Billy Graham was, perhaps, the greatest of all evangelists. He didn’t so much excel at his calling as re-invent it, transforming the tent revivals of his North Carolina youth into religious stadium shows full of music, fervor, forgiveness and salvation.
A man of great faith, millions watched him on television and hundreds of thousands flocked to stadiums across America to hear him preach the gospel. Clearly influenced by revivalists who worked their way across the south and Midwest in an earlier era, Graham’s booming baritone could at once empathize with sinners, console those in sorrow and invigorate the righteous. In the wake of his “crusades,” prayer groups and organizations to help the less fortunate often sprung to life.
In his passing, announced Wednesday, America loses one of its great moral voices. He counseled presidents and carried his message – that salvation for even the most morally destitute could be found in the words of Jesus of Nazareth – to every corner of the globe.
Not only did Graham preach the gospel, he also preached tolerance and spoke against the evil of racial discrimination when too few southerners were willing to do that. He invited Martin Luther King Jr. onto his platform at Madison Square Garden in 1957 – an act King never forgot. When King was assassinated in 1968, Graham called him nothing less than a prophet.
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Many say Graham’s breakthrough came in Los Angeles in 1949, where he began calling his stadium revivals “crusades.” More than 350,000 people – many displaced southerners who had come to Los Angeles to work in defense plants – came to hear him speak over eight weeks.
But before he arrived in LA, Graham had connected to audiences in Modesto. Inviting them to a “Canvas Cathedral” at Burney and La Loma, they were moved by song, fellowship and the word of God as Graham delivered it.
Over 10 days, some 26,000 came to hear Graham preach. In his downtime, Graham and those working with him came up with a code of conduct that served their organization for 60 years. The Modesto Manifesto insisted on financial transparency and a morality so strict that no staff member could be alone in a closed room with a woman who was not his wife.
One of those who joined the crusade was Cliff Barrows of Ceres, who became one Graham’s most trusted advisers, working in the organization 60 years.
From the proceeds of that Modesto crusade arose the Modesto Homeless Mission, now called the Modesto Gospel Mission. Today, the Mission serves 150,000 meals and shelters some 2,000 men, women and children every year.
It’s impossible to measure any person’s life in numbers, but we know that more than 215 million attended his 400 crusades, millions more read his books and many were served by organizations that sprang up around his movement.
Graham was not perfect. Many criticized him for enriching himself through his ministry, others recalled that he once suggested AIDS was the “judgment of God.”
And those who have followed in Graham’s footsteps – including his son Franklin – have not always lived up to Graham’s ideals. There have been many scandals involving religious leaders of every denomination and others have politicized religion.
Few in Modesto remember that “America’s Pastor” came to the city. It’s doubtful that those who find warmth and food at the Modesto Gospel Mission on cold winter nights know that it was born from one of his first crusades. We are glad his good work endures.