Graham, who long suffered from cancer and pneumonia, died Wednesday at 99.
He is remembered as one of the most — if not the most — influential religious figures of the 20th century after a lifetime of ministry, activism and serving as a confidant to presidents and political figures of both major parties.
Garland Young, Milligan College’s vice president for academic affairs and professor of religion, said Graham’s influence on American Protestantism came partly from a result of the timing of his career. Young said Graham was perhaps as influential as figures like Martin Luther King Jr.
By transforming the traditional “tent revival” into something broadcast to millions throughout the world, Young said Graham was able to “tap into a time of spiritual yearning” in the aftermath of World War II in the United States and abroad. It was a large revival in 1949 that initially helped catapult him into the limelight.
“In post-war America, there was a new brand of economic optimism breaking out in the country, but there was also an undercurrent of angst and anxiety — there was the ‘Red Scare,’ etc.,” Young said.
“He was innovative and groundbreaking in the use of technology. That allowed him to take the concept of the tent revival to new heights that many had never anticipated,” he added. “Nobody could imagine it could be broadcasted across the world and reach millions. Graham viewed it that way.”
But Graham differed from many televangelists in some ways. Young said Graham was never about “building his own kingdom.”
“Graham never did that. He always encouraged people to get involved in their local churches,” Young said. “I think that really resonated with people and bolstered the explosive growth Protestant Christianity witnessed in the post-war period.”
Though Graham often found himself holding conservative views and was often criticized as a moderate by many who were heavily engaged in the civil rights movement, Young said his political character was much different than hardline conservatives like Pat Robertson.
On some issues, he was more liberal. Graham established friendships between religious leaders of different denominations and promoted racial integration. In 1983, he led a convention of evangelists from 140 nations urging the elimination of nuclear and biological weapons proliferation.
“These weren’t just big moments in religious history, they were big moments in political history,” North Johnson City Baptist Church Minister Rick Powell said.
It was in this way Graham was often able to “breach the religious boundaries of the day,” according to Young.
“He had an ability to be involved in public and political squares, again, without compromising the core message,” Young said. “Here is a guy who one day could hold a crusade in a baseball stadium and inspire others to come to Christ, and then the next day, meet with President Kennedy or Nixon and be a religious confidant to them. Again, he did this without compromising the Gospel’s message.
“He could be a confidant to Jimmy Carter and nobody saw him as a liberal Democrat, or a confidant to Reagan and not be considered a hardcore conservative Republican.”
But one of the most notable things about Graham, according to Young and others involved in local ministry, was his moral fortitude, which some televangelist figures have failed to uphold in their personal lives.
Unlike figures such as Pentecostal evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, whose affair with a prostitute shocked many followers, Graham never had public scandals, Young said.
“To be such an influence and not have a stain upon his ministry is really remarkable and almost unique. It’s one of his lasting legacies. It’s going to be the legacy that's hardest for anyone to live up to,” Young said. “But he never came off as holier than thou — he just had this incredible moral impeccability.”
For local ministers like Aaron Murphy, executive director of Good Samaritan Ministries, Graham’s cultural and social influence was positive and irreplaceable.
“The loss of Billy Graham is more so interpreted as the gain of heaven. In Graham, we view a man who has worked hard to gather the community together by making Jesus Christ the centerpiece,” he said. “I don’t want to say it’s a sad day, because we have to rejoice a job well done.
“This is a hero that has moved on — or who has graduated. We all say, ‘Thank you, Billy Graham.’ ”