Belfast Telegraph

Billy Graham: American evangelist's simple yet powerful message still has a place in troubled world today

By Alf McCreary

The death of the American evangelist Billy Graham this week at the age of 99 will have brought back memories to the millions of people worldwide, including many from Northern Ireland, whose lives were changed by his preaching.

Graham was a phenomenon. He had film star looks and a supreme gift for public speaking, as well as a firm religious conviction which motivated him to spread his kind of Christianity around the world.

He came to the UK shortly after the end of the Second World War and was subsequently a regular visitor to London and other major cities where he held numerous Christian crusades.

He came to Belfast in 1961 when he spoke to a huge audience at Windsor Park and again in 1972, which was arguably the worst year of the Troubles.

He said then that he had no political solution to our intractable problems, but that if people followed the teachings of Christianity, we would find a way out of our mess.

That remains the message today, at a time when the political centre is falling apart and when we seem to be subject to government by Jamie Bryson on the unionist side and by God-knows-who within republicanism.

Billy Graham's message might seem simplistic in the cynical and increasingly secular world of today, but he always preached basic fundamental principles.

The only time I attended a crusade rally was at Anfield Stadium in Liverpool during the summer of 1984 to report for this newspaper.

I was impressed by the excited yet reverent atmosphere in that large arena, though Dr Graham appeared a remote figure physically in such a huge crowd.

However, I was also impressed by the caring yet business-like organisation during the entire evening when the many people who committed themselves to Christ were looked after by trained stewards who continued to shepherd them in the right direction.

Graham was the kind of man who could have sold anything to a world audience, but it was fortunate that he devoted his entire skills to saving souls and to changing people's lives for the better.

He was a prototype for succeeding generations of preachers here and across the world, right to the present day, but his message was tailored to those ready to accept his direct approach and his own clear interpretation of the Bible.

However there were, and still are, many others who have found it difficult to accept Graham's fundamental teaching that they are born "in sin" and if they do not accept Christ as their Saviour they are doomed to a lake of fire for eternity.

All this seems in sharp contrast to the concept of a forgiving and loving God, and also to the observations in the best-selling book Varieties of Religious Experience by the celebrated psychologist William James.

Billy Graham admitted that he was not an intellectual and that he - quite understandably - paid little attention to changing fashions of theology.

However, his main strength was his deceptive simplicity, which appealed to those who wanted a simple message and were unable or unwilling to think outside their own religious box. Perhaps fundamentalists have an easier time than those with deep doubts.

Graham was always a popular figure - high and low. He was a confidant of the Queen, who once practised her Christmas Address in front of him.

He was also a religious adviser to many USA presidents - though in some cases with little apparent outward success.

Mrs Ruth Graham, who predeceased her husband, was a tower of strength and her pithiness was well illustrated by a comment she made to him: "If God doesn't punish America, He'll have to apologise to Sodom and Gomorrah." Many people might say that this also applies to the entire Western civilisation in the way it has turned out.

Overall Billy Graham was a good man and one of the towering religious figures of the 21st century. His obituary in The Times rightly concluded that: "What remains undeniable is that, within his frame of reference, Graham's life was a remarkably impressive example of dedicated, unremitting Christian service."

Few would quarrel with that.

Belfast Telegraph

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