By Dr. Wayne Holst
Many mainstream Canadian Protestants tend to maintain a respectful but non-committal stance regarding American evangelist Billy Graham – but I am not one of them. I honour the man and am proud to be a supporter and advocate for him. We differed on some points of theology and politics, but I have – from my earliest years – viewed him as a great man of God. Let me suggest a few of my reasons for this.
A Man of Character and Integrity
From my first recollections of him during the fifties, and as a result of his radio, then TV and print publications, I was drawn to him. No question, a lot of this had to do with the influence of my parents. They were sincere Christians who didn’t get into the fineries of theology or his American orientation at the time. He proclaimed and lived a simple gospel that they, and then I, could understand. During my teen years, and in a rather protected social environment, that was just fine for me.
His Theology and Politics Began to Make Me a Bit Skeptical
Canadian George Beverly Shae sang those gospel songs beautifully and those crusades in major centres like Los Angeles, New York and London were impressive. I was in college by the early sixties, and began to harbour some doubts about his warnings over eternity in hell and making a decision for Christ before it was too late. I was also beginning to question his views about communism and preserving freedom (which in essence meant to side with the Americans). But those were simpler times and we did tend to view big issues in terms of black and white.
His Commitment Grew for Both Evangelization and Social Justice
I developed an unusual interest and commitment to the mission of the church, globally. My studies and missionary service took me overseas to Europe and the Caribbean; then to the United States itself. I saw in Graham, from my perspective, a kindred spirit. He believed the Gospel was for everyone, and I grew enchanted with how proclamation across cultures and national borders could be done more effectively. I was
much involved in debates about the good inter-relationship between evangelization and social justice. I appreciated the fact that, early on, Graham made it clear he would not preach to segregated audiences – in the American South or South Africa – for that matter.
He Matured in His View of Both Ecumenism and Inter-Faith Relations
He saw his work as drawing evangelical Christians together for mission (for example, his investment in the publication of Christianity Today and the Lausanne Declaration – both of which were attempts to unite evangelical Christians in the face of other church commitments). I tried to understand why Christians might place the emphasis somewhat differently. Still, I was impressed with his attempts to work with the Roman Catholic Church in cities where this might have become an issue. He was winning souls for Christ, not the Church of Billy Graham. I also appreciated his attempts to dialogue with representatives of the Hebrew faith and was feted by some Jews. This caused him no small grief when dealing with certain fundamentalists and conservatives in his own sector of American Christianity.
His Theology, Core Beliefs and Character Stayed Essentially the Same
Between the 1980s and 2000, I began working with mission thinkers ranging from Roman Catholic, to Mainstream and Evangelical Protestant. All of us had a common respect for the pioneering work that Graham had done to help us achieve our goals of global evangelisation and interfaith dialogue. It was indeed possible for “Ecumenicals” and “Evangelicals” to work together. We continued to grow in our awareness that the more our common focus was on Christ the more we could achieve together. Graham’s commitment to live and walk the talk distanced him from some of his contemporaries in times when sexual abuse of various kinds began to rear its ugly head.
He Retained His Common Touch to the End
I had only one direct contact with Graham during all these years. It was after his autobiography “Just As I Am” appeared in 1998. I sent him a copy of the published review I wrote for the Catholic Register in Toronto. I told him that I hoped he would be pleased with my efforts, because of the ecumenical commitments we shared. He responded with a kind, extensive acknowledgement that I still treasure.
Rarely does God bless humanity with the likes of Billy Graham. During this time of global remembrance at his passing, I add my small but heartfelt, personal recognition.
A good Canadian perspective on Graham – click the following from colleague Lorna Dueck:
Graham’s autobiography “Just As I Am” (1998) – still in print
A current biography “America’s Pastor” (Grant Wacker, 2014)