Graham, America's most famous preacher, turns 93
RALEIGH, N.C. – For the Rev. Billy Graham, America's most famous evangelist across a career that lasted some six decades, the prospect of old age and death was for a long time something he tried not to think about, despite his convictions about the eternity that awaits human beings.
"I fought growing old in every way," Graham, who turns 93 on Monday, writes in the newly-published "Nearing Home," a book that ranges from Scripture quotations about the end of life to brass tacks advice on financial planning. "I faithfully exercised and was careful to pace myself as I began to feel the grasp of Old Man Time. This was not a transition that I welcomed, and I began to dread what I knew would follow."
Graham's book, his 30th, comes not only as he reaches another year, but as America's huge Baby Boom generation moves into old age, its senior members now eligible for Social Security and retirement. And although in recent years Graham has stepped away from active public ministry, his willingness to be frank about the trials as well as the pleasures of growing old may still have an effect on the millions of Americans whose lives coincided with his time as the country's most famous preacher.
"I find that, talking to students and a lot of younger people, many of them don't know who Billy Graham is," said William Martin, author of "A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story" and a professor at Rice University. "But the people who will be most interested in this are older, and they do remember and adore Billy Graham."
Graham has said he wants to preach one last sermon before he dies, and while the new book is not quite that, it has a similar set of themes. Pondering Bible passages on aging and death, exhorting his readers to make sensible changes in their lives ("Take full advantage of your company's retirement plan, and borrow from it only in an extreme emergency") in down-to-earth language, Graham's ultimate focus is always on Jesus Christ.
"We were not meant for this world alone," he writes. "We were meant for Heaven, our final home."
All together, it's a set of advice that youth-fixated Boomers might not be immediately eager to hear, but coming from Graham it may have more influence. After all, Graham first rose to national prominence with a huge Los Angeles revival in 1949, just as the first Boomers were old enough to notice. Swiftly, Graham — who at the time was just 31 years old — became virtually synonymous with American Protestant Christianity, leading massive crusades at sports stadiums, traveling the globe, and meeting with presidents from Eisenhower to Obama.
Graham's appeal has not only been durable, it's extended far beyond the world of evangelical Christianity, according to Grant Wacker, a professor at the Duke University Divinity School, who's working on a biography of the evangelist.
"It's his influence on the broader public that's intriguing," Wacker said. "There are a lot of people who are not evangelicals who really admire him."
Partly that's because of longevity, Wacker said, and partly because Graham has a reputation for personal integrity that's in marked contrast with other prominent evangelical leaders tarnished by moral or financial scandal. Primarily, though, Wacker said people outside the world of evangelical Christianity respect the evolution of Graham over his long career as someone who, for example, went from strident anti-Communism in his early days to advocating nuclear arms control in the 1970s, a position scorned by Cold War hawks.
"He's acquired first a national and then an international vision over the years," Wacker said. "Whether or not they like his theology, people admire anybody who can grow into a wider vision."