Graham offered words to live by, a life to admire

On a cool Tuesday night in October 1958, the Rev. Billy Graham walked onto a stage at the Charlotte Coliseum for the 26th sermon of a five-week Charlotte crusade.

“Tonight,” he began, “I want to talk on how to live the Christian life.”

More than 13,000 people had jammed the arena to see the young North Carolina preacher just a decade into his public ministry. By then, Graham had already become one of the most well-known figures in evangelical Christianity; for two years running, he had appeared on Gallup’s list of most admired men and women.

He would appear on it 53 more times.

Billy Graham died on Wednesday. He was 99 years old — a man who grew up on a family farm in Charlotte, enjoyed friendships with U.S. presidents and world leaders, and perhaps has delivered the Word to more people than anyone who has held up a Bible.

His message — the grace and saving power of Jesus — has reached millions across the globe.

That message is the same as it ever was — Jesus died for your sins; repent and give your life to him — but the man who delivered it changed through the years. Graham was a fiery Southern Baptist preacher early on — a blend of Bible and brimstone common in evangelical churches then.

The man and his message softened, however, as Graham grew older and Christianity shifted its emphasis from God’s judgment to God’s love. Still, the preacher’s purpose endured: He led people to Christ with a message and an example they could follow.

That example was intentional: Unlike preachers then and now, Graham largely steered clear of scandal. In 1948, he and his ministry team drew up the Modesto Manifesto — resolutions regarding financial integrity, sexual behavior, publicity and meaningful partnerships with local churches. Those guidelines separated Graham and his organization from others, as did Graham’s clear and deep devotion to Ruth McCue Bell, whom he married in Montreat in 1943.

In the high-profile evangelical world, he was an exception, a man who offered not only words to learn by, but a life to admire.

Graham was not perfect. Women were stung by dismissive comments he made in 1970 about feminism.

In 1972, after attending a prayer breakfast with President Richard Nixon, Graham was caught on tape decrying the “stranglehold” Jews had over Hollywood and the media. When the tapes were released in 2002, Graham apologized and said his words then “do not reflect my views.”

In his later years, he disappointed some followers and friends who thought his inclusive Christian message was tainted by full-page newspaper ads urging people to vote “for biblical values” and oppose same-sex marriage. (Many suspected Graham’s son, Franklin, was the force behind the ads.)

But this is also true about Billy Graham: He embraced integration and the Civil Rights movement at a time it might have alienated his core supporters.

In 1953, he told ushers not to erect barriers that separated whites and blacks in his audience, and he warned a white audience against feeling superior to blacks. In 1957, he invited black ministers to serve on his New York crusade’s executive committee, and he welcomed Martin Luther King Jr., to join him in the pulpit in New York City.

Later, he told a Ku Klux Klan member: “It touches my heart when I see whites standing shoulder to shoulder with blacks at the cross.”

What does that tell us? That all of us have sinned, and all of us are forgiven, and all of it, according to the Rev. Graham, “is only a beginning. It is a lifetime of problems, troubles and difficulties. But you are meeting them with the help of Christ and the Holy Spirit who lives in your heart.”

And so he did. He grew and he learned and he erred and he endured.

Through it all, Billy Graham not only brought Christ to millions and millions to Christ. He was the man he called on so many to be on that Charlotte stage almost 60 years ago. A man who lived a Christian life.