Billy Graham

American Pilgrim

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Andrew Finstuen, Grant Wacker, Anne Blue Wills
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Billy Graham: American Pilgrim is an intellectual history of Billy Graham’s theology, an analysis of his influence on religion and politics, and a study of the techniques that enabled him to become the nation’s most successful evangelist of the twentieth century. Though short on biographical details, it accomplishes what no Graham biography has fully done: it situates Graham’s thought and work in the larger context of American religion and culture, and assesses his long-term legacy.

The contributors to this anthology include most of Graham’s academic biographers (with Grant Wacker, the author of one of the foremost of these studies, writing the introduction and serving as co-editor). But it also goes beyond a narrow focus on Graham’s personal biography by showcasing work from some of the leading and emerging scholars of twentieth-century American evangelicalism who examine Graham’s career in its larger religious and cultural context. With chapters on Graham’s relationship to evangelical Christian masculinity, his position as a representative and promoter of the Sunbelt, and his work as an “international ambassador” for American values and globalized evangelicalism, this book situates Graham at the nexus of many of the cultural trends that historians of American evangelicalism and the Christian Right have been exploring for the past decade or two. Several chapters probe Graham’s complicated position on race and social justice, while others chart his successful use of media and music in ways that continued to evolve throughout his ministry. The book also explores the influence of some of Graham’s associates, including that of his wife, Ruth Graham, who is the subject of a chapter by Anne Blue Wills.

Nearly all of the contributors adopt a sympathetic—though hardly hagiographic or purely celebratory—approach to Graham’s work that combines critical analysis with a proper respect for his unique accomplishments. The authors correctly recognize that while Graham was shaped by larger cultural and religious currents, he also transcended those cultural constraints in a way that few other evangelical figures of his generation did. The authors note that Graham’s views on God, politics, and culture continued to change and expand throughout his half-century of ministry, and that he often surprised both critics and supporters with some of his progressive shifts (such as his conversion to the cause of nuclear arms limitation and his friendly visit to the Soviet Union, which unnerved even his wife). While the authors vary at least a little in their views of Graham, with some emphasizing his cultural conservatism to a greater degree than others, the portrait of Graham that emerges in this volume is that of a deeply devout, sincere evangelist who never lost his passion for bringing others to Jesus, but who became increasingly unwilling to accept the fundamentalist strictures of those who wanted to limit the grace of Jesus to a particular group. Although he never shifted from the center of evangelical theology, his position as evangelicalism’s premier exemplar helped to move evangelicals from cultural and theological isolation toward a more progressive, internationally engaged position that was somewhat at odds with the Christian Right politics of Jerry Falwell.

Yet the authors also correctly recognize that if Graham’s global consciousness and inclusivity prevented him from allying with the Religious Right in the early 1980s, his faith in the power of individual conversion to solve social problems simultaneously alienated him from the political programs of the religious left, including its campaign for racial justice. Unlike Martin Luther King Jr. and many other civil rights leaders who believed that racial discrimination and poverty were rooted in structural inequities that had to be solved at the social level, Graham proclaimed that individual heart conversions were the best antidote to racism. Graham’s detractors dismissed his aversion to structural remedies for social problems as simplistic anti-intellectualism, but as Andrew Finstuen and Curtis J. Evans point out in their chapters on Graham’s academic engagement and social theology, Graham was far more theologically astute and intellectually engaged than his critics supposed, and he was skeptical about social reform programs not because he had a naïve confidence in individualism but because he viewed the social problems of his day from an eschatological perspective.

Ultimately, Graham believed that all social problems were sin problems, and the only lasting solution to a sin issue was the coming of the kingdom of God—which he, like most other premillennial evangelicals, located firmly in the future, with the second coming of Christ. But the imminence of that second coming only made the work that he would do on earth even more imperative, because it meant that his evangelistic, humanitarian, or political efforts had consequences that would last for eternity. His mastery of media techniques for the purpose of evangelism, his careful orchestration of religious “ritual” in crusades in order to awaken “desire” and encourage “decisions” for Christ, and his continual adaptation of his message to meet the needs of the present while preserving the truth of the gospel as he saw it stemmed from his belief that he was engaged in an effort of eternal importance.

This anthology is remarkably successful in interpreting Graham’s work from the perspective of his own theological and cultural context. A few of Graham’s critics might wonder why some of the less savory aspects of the evangelist’s career were not probed more deeply (such as why, for instance, there is no chapter on Graham’s relationship with President Richard Nixon). The contributors to this anthology briefly explore various blemishes on Graham’s record, including the question of how his legacy might be affected by the recent right-wing politics and provocative statements of his son, Franklin Graham, but I think that they were correct in deciding that an overemphasis on such issues would result only in a distorted picture of the evangelist. For a nuanced, highly perceptive, historical exploration of Graham’s work and legacy, this book is unsurpassed.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel K. Williams is professor of history at the University of West Georgia.

Date of Review: 
November 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew Finstuen is dean of the honors college at Boise State University. He is the author of Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety and a co-producer of the documentary film An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story (2017). 

Anne Blue Wills is associate professor of religion at Davidson College. She is currently writing a biography of Ruth Bell Graham. 

Grant Wacker is the Gilbert T. Rowe professor emeritus of Christian History at Duke Divinity School. He is the author of Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (2001), and America's Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (2014).


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