God's Billy Pulpit

After a lifetime of reshaping Protestantism, Billy Graham contemplates his final years and a legacy that has no sure successor

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What is it in this man, in his urgent voice and eager eyes, in the message and the messenger, that overwhelms even those who are predisposed to distrust him? Long ago, Billy Graham gave up the shiny suits and technicolor ties of the brash young evangelist; the silver mane is thinner now, the step may falter a bit, he no longer prowls the stage like a lynx. In his preaching as well, the temperatures of hellfire have been reduced, the volume turned down. Graham knows he needs to save his strength: he is fighting Parkinson's disease, a progressive nervous disorder that has already made it impossible for him to drive or write by hand. But while he has learned to number his days, Graham intends to make the most of them: "The New Testament says nothing of Apostles who retired and took it easy."

Numbers, poets complain, are soulless things, the anonymous rungs of infinity. But it is hard to talk about Billy Graham, the great reaper of souls, without talking about numbers. This is the man who has preached in person to more people than any human being who has ever lived. What began in country churches and trailer parks and circus tents moved through cathedrals and stadiums and the world's vast public squares, where he has called upon more than 100,000,000 people to "accept Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour."

There may have been cleverer preachers and wiser ones, those whose messages seemed safe, logic sound. But never in history has a preacher moved so many people to act on the "invitation," that mysterious spiritual transaction that concludes every revival meeting. Over the years, 2,874,082 men and women have stepped forward, according to his staff's careful count. In Moscow a year ago, a fourth of his 155,500 listeners answered the call. "I don't know why God has allowed me to have this," Graham says. "I'll have to ask him when I get to heaven."

Billy Graham turned 75 this week, an occasion for some reckoning of a life and career full of blessings and contradictions. Everyone has a preferred ; description. George Bush called him "America's pastor." Harry Truman called him a "counterfeit" and publicity seeker. Pat Boone considers him "the greatest person since Jesus." Fundamentalist leader Bob Jones III says Graham "has done more harm to the cause of Christ than any other living man." Biographer William Martin calls him "an icon not just of American Christianity but of America itself."

Weathering both applause and derision, Graham has through the years become America's perennial deus ex machina, perpetually in motion, sweeping in to lift up spirits befuddled by modernity. When Presidents need to pray, it is Graham whom they call; he ministered to Dwight Eisenhower in the White House, spent the night with the Bushes on the eve of the Gulf War. Richard Nixon offered him the ambassadorship to Israel at a meeting with Golda Meir. "I said the Mideast would blow up if I went over there," Graham recalls. "Golda then reached under the table and squeezed my hand. She was greatly relieved." When Billy arrived for a crusade in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1989, Hillary Rodham Clinton invited him to lunch. "I don't eat with beautiful women alone," Billy told her, so they met in a hotel dining room and talked for a couple of hours.

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