Billy Graham among the theologians

Billy Graham

For those who know Emil Brunner’s admiration for the American free church model (and evangelical personalism), then you will find this very amusing:

The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth once stood in the rain to hear Graham preach in Basel. When he told Graham that the sermon from John 3:3 was good but should not have stressed the must in ‘you must be born again,’ Graham begged to differ (and was soon gratified to hear another great theologian, Emil Brunner, affirm his position). But then Graham closes this account concerning Barth with these words: “In spite of our theological differences, we remained good friends.”

[Mark Noll, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction, Blackwell 2001, p. 47]

Another important theologian, Helmut Thielicke, also attended a Billy Graham crusade, but with certain preconceived notions which put Thielicke in an ill disposition toward the popular preacher. However, after coming under the preaching of Graham, Thielicke experienced an awakening of a sort. He explained in a letter to Graham:

The evening was a profound “penance” experience (poenitentia) for me. … When I have been asked now and again about your preaching, I have certainly not been too modest to make one or two theological observations. My evening with you made clear to me (and the Holy Spirit will have helped in doing so!) that the question should be asked in the reverse form: What is lacking in me and in my colleagues in the pulpit and at the university lectern, that makes Billy Graham so necessary?

In Thielicke’s autobiography, Notes from a Wayfarer, he recounts the situation:

My meeting with Billy Graham, who was at that time holding his huge evangelization crusades in Los Angeles stadium, was of great importance to me. I at first had reservations about accepting his invitation to sit next to him on the balustrade.

When I then did indeed do so on the insistence of my friends, I kept my eyes wide open critically. As the people came forward in their thousands to confess their faith, however, I was aware only of calm meditation on the part of his crew and detected no expressions of triumph. His message was good solid stuff. His warmhearted, unpretentious humanity made a great impression on me.

Afterwards I wrote him a thank you letter in which I confessed that whenever I had previously been asked for my opinion of him I had said that I felt that many essential elements were lacking in his proclamation of the Gospel; he advocated an individualistic doctrine of salvation, and even this took place only in relation to the initial stages of faith. Although I had now personally experienced his message, I did not feel compelled to revise the objective side of this criticism, but I had resolved to modify the question in which I raised my criticism; it now ran: “What is lacking in my and the conventional Christian proclamation of the Gospel that makes Billy Graham necessary?”

I found the answer he gave me extremely significant. I was, he said, completely right in my criticism. What he was doing was certainly the most dubious form of evangelization. But what other alternative did he have if the flocks that had no shepherds would not otherwise be served? This answer gave him credibility in my eyes and convinced me of his spiritual substance.

Graham would take Thielicke’s constructive criticism to heart, as exhibited in his later emphasis on continuing discipleship and the importance of the local church, the latter which caused him much criticism (from fundamentalists) as he worked with local mainline Protestant churches and Roman Catholics whenever his crusade would come to a town.



  1. My own personal memory is of an engaging debate between him and Michael Ramsey in Cambridge. (c 1980) It was marked by mutual respect and affection. During Graham’s address he was obviously aware f the university setting and restrained himself, Ramsey, having observed this, got into his pulpit, waggled his eyebrows in that charismatic way that only he could, and then, gesticulating wildly, said, *I’m here to talk to you about Jesus.” Talk about role reversal.

  2. I attended a Billy Graham crusade once. Or rather his Barnum & Bailley (there is a sucker born every minute) showbiz circus. Thats all it was “religious” show-business.

    A more “sophisticated” and larger scale version of the old old revival-tent tradition of the USA.

    Not all that different from Hitler working the crowds at Nuremberg.

    • Who ever you are, you have no concept of evangelism and how Bill Graham has been used of the Lord to bring the Gospel to millions. He will be sorley missed when the Lord takes him home.

  3. Sue,

    You dazzle us with your keen perception. However, I don’t remember Hitler calling people to repent of their sins and come to the loving forgiveness of God.

  4. A belated comment, but thank you for this post. An excellent little combination of anecdote and thinking, from three wonderful people.

  5. […] For a certain type of evangelical who is hyper-sensitive to “biblical authority” issues, you will not like Brunner. I have my own criticisms. But please, it is time to expand your horizons and start reading outside of the Crossway orbit. In fact, Brunner is actually the finest exponent of Free Church ecclesiology that I have ever read, as expressed in the third volume of his Dogmatics and elsewhere. He was a pietist at heart. See “Billy Graham among the theologians.” […]

  6. Karl Barth had a different take on Graham. Barth enjoyed conversations he had with Graham in August 1960: “He’s a jolly good fellow.” But “it was very different when we went to hear him let loose in the St Jacob stadium … and witnessed his influence on the masses.” “I was quite horrified. He acted like a madman and what he presented was certainly not the gospel.” “It was the gospel at gun-point… He wanted to terrify people. Threats – they always make an impression…”

    — From Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth (1975), p. 446.

    Speaking personally: During my own formative years from the mid-60s, Billy Graham was Mr. Christianity. The gospel he preached and the way that he preached it, combined with his role as Nixon’s court prophet, ensured that, despite the impact of Martin Luther King, I left the US in 1971 a confirmed non-Christian. The bad taste in my mouth remained – until I started reading Barth when I was working on a farm in south England during the later 70s. Game, set, and match.

    I’m so glad that Graham finally saw some light – I mean especially compared to the benighted and baleful religious right.

    • Thanks, Kim. I understand. Graham failed to bring proper criticism, from the gospel no less, to those in political office — thanks to an idealization of America that has plagued both the right and the left to this day. Graham has since acknowledge his failures in this regard, though I doubt his son Franklin has really taken it to heart.

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