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American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism
American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism
Matthew Avery Sutton
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2014
480 pp., $35.00

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America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation
America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation
Grant Wacker
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2014
448 pp., $27.95

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Mark Noll


Jekyll or Hyde?

Two stories about American evangelicals.

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Grant Wacker begs to differ. Wacker, who is wrapping up a distinguished career as scholar and mentor of young historians at the Divinity School of Duke University, sees Graham's evangelical convictions in a more favorable light, and hence also American evangelicals as a whole. His beautifully written America's Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation is now not only the best general study of the Billy Graham Phenomenon, but also the most charitable possible reading of Graham's career.

Although the book is not a biography, a 25-page introduction succinctly sketches Graham's career: born into a conservative Presbyterian family of dairy farmers in North Carolina, publicly committing himself to Christ as a teenager at a tent-revival meeting, educated at fundamentalist and neo-evangelical institutions, traveling widely as the first full-time preacher for the nascent Youth For Christ movement after World War II, and for over the next fifty years—from his Los Angeles crusade in 1949 (eight weeks, 350,000 in attendance, 3,000 "decisions for Christ") to a three-day preaching campaign in 2005 at Flushing Meadows (200,000 total attendance)—a dominant presence in American public life.

Wacker's capsule biography rehearses Graham's very public association with the nation's presidents, the savvy exploitation by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of modern media, Graham's crucial role in founding Christianity Today magazine while actively promoting other evangelical institutions, and the prodigious numbers attending his rallies at home and abroad. These last deserve special mention, since Graham may have spoken in public meetings to more people than anyone ever in history.

Wacker takes special care here to record the major flash-points of criticism: Graham's naïve faith in Richard Nixon, a theology that some critics called dangerously simplistic, Graham's contention after returning from the Soviet Union in 1982 that its citizens enjoyed religious freedom, and the revelation in 2002 of a 1972 conversation with Nixon that contained Graham's graphically disparaging comments about Jews and their perverse influence in America.

By also recording the many encomia and almost as many disparagements that Graham has received, Wacker sets up the argument of his book. He will, in the end, interpret Graham's public career positively, but only after a full account of evidence pointing in the other direction. Thus, we read of Graham's repeated position at the top of the nation's "most admired" rankings, his place as one of Time's "100 Heroes and Icons of the Twentieth Century," his countless awards (the U.S. Congress, B'nai Brith, Tournament of Roses, etc.), and the accolades from many admirers, including George H. W. Bush, who in 2007 hailed him as "America's Pastor." Readers, however, also hear from Murray Kempton, who derided Graham as "the Pope of lower Protestants"; I. F. Stone, who called him Richard Nixon's "smoother Rasputin"; Reinhold Niebuhr, who pooh-poohed his theology as so much homespun; and quite a few others whom Graham did not impress.

The book proper proceeds thematically, with chapters on Graham as a southerner, the architect of a coordinated neo-evangelical movement, and a patriarch active into his very old age. Wacker's most creative research underlies a chapter on Graham as pastor: extensive reading of the evangelist's syndicated newspaper column, "My Answer," which appeared in daily papers for over 60 years, and then scores of letters addressed to Graham with requests for personal advice. The conclusion that Wacker draws in this chapter anticipates what he also writes about Graham as "Preacher" and as a "Pilgrim" who has undertaken a lifelong journey of social awareness. They showcase a Billy Graham who, apocalyptic warts and all, became an increasingly moderate, increasingly social-minded spokesman for a traditional but also open and inviting version of the Christian faith.

Wacker insists that any serious account of Graham's message must begin with its basic Christian content, "the inner scaffolding" that prevailed from first to last: "God, humans, sin, Christ, salvation, judgment, heaven, and hell." Yet, as if to counter Sutton's assertion about the central place of apocalypticism among American evangelicals, Wacker also documents a significant evolution in what the preacher stressed. At Los Angeles in 1949 and other early rallies, Graham's machine-gun delivery channeled a dispensational premillennial message into an emotional appeal for conversion. At the start he preached what he thought "the Bible says," but relied just as heavily on reading "The Signs of the Times." For the early Graham, it wasn't always clear whether he felt more strongly about the attraction of Christianity or the perils of the Soviet threat, nuclear warfare, and the moral degeneration of contemporary America.

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