A Man Enraptured

Billy Graham spent his life declaring the end was near. That gave American Evangelicals a new beginning.

  • May 1, 2019
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  • Feature
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  • By Matthew Sutton

On September 23, 1949, President Harry Truman revealed to the world that the Soviet Union had conducted a successful test of an atomic bomb. Two days later, a handsome, lanky, thirty-one-year-old evangelist stepped up to the podium in a makeshift tabernacle erected on a vacant lot in southern California. “I think that we are living at a time in world history when God is giving us a desperate choice, a choice of either revival or judgment,” the preacher blustered in a southern twang. “There is no alternative! . . . God Almighty is going to bring judgment upon this city unless people repent and believe—unless God sends an old-fashioned, heaven-sent, Holy Ghost revival.”

The young Billy Graham warned the sixty-five hundred people who had packed into the revival tent that now was the time for salvation. “Across Europe at this very hour there is stark naked fear among the people, for we all realize that war is much closer than we ever dreamed,” he warned. “Russia has now exploded an atomic bomb. An arms race . . . is driving us madly towards destruction! . . . I am persuaded that time is desperately short!” But he did not despair. Throughout Graham’s career he reminded his listeners of God’s promise to the Hebrews in 2 Chronicles 7:14, “if my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” Like most other fundamentalists and evangelicals, Graham did not just see this verse as a promise to ancient Israel. He also believed it applied to the modern United States. Judgment was coming, but it was never too late to repent and find redemption.

Graham’s ascension into the center of American religious life marked a new point in the history of modern evangelicalism. He was a product of the new evangelicalism that sought to find better ways to appeal to outsiders rather than the old fundamentalism that too often produced ugly internecine squabbles. He masterfully integrated the apocalyptic theology of his predecessors with the irenic disposition and respectability of the new evangelicals. He never doubted that faith and American nationalism walked hand in hand and he believed that God had selected the United States to help prepare the world for the coming judgment. Advising presidents, meeting with foreign leaders, and counseling political policy-makers, he achieved the influence that the faithful had long prayed for. As Graham came to represent the public face of evangelicalism, he demonstrated that efforts to rebrand the fundamentalist movement had been a stunning success.

Though Graham had achieved mainstream respectability and political influence, he never doubted that the end times were close. Although he believed, like so many others, that the specifics of biblical prophecy were vague enough to guarantee vigorous debate, he made apocalypticism a central component of his ministry throughout his entire career; the second coming was one of the topics that most animated him. His invocation of apocalypticism served to instill in followers a belief that time counted and that it mattered how they spent their lives. “Fifty years ago,” he explained early in his career, “a few evangelical ministers preached that Jesus is coming and, although their audiences listened with interest, few thought that their beliefs would ever find wide acceptance among the religious and secular leaders of the world.” But in the wake of the world wars, the Great Depression, and the hydrogen bomb, things had changed. “A doctrine,” he effused, “which was written off fifty years ago as irrelevant, inconsistent and impossible had become the great hope of the church in the middle of the twentieth century.” He recognized that apocalyptic fears were playing a role in global politics. “Many world leaders,” he insisted, “are consciously aware that we are on the brink of a world catastrophe and impending judgment. ” His goal, however, was to instill hope. With Jesus, the men and women attending his crusades, reading his books, or listening to him on TV or radio could find salvation.

His invocation of apocalypticism served to instill in followers a belief that time counted and that it mattered how they spent their lives.

During Graham’s evangelistic crusades, he routinely warned that Jesus would soon return to separate the sheep from the goats. At a 1950 southern California revival he confessed that his calculations regarding the rapture’s imminence had been evolving. “I’m revising my figures,” he explained. “Last year in Los Angeles I thought we had at least five years, now it looks like just two years—and then the end.” While neither Graham’s pistachio-colored suit nor the sins of humanity brought down God’s immediate wrath, his message did not change. “We do not know whether we have one year, two years, five years, or ten years,” he preached a few years later. “But one thing is certain–there is a feeling in the air that something is about to happen. Men sense that they are rushing madly toward a climactic point in history.” Shortly after the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik in 1957, Graham again defended his apocalyptic sensibilities. “The Church,” he told a national radio audience, “has all but lost its emphasis on this thrilling doctrine which is so clearly taught in the New Testament. I know that some have gone over-board and twisted and distorted the prophecies. I realize that many have foolishly set dates. . . . But the truth is that the Church has been most effective in the world when she has lived in momentary expectancy of the return of Christ.” Graham understood that premillennialism was much more than an abstract doctrine; it invigorated faith and inspired action that would hasten redemption in a sinful world. ”The Church he urged, “must re-discover this great doctrine which is so clearly and amply taught in the Bible.”

As Billy Graham neared the end of his life, he both tapped into and continued to fuel modern American apocalyptic beliefs. In 2010, the elderly evangelist updated and reiterated his premillennial convictions . . . . “Now at ninety-one years old,” Graham explained to readers, “I believe the storm clouds are darker than they have ever been. . . . Benevolent hands reach down from heaven to offer us the most hopeful warning and remedy: ‘Prepare to meet your God.’ . . . The signs of His imminent return have never been greater than now.” Graham’s signs included the 9/11 attacks, the global economic recession, the ever-growing power of the state, the environmental crisis, the influence of godless popular culture on American society, secular school curricula, and the rise of multiculturalism. Although Graham told Christianity Today that he regretted the way his political involvement had compromised his ministry, that did not stop him from taking out national newspaper ads during the 2012 campaign counseling Americans to vote for candidates “who will support the biblical definition of marriage, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms.” While he didn’t explicitly say “vote Republican,” his message was clear.

Graham’s work illustrates how, for over a century, evangelical leaders have masterfully linked the major issues of every generation to their reading of the coming apocalypse with the goal of transforming their culture. While the signs of the apocalypse have changed over time, they have never stopped appearing for evangelicals. Discerning their meaning has given the faithful a powerful sense of urgency, a confidence that they alone understand the world in which they are living, and a hope for a future in which they will reign supreme. They also know that their critics will soon face the wrath of the Almighty and the torments of hell. The anticipation of Armageddon has been good to Billy Graham and good to American evangelicals as a whole.

In his 2010 book Storm Warning, Graham perfectly encapsulated 150 years of evangelical apocalypticism, with its blend of despair and activism. “Listen!” he preached. “The distant sounds” of the four horsemen of the apocalypse “can be heard closing in on the place you now sit reading. Above the clatter of the horses’ hooves arise other sounds-the metallic thud of machine guns, the whistle of flamethrowers and mortar rounds, the crackle of burning schools, homes, and churches, the high-pitched shriek of missiles zeroing in with their nuclear warheads, the explosion of megaton bombs over our cities.” But there was always room for hope. “If the human race would turn from its evil ways and return to God,” he promised, “putting behind its sins of disobedience, idolatry, pride, greed, and belligerence, and all the various aberrations that lead to war, the possibility of peace exists. But when we see society as it is, with anger and violence around us, who can anticipate such a transformation?”

Matthew Sutton is the Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of History at Washington State University. This excerpt has been adapted from his book American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, published by Harvard University Press. Sutton is currently presenting his free Speakers Bureau talk, “The Chosen Voters: Evangelicals in Modern America,” around the state. Find an event here.

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