Billy Graham

An Ordinary Man and His Extraordinary God

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Lon Allison
  • Orleans, MA: 
    Paraclete Press
    , April
     2018.
     160 pages.
     $21.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781640600874.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In 1966 Billy Graham told biographer John Pollock, “You have no idea how sick I get of the name Billy Graham and how wonderful and thrilling the name Christ sounds to my ears" (6). Quoted just inside the cover of Billy Graham: An Ordinary Man and His Extraordinary God, Graham’s words summarize Lon Allison’s “version of the Billy Graham story” (10). Though biographical in its approach, Allison’s work is not another Graham biography. Instead, Allison provides a sketch of Graham’s lifelong “spiritual journey” as an evangelistic tool meant to lead the reader to a born-again conversion experience. The only thing missing from Allison’s appeal to salvation is an altar call and rendition of Just As I Am led by Cliff BurrowsAllison is clear in his intentions, stating that this book is not for the scholar, historian, or theologian, but for those unfamiliar with Billy Graham and Jesus of Nazareth. Allison’s work is just as much about the name Christ as it is the name Billy Graham.

Organized chronologically with brief thematic asides, Allison introduces a “new generation” to the story of Billy Graham as well as an evangelical Christian worldview (12). While Allison contributes a number of personal anecdotes that give the reader a window into Graham’s personality and meticulously crafted persona, little is added to the historiographical treatment of Graham. Instead, Allison uses Graham’s life as one large sermon illustration to communicate the theological tenets of Graham’s evangelistic career. Among the core tenets of the character of God, the atonement of Christ, and justification by faith, Allision centers evangelical conceptions of the family and personal morality. For example, chapter 9, “A Soul Mate for Life,” highlights the theological underpinnings that formed Graham’s relationship to his spouse Ruth and their children. Allison explains that, although Ruth expressed pain over the routine absence of her husband and the children’s father, the Graham family understood that it was their biblical duty to support Billy in his divine calling. In order to maintain the purity of home and self, Allison describes a personal code that Graham adopted for himself, his family, and his ministry. As his sermons often demonstrated, Graham believed a Christian must maintain integrity with regards to finances, sexuality, language, and professional accomplishments. “Billy wanted to be pure and authentic before God and the people he served,” Allison writes (121).

In the process of what might be described as a synthesis of Graham’s most popular crusade sermons cloaked in biographical minutiae, significant details of Graham’s life and ministry are passed off to Grant Wacker’s America’s Pastor (America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014). Allison uses Wacker’s work as a source for his writing and as a reference for those desiring an academic treatment of Graham. For example, in chapter 9 “Weaknesses and Regrets,” Allison briefly mentions Graham’s embarrassment after recordings from Nixon’s White House were made public in 2002. The tapes reveal a Billy Graham in agreement with President Nixon’s anti-Semitic remarks in reference to media executives. Avoiding details that expose Nixon and Graham’s antisemitism, Allison states that the tapes reveal Graham’s “own bias on the same issue” (130). Allison informs the reader that if they wish to know more about the tapes, they can consult Wacker’s volume (Allision also defers to Wacker when discussing Graham’s relationship to the Civil Rights movement). 

Allison remains committed to his statement that this book is not for historians, scholars, or theologians. Not only does Allison point to Wacker for a more thorough treatment of Graham’s involvement with Nixon, he also approaches the Nixon episode in a manner unlike the rest of the text. Instead of using the tape scandal as an opportunity to add depth to Graham’s doctrine of sin, forgiveness, and redemption, Allison opts for a narrative that paints Graham, though sinful, as a man nonetheless immune to criticism. Allison writes, “It must be hard to keep one’s head and one’s God perspective when you are at every turn being sought by the masses and the rich, the powerful, and the famous” (131). Like other treatments of Graham, Allison paints a picture of an ordinary man unwavering in his commitment to crusade for Christ.

Allison concludes the work with a call to salvation in chapter 10 “The Message of the Man.” Allison rehearses the script that organized countless Graham crusades. Calling on his readers to see the work of God in the life of Billy Graham, Allision asks the reader to pray with him. Noting that he learned a prayer from Graham himself, Allison pleads with the reader to confess to God that they are sinners in need of forgiveness and realize that Jesus is the only answer to their depravity. Like the follow-up team of a Graham crusade, Allision encourages readers to contact a “follower of Christ” within twenty-four hours in order to understand their spiritual decision and start their “forever journey with God” (147).

If Allison’s goal is to provide an introduction to Billy Graham and the message presented at his crusades for the better part of the twentieth century, he achieves it. Though Allison knew Graham personally, this work does not provide the insider point of view that uncovers a new path through the vast literature on Billy Graham. At times, the routine calls to salvation at the end of every chapter serve as a distraction to the biographical contribution of the work. However, Allison, like Graham, does not seek to tell the story about a man from North Carolina, but about the God he serves. Allison hopes (and even prays at times) that the world would not grow tired of the name Billy Graham or Jesus Christ. He understands this book as an extension of his Christian ministry. Critiques aside, Allison’s work is an accessible and enjoyable read for those hoping to receive an introduction to the life of “America’s Pastor” and the gospel he preached.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dan Wells is a doctoral candidate in American Religious History at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
February 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lonnie J. Allison came to Wheaton Bible Church in 2013 from his previous role as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. Lon has taught master's and doctoral evangelism courses at Gordon Conwell Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Northern Seminary, and is a visiting professor at Wheaton College Graduate School. He maintains an active speaking schedule at churches and conferences around the world, and is the author of Going Public with the Gospel,  That the World May Believe, and Possible: Discover the Joy of a Prayer, Care, Share Life. He and his wife, Marie, have three grown children and live in West Chicago, Illinois.

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