks more and more like an unknowable hodgepodge of religious and political agendas, alarmingly responsive to social media and stubbornly resistant to criticism.

At the very least, if I were writing the article now, I’d add a caveat: this is not a time for crowning successors. Billy Graham came on the stage in the midst of an evangelical revival that arose in the shadow of the Cold War, an era in which hope overrode fear. Conservative evangelicals, many of whom had become convinced that the end of the world was near, chose a brighter future, an America that might after all become truly Christian. Most of us today would see that optimism as narrow and naïve, and might also rightly wonder about Graham’s message. Despite the flurry of post-mortems in the press and on social media, we are only beginning to understand his complex impact on American society.

I might also risk some more open editorializing. These are dauntingly different times from the era that crowned Billy Graham an evangelical leader. Now we can measure, as never before perhaps, the hopes and expectations that all of us, evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike, have quietly relinquished, how fear has become such a normal state of mind. I think that the “next Billy Graham,” if such a person does come along, will know this. His or her message may well be every bit as simple and “biblical” as Graham’s, but in a different way. It will, like the Bible itself, make the most sense to people living in hard times, facing an uncertain future.

-Peggy Bendroth