Following the death of American evangelist Billy Graham last week, I took part in a conversation about his life and legacy on Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence. You can listen to it here as the first item on the BBC’s Everyday Ethics podcast:
The other contributors were Stefan Andreasson, a political economist, and Chris Raymond, who specialises in elections and voting behaviour. The conversation ranges from Graham’s theology to his impact on American politics.
I fielded the opening question: Was Billy Graham the greatest evangelist since the apostles?
To paraphrase, I said that the question reminded me of the story in the Gospels where Jesus’ disciples are arguing about ‘who is the greatest?’ Jesus’ response to that question is to take a little child, and set him in the midst of them. So from a Christian perspective – and I would like to think from Billy Graham’s perspective – that’s not even a valid question.
However, there is evidence that Graham did ponder his legacy, as this quote from his autobiography reveals:
“I have often said that the first thing I am going to do when I get to Heaven is ask: ‘Why me, Lord? Why did You choose a farm boy from North Carolina to preach to so many people, to have such a wonderful team of associates, and to have a part in what You were doing in the latter half of the 20th century?’ ”
“I have thought about that question a great deal, but I know also that only God knows the answer.”
Of course, a question like whether Graham was the greatest evangelist also raises questions about how you measure the greatest. Is it the number of souls converted to Christ? Graham was able to use the power of the modern mass media to reach millions.
But greatness could also be measured in terms of how people’s lives on earth are improved through their conversion. In this John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, could be judged among the greatest. Wesley preached to the poor who he believed were forgotten by the aristocratic Church of England of his day, and many historians believe that those who joined Methodism improved their economic circumstances through the values and skills they learned in their Methodist bible classes. This was so much the case that you had British Labour politicians of the 20th century saying that socialism in Britain owed as much to Methodism as to Marx.
But that was just the beginning of the conversation – tune in to listen to the rest.