This week Midwestern Seminary was privileged to host Dr. Grant Wacker, the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Christian History at Duke University Divinity School. Dr. Wacker lectured on Billy Graham and the life of the mind: a thematic excerpt from his newly released biography on the famed evangelist, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation. You can view his presentation here.
In a sense, Wacker is a rare species. He is a warm-hearted, self-identified evangelical in an institutional setting mostly occupied by those well to his theological left. In fact, in America’s Pastor Wacker acknowledges his own evangelical identity and his accompanying appreciation of Graham.
Wacker’s thesis is straight forward—one cannot rightly understand 20th century Christianity, or 20th century American culture, without understanding Grahams’ formative role in them both. In other words, whether one agrees or disagrees with Graham’s methodologies or his ecumenism, one has to come to terms with how massively influential Graham truly was.
A basic survey of Graham’s public ministry makes this point incontrovertible. He preached in person to some 215,000,000 people, and to approximately 2,000,000,000 more via television and radio, numbers unmatched by any other person in human history. He enjoyed personal relationships with every U.S. president since Harry Truman. Over time, the presidents needed Graham far more than Graham needed the presidents. All of this, and so much more, prompted Americans intuitively to look to Graham as their pastor.
Wacker crafts his narrative more thematically than chronologically, viewing Graham through different prisms, such as preacher, Southerner, architect, and entrepreneur. And through these different prisms of observation, Wacker cites Graham’s distinguishing marks, such as his many unique, natural gifts, his clear moral compass, and his resplendent humility, as essentials to his ministerial success.
Yet, Wacker’s work is far from hagiography. He offers a nuanced assessment of the evangelist, gently criticizing Graham, most especially for his occasional naiveté. For instance, Wacker criticizes Graham for allowing himself to be coopted by politicians, most especially—and most notoriously—by president Richard Nixon.
John Piper once mused that one cannot be a serious student of church history without reading Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand. Wacker argues one cannot be a serious student of the 20th century without considering the life and ministry of Billy Graham. Wacker’s America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation is a good place to begin that consideration.topicsBilly Graham, Culture, Grant Wacker