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The Church of Appearances

A review of "Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham"

Hulton Archive/Getty

There is a striking moment in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography in which two main currents of American life converge. Skeptical Ben, a man who “seldom attended any public worship,” and for whom “Revelation had indeed no weight,” goes out one day in 1739 to hear a famous evangelical preacher whom he regards as a holdover from the age of credulity. The place is Philadelphia, the preacher is the visiting English Methodist George Whitefield, and the charity on Whitefield’s mind that day is an orphanage in Georgia. Before the appeal, Franklin “did not disapprove of the design” for an orphans’ home. Ever the booster of local interests, he “thought it would have been better to have built the House here & [to have] Brought the Children to it.” By the time Whitefield finished his soaring plea, however, Franklin had “emptied my pocket wholly into the collector’s dish, gold and all.” A wealthy friend, whose wariness of the preacher’s blandishments had led him to attend the service without a cent on his person, found himself begging in the crowd for a loan with which he could make a gift of his own.

If Whitefield was the first great practitioner of itinerant revival preaching in America, Billy Graham is its modern master. His story begins fifty years ago, when Americans outside the South first came to know this dentally impeccable farmboy from North Carolina with a taste for Dr. Pepper and goofy suits, who traveled with a supporting cast of musicians, notably George Beverly Shea, the baritone who sings what Graham’s biographer Marshall Frady aptly calls the “lanolin-lubricated solos” that are a standard part of a Graham service. In 1949, Billy and his Crusade Team (the initial letters are always capitalized) made their first incursion into the urban Northeast. Preaching on the Boston Common in a city full of theological liberals, Catholics and egghead unbelievers, he borrowed his topic from a sermon that Whitefield had preached there some two centuries before: “Shall God Reign in New England?” The result was a “harvest” of contributions and converts, and a sense among some in the infidel city that God’s messenger had come to town. Even some latter-day skeptics, in the tradition of Franklin, were impressed.

Journey, Arrival, Doubt, Triumph: this is the four-part movement of Billy Graham’s autobiography, which bears the belligerently modest title Just As I Am. It is a monotonous tale—how the ministry went national and then international, how it reached out through radio, film and (most of all) television—that makes for a book with a repetitive structure rather like the structure of pornography. Virtually every chapter tells the same story in the same vocabulary. Billy flies into town in a rickety chartered plane that is running low on fuel or in the hands of an unlicensed pilot or buffeted by a thunderstorm. At first, the press as well as local civic and religious leaders are dubious or hostile (Billy’s handlers are always fretting that the plane is late or the weather bad), but the great man remains undaunted, the rally goes on, and it ends with a throng of converts approaching the sundrenched or moonlit platform to declare their “decisions for Christ.”

Billy Graham probably deserves his reputation as having preached Christianity to more people than anyone in history. Pastor to presidents, inventor of (in Garry Wills’s phrase) “golf course spirituality,” author now of a bestselling memoir, he has been on the lists of most admired Americans for most of the last forty years. But who is this Elvis of the evangelicals? What does he believe? And what kind of religious experience does he offer his followers?

Just As I Am does not help much with these questions. Despite its length, it is not really a book. It is what Robert Giroux used to call an “ook”: a gesture toward an idea or a sentiment or a story that is packaged as a book, but never quite becomes one. Considering how important strenuous self-reflection is in the religious tradition to which Grahambelongs, one of its oddest features is how little it reveals of its author’s inner life. We do catch glimpses of Billy in times of edginess and exhaustion; we learn that on tour he misses his wife and children; we witness a fleeting moment of doubt about the inerrancy of scripture. He expresses regret over a few public gaffes—such as when he and the Team, after a chilly visit with President Truman, knelt in posed prayer for photographers on the White House lawn. Put together with help from various writers, secretaries and “editorial coordinators,” this memoir has the feeling of having been dictated on the run. There are flashes of self-deprecating humor, as when Billy looks back and discovers his youthful resemblance to Li’l Abner; but most of the humor is unwitting, as when we encounter “Bev” Shea at the Helsinki Crusade crooning “I’d Rather Have Jesus” in Finnish.

“To be honest,” Graham says, “I never thought I would write this book ... [and] one of the hardest parts has been deciding what to leave out.” It is not always easy to grasp just what has guided him in choosing what to put in. Skipping quickly over the war years (he was 23 when Pearl Harbor was bombed), he says little more than that his hopes for an army chaplaincy were thwarted when he turned out to be underweight. Yet certain small childhood incidents are carefully preserved for their allegorical value, as when the future preacher of love and reconciliation shuts up the family collie in the doghouse overnight with a cat—an experiment by which he learns, presumably, that creatures who go into a situation as enemies can come out friends.

Graham’s first stirrings of conviction came when he was turning 16, in response to the voice and the gaze of a traveling preacher with the splendid name of Mordecai Ham, who had come to Charlotte to denounce sin. Dr. Ham seemed especially attuned to the dark secrets of the young, and Billy, whose participation in the local Presbyterian church had until then been merely dutiful, found himself feeling accused by the man’s stare. “Billy was always a ladies man,” as one friend (quoted not in Just As I Am, but in an admiring biography by William Martin) has put it. “He was quite a thinker, too. That’s all he thought about.” Surprising himself in feeling drawn to the revival meeting for a second night, he and his lifelong friend Grady Wilson decided to join the choir so they could mouth the words (neither could sing) while using their hymn books to hide from Ham’s dread gaze.

Evidently, Graham came to his faith out of standard adolescent anxiety. “As a teenager, what I needed to know for certain was that I was right with God.” Just As I Am does not elaborate on this quest for certainty, which concluded successfully when he was 16 and seems never to have faltered in the ensuing sixtyfour years. It was a conversion of what William James called the “volitional type,” a spiritual event without much sense of upheaval. “No bells went off inside me,” Billy says. “No signs flashed across the tabernacle ceiling. No physical palpitations made me tremble.” Now, nearly 80, he indulges in scant retrospective analysis of his adolescent self, but he does recall that after being smitten by Dr. Ham, he worried about ridicule from his peers. “How could I face school tomorrow?... There seemed to be a song in my heart, but it was mixed with a kind of pounding fear as to what might happen when I got to class.” There are hints that even before his conversion he may already have been regarded as over-scrupulous:

Once in my senior year, when we were in a night rehearsal of a school play at Sharon High, one of the girls in the cast coaxed me aside into a dark classroom. She had a reputation for “making out” with the boys. Before I realized what was happening, she was begging me to make love to her. My hormones were as active as any other healthy young male’s, and I had fantasized often enough about such a moment. But when it came, I silently cried to God for strength and darted from that classroom the way Joseph fled the bedroom of Potiphar’s philandering wife in ancient Egypt.

What Mordecai Ham gave to this boy was a new sense of the dignity of his scruples. To this was added the gift of a vocation: Billy would be a preacher. At Bible school and college, Graham discovered his own oratorical gifts and developed chaste friendships with several pious girls, eventually courting Ruth Bell, the daughter of missionaries, to whom he has now been married for more than fifty years. While studying to be a purveyor of the gospel, he spent some time hawking Fuller brushes door to door, an experience by which he tested and refined his salesman’s knack. In 1940, at the New York World’s Fair, Graham saw his first television. “They had a camera there, and as you walked by, you could see yourself on a screen. We never thought it would amount to anything, though. It seemed too incredible!” The rest is evangelical history.

For Americans outside the Bible belt, that history can seem like a parade of buffoonish salesmen selling Jesus instead of snake oil. When Billy Graham was 10 years old, Sinclair Lewis captured the type and named him Elmer Gantry—a fictional figure to whom reality (lately in such exemplars as Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker) has often seemed to conform. In fact, however, American evangelicalism is as complex as any other loosely associated phenomena that historians choose to call a movement. It is inextricable from the founding and the development of the American nation (Melville referred to the United States as the “evangelical land”), which was settled by colonists who proclaimed their intention to evangelize the Indians. Today the very term evangelism seems synonymous with fundamentalism and political reaction, but it has encompassed many contradictory theological and political impulses.

Evangelicals such as John Leland and Isaac Backus were strong advocates of religious freedom during the constitutional debates of the 1780s, while others were appalled by the founding fathers’ refusal to designate the early republic an officially Christian nation. Some evangelicals (such as Whitefield) were strict Calvinists, in the sense of stressing predestination and universal depravity, while others have insisted that human beings are perfectible and can choose salvation as an act of free will. Some evangelicals have been openly anti-Semitic (apparently including Mordecai Ham), while others fervently support Israel as the nation that will usher in the millennium. Evangelicals—often prominently including women—have played an important role in the causes of abolition, temperance, the Sunday School movement and urban charity and reform. Evangelicals have also been odious racists, xenophobes, and religious bigots. And though some evangelicals have been deeply suspicious of secular learning (an attitude that earned them a long section in Richard Hoftstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life), many of our most distinguished institutions of higher learning (Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown and Oberlin, among others) were founded by evangelical Christians.

Where is the common ground? For one thing, evangelicals of all creeds, styles and denominations have tended to set themselves against their ministerial counterparts who, in the words of Gilbert Tennent (the New Light Presbyterian whose sermon on “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry” became a rallying cry during the first Great Awakening in the mid-eighteenth century), “have not the Courage, or Honesty, to thrust the Nail of Terror into sleeping Souls.” Wherever one listens for the evangelical voice, this theme of outrage at clerical insouciance is audible. Ministers, it says, have become polite and coddling. Established churches have become tombs of the soul. The charge may be heard against the hierarchy of the Anglican church from Southern Baptists, and from circuit-riding frontier Methodists against Presbyterians and Catholics, and even from New England Transcendentalists against what Emerson called the “corpse-cold Unitarianism” that made him feel “defrauded and disconsolate” in his pew.

This call for hot religion has been the evangelical keynote. It is an emotion more than an idea, but behind it lies a conception of history. “The historical development of Christianity,” as Hoftstadter observed, “was not an accretion of valuable institutional forms and practices but a process of corruption and degeneration in which the purity of primitive Christianity had been lost.” If not necessarily anti-intellectual in Hoftstadter’s sense, evangelicalism in all its forms has been broadly anti-institutional. It seeks to retrieve the birth moment of Christianity, when Jesus walked among men so they could hear and touch him, and when churches were spontaneous gatherings of men sharing their sense of having been delivered by this messiah from the trial of life and the fear of death.

For everyone born since the crucifixion, the great problem is how to recover this sense of intimacy with Christ. “Give me Christ,” as the dissident Anne Hutchinson declared in early New England, where most sermons, she thought, were fast becoming scholastic and deadening. “I seek not for graces, but for Christ; I seek not for promises, but for Christ... tell not me of meditation and duties, but tell me of Christ.” And so the evangelist tends to preach outside settled churches (Hutchinson was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for holding unauthorized religious meetings); and with the centuries’ long expansion westward and southward toward an ever-receding frontier, the evangelical preacher becomes a galloping crier of the gospel. He evades—and sometimes invades—the stultified church where, he says, worship has degenerated into rote, and, often by preaching God’s coming wrath against his enemies, he tries to recall pseudo-Christians to the original power of the imperiled faith. Then he departs to repeat the saving visit somewhere else.

To the usurped local clergy, this kind of itinerancy has often seemed a form of charlatanism perpetrated by men who go through the motions of the priesthood without accepting the pastoral responsibilities it entails. Here is how one Anglican church official reacted to Whitefield’s claim (in the words of the outraged observer) that he was “a special Messenger sent forth from God, and therefore not bound to give Proofs or Reasons of his Message.” For this irate Anglican cleric, such a demagogue would bring back the chaos of Cromwellian England, when self-proclaimed prophets of all sorts roamed the land:

On my demanding the Credentials of his Mission, he... only tell[s] me of certain inward Motions, Impulses or Feelings he had of the Spirit ... My Brethren, we have had enough of such Pretenders and Pretensions to the Spirit!—Look back to the Oliverian Days,—what Ruin and Desolation such Pretenders brought upon the Kingdom! How they did swarm throughout the Nation!... Beware therefore, my Brethren, of such Pretensions;—of the old Story over again! How intoxicating, how fascinating things are an agreeable Voice and Manner of speaking? The only Excellencies of this Preacher. Take these away;—put his Discourses into the Mouth of an ordinary Speaker, I dare say, no one would step out of his Way to hear them.

More or less the same charge has been made at every phase of evangelical history—from the frontier circuit-riders to the age of radio, when Billy Graham was born.

Today, Graham is the undisputed evangelical champion of the world. His autobiography measures his success mainly quantitatively, in crowd sizes: 100,000 in Yankee Stadium; 250,000 in Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro; 1,000,000 in a park in Seoul. But if the scale is new, the technique is old. Along with his sermon and the interludes of devotional music, a typical Graham service includes professions of faith from “witnesses” who speak of how Christ healed their once-broken lives. In this respect, Graham is true to the principle, as articulated by the leading theorist of evangelical religion, Jonathan Edwards, that “scarce any one thing has so great an influence to awaken sinners... as the tidings of a sinner’s repentance, or hopeful conversion.” Here is the animating principle of all revival meetings (and quasi-religious support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous) —the idea that by telling their own stories, witnesses to hope can make their conversions contagious.

But after we marvel at the number of converts, what do we learn of the effects on their lives? Graham reports that when he arrived in London in 1952 to plan his first British Crusade, and addressed a gathering of wary Anglican churchmen in Westminster, “the part of the speech that apparently made the deepest impression on my audience was my honest discussion of the major criticisms of mass evangelism, including the danger of false emotion, the potential overemphasis on finances, and the problem of converts who did not last.” On the second point, he has been admirably prudent, having set up long ago the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, complete with a governing board that controls investments, expenditures on films and television time, donations to charity, and of which he is a salaried employee. But how does one determine whether the emotion at his packed rallies is spurious or authentic? In the context in which he performs, what does “conversion” mean? On the occasion of Graham’s first rally in New York in 1957, Reinhold Niebuhr posed the question by asking what it could mean to achieve “a new life, not through painful religious experience, but merely by signing a decision card?”

Just As I Am does not confront this question. A relentless chronicle of dealings with presidents and prime ministers (who seem almost compulsively inclined to confide their spiritual anxieties to Graham), it is little more than just another celebrity autobiography—the fluff one expects from most politicans, newscasters and movie stars. It rattles off the great public events of the last fifty years with the hero in ubiquitous attendance, a kind of clerical Forrest Gump. One particularly grotesque caption accompanies a photograph of Graham, dry under a makeshift shelter, preaching to American soldiers who are standing exposed in the downpour: “Preaching in the pouring rain to troops in Vietnam, December, 1966.”

In this book, everything is softened into a newsreel blur of ceremonial handshakes and public smiles. “Today,” Graham writes, “it may be hard to recall the sharp divisions and controversies that sometimes marked Protestant-Catholic relations back then—even during John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960.” Hard, indeed—and he does not make much of an effort. Nowhere in the book do we find mention of the notorious episode when Grady Wilson (in a statement that Graham never repudiated) announced Graham’s refusal to sign a pledge to keep religion out of the campaign, and charged that at a special mass somewhere in Latin America, a Roman Catholic congregation had prayed that Graham’s plane, on its way to a crusade in Brazil, would crash.

On the matter of race, Graham advertises his cordial relations with Martin Luther King Jr. and insists on his longstanding commitment to integrating his Crusades, recalling in particular a rally in Chattanooga in 1953, in which he personally tore down the ropes separating white seating sections from black—an act that provoked the resignation of the head usher. But he does not consider the challenge—issued, again by Niebuhr in 1957—that his evangelical message should do more to “incorporate the demand of love transcending racial boundaries” and become “a whole-souled effort to give the Negro neighbor his full due as a man and brother.”

Graham explains his reticence on the racial question as essentially tactical. Rather than join King in the streets, he “followed his advice” to “stay in the stadiums,” so as not to alienate his overwhelmingly southern white audiences. Perhaps he did coax this constituency along toward accepting integration. Yet the fact is that his voice was never raised very high in the national struggle for racial justice in the 1950s and ‘60s, whereas on some of the other failings of secular culture—its materialism, its sexual laxness—the unreticent and untactical Graham was loud and clear.

When Graham looks back to the Vietnam years, we hear mainly about presidential friendships—with Kennedy, who lured him into a golf game after the 1960 election so they could be photographed together for the benefit of residually skeptical Protestant voters, and with Nixon, for whom he became virtually the White House chaplain, but whom he seems, on reflection, to distrust. In a chapter called “My Quaker Friend,” he gets defensive (“I did not have to distance myself from Watergate; I wasn’t close to it in the first place”), and writes about Nixon that “in retrospect, whenever he spoke about the Lord, it was in pretty general terms.” As for the president who envisioned a Great Society while committing the United States to the incalculably destructive war, there is a poignant moment when Johnson, expecting to die soon, asks Graham to preach at his funeral. “You’ll read the Bible, of course, and preach the Gospel,” Johnson said. “I want you to.” Then, pausing, he added: “But I hope you’ll also tell folks some of the things I tried to do.” When the occasion arrived less than two years later, Graham’s response was to call Johnson “a mountain of a man with a whirlwind for a heart... [whose] thirty-eight years of public service kept him at the center of the events that have shaped our destiny.”

This is the essential mode of Just As I Am. Written with self-protective tact (at one point he uses the word “alleged” to describe the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner), it never rises above genial banality. The point is not to fault Graham’s eulogy for Johnson for its bland neutrality (he “shaped our destiny”), or to chastise him for being cautious on race, or squeamish about Kennedy, or too loyal on Vietnam, or even, across the decades, for his unseemly craving to be cozy with the powerful. The problem is not the failures, the problem is the refusal to reflect on the failures. Inwardness should not be missing from a religious book.

The real disappointment of Graham’s book is that it gives hardly a clue to his remarkable power to attract and to hold a following of millions. His voice is muffled by the patchwork of this collaboratively constructed memoir, which puts one in mind of Emerson’s remark about his favorite Unitarian preacher that “his eye and voice could not be printed, and his discourses lose their best in losing them.” Why have so many people been calmed and consoled by this man, and, perhaps, found through him new purpose in their lives?

For one thing, Graham makes no one feel uneasy about belonging to the wrong church. He is the original inclusionist. Nor does he denounce false doctrine as heresy. He conveys respect for almost any expression of the religious impulse, including Islamic, Hindu and other non-Christian forms, while reserving his contempt—usually modulated into a gentle expression of sorrow—for the godless. He himself is denominationally mobile. He has been baptized three times—as an infant in his parents’ Presbyterian church, then again, in “an adult act, following my conscious conversion,” as a student at the Florida Bible Institute, and finally at the age of 20, when it was suggested to him that he would be unwelcome in Baptist pulpits unless he received proper immersion in the Baptist way. Ever since, he has preached with equal fervor to many species of Protestants, to Catholics and even to Jews, always insisting that “my goal was not to get people to leave their church; rather I wanted them to commit their lives to Christ.” (On crusade in Israel, he was careful not to “call” Jews to Jesus, but commended them for having prepared the way for Christ’s ministry.)

But more fundamental than his ecumenicism is his promise of deliverance from fear, as when he reflects on his childhood:

Whenever a cow died, we hitched up the mules and dragged the carcass to a far corner of the pasture, where we buried it. The rest of the herd followed along with us, mooing mournfully as if they could feel bereavement... There was a graveyard not too far from where we lived. One day—this was when I was a little boy—my father and I walked by it when we were hunting. It was almost dark. I had to reach up and hold tight his hand. Even when I grew older, I used to lie awake at night and wonder what would happen to me if I died. It upset me to pray, “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

For the evangelical Christian, the moment of conversion comes when the fear of being eternally alone gives way to the prospect—the certainty—of being soon enfolded in the arms of a caring God.

Graham conveys this expectancy with simplicity and gratitude. Undiscourageable and gently self-deprecating, he is free of the anger that seems to animate other televangelists. He may be the best modern exemplar of what the first American Protestants called the “plain style”—a homiletical manner free of adornment and abstraction, and devoted, above all, to transmitting the gospel to “the meanest understanding.” As one of his friends puts it, “An evangelist can’t be complicated. They are great persuaders, not explainers.”

He does not puzzle over the Biblical prophecies or try to calculate where we stand on the time-chart that leads toward apocalypse. When asked (as he was by David Frost in a recent interview) for his views on thorny theological questions, he tends to demur. Controversies that have driven Christians to dispute, to schism, and even to war are likely to elicit from him the intellectual equivalent of a shrug. “There will be a day of reckoning,” he supposes, “when God closes His books on time and judges every creature, living and dead”; but on the question of what will happen to the souls of non-Christians, or to those who lived and died before the Christian era, or whether Christ will return after a thousand years of harmony, or will descend with sword and fire to lead his legions against the forces of evil, Grahamis serenely agnostic.

Leaving all the worrying about such matters to God, he says, with a stoic and deeply American practicality, that we cannot know, and so should live one day at a time. His focus is resolutely on the individual life—on the businessman deadened by routine, the alcoholic fearful of life with (or without) the bottle, the couple contemplating divorce, the parent unable to contain rage at a child. Graham addresses his audience as if he knows each of their most private anxieties, speaking of the patriarchs and apostles and of Christ himself with an immediacy undiminished by time, as if the centuries between a biblical story (“Potiphar’s philandering wife”) and today’s personal stress (the girl with “a reputation for `making out’”) vanish in a flash.

Despite, or because of, his own unshadowed certainty of where he stands with God, Graham has a kind of tranquil modesty, an aw-shucks contentment to let the master planner do his inscrutable work. In this sense, his closest analogue in the postwar years is surely another vastly popular figure with no head for details—Ronald Reagan, who spoke almost mystically about the national destiny, and with the same confidence about his own righteousness. Graham may not be sure about the theological fine points, but of one thing he is alarmingly certain: “I knew,” he writes about his decision to submit to baptism for a third time, “that God had already made me a member of the Body of Christ, visibly expressed on earth in the Church, and that human labels could not affect my standing with Him one way or another.” The confidence is breathtaking. Compare it to the Puritan divine who remarked nearly four centuries ago that “a holy despair in ourselves is the ground of true hope.”

In an adoring chapter, Graham describes Reagan with the telling word “winsome”; and it is a word that could be appropriately applied to himself. Once a strikingly tall man with dramatic golden locks, he is now a little stooped, but still with flowing hair. He cuts a genuinely imposing figure not only in the history of American evangelicalism, but in the broader cultural history of the second half of the twentieth century. The reason is that he taps a deep current in American life: the great public yearning for some transcendent truth that could link the past with the future and by which one might comprehend the fleeting present. It is insufficient to dismiss this great communicator as a master of the sales pitch. Even the strenuously critical Niebuhr judged him to be “obviously sincere.”

Anyone who has lately listened to Graham and watched him is likely to agree. He can charm the opposition. He speaks affectingly of his past excessive zeal for “the American way,” and seems genuinely enlarged by his travels—sobered, even shocked, by the world’s multicultural cruelty and indifference. There is a hint of embarrassment at his own once-shrill equation between communism and sin (he tries to distance himself retrospectively from Joseph McCarthy, whom he never denounced during the Senator’s heyday), as he redirects his attack onto our engorging consumer culture that, with the death of state socialism, has been left without a coherent ideological challenge.

Above all, Billy Graham is the man who made revivalism safe for television. He proudly recounts his early adoption of color broadcasting technology and his shift from live coverage to the strategy of taping and editing for later release, in order to allow “building in musical and other features that would appeal to viewers.” Other pioneers of TV religion—such as Fulton J. Sheen, whose one-man format of religious instruction was almost professorial, or Oral Roberts, whose hokey revival meetings featuring miracle cures failed to make it onto prime time in the big markets—never quite mastered the medium. By turning his Crusades into a kind of variety show, Graham has adapted to changing taste, and has remained a presence from the bygone days of Dave Garroway to the age of David Letterman.

In the end, it is this master performer who emerges most clearly from this memoir. He is a man whose legacy is more likely to be stylistic than substantive. (His son Franklin, who is now taking over much of his ministry, is an eerie mimic of his father’s voice and gesture.) Graham diluted evangelicalism—whose early history as a fierce populist movement is excellently described in Christine Heyrman’s recent Southern Cross: The Rise of the Bible Belt—into a respectable religious style to which two recent presidents have willingly, indeed eagerly, laid claim. One of the marks of this new respectability is its retreat from old-style hellfire preaching. If Benjamin Franklin was amazed at “the extraordinary Influence of [Whitefield’s] Oratory on his Hearers, and how much they admir’d & respected him, notwithstanding his common Abuse of them, by assuring them that they were naturally half Beasts and half Devils,” Billy Graham’s brand of evangelism has become gentle and utterly undemanding.

And there is a still more striking change in Graham’s evangelical style than this shift from imprecation to flattery. The most thoughtful of his predecessors in America’s pulpits—from the studious Jonathan Edwards to the fiery abolitionist Charles Grandison Finney—were exercised by the question of how to distinguish between mere passing shows of religious avowal and durable changes in the repentant sinner’s life that signify true conversion. Edwards, wary of those who crisscrossed the colonies claiming to have been visited by God, insisted that the only true mark of regeneration is a lifelong commitment to “Christian practice.” Finney thought it “easy to distniguish... deceived professors from saints by looking steadfastly at their temper and de-portment in their relations to reform”:

The true saint denies himself... Has he held slaves; been engaged in any traffic that is found to be injurious; has he favored war through ignorance?.... Let but a reformer come forth and propose to discuss the tendency of such things; let the reformer bring forth his strong reasons; and, from the very nature of true religion, the saint will listen with attention... and suffer himself to be carried by truth, heart, and hand, and influence with the proposed reform, if it be worthy of support, how much soever it conflict with his former habits.

There are traces of such demands in Billy Graham’s brand of evangelicalism. But finally he is less the reformer of souls than the inventor of sound-bite religion. His speech is less likely to contain images of hell than metaphors of the theater. “In the United States,” he reports about his visit to Britain in 1954, “there had just been a shooting in the House of Representatives, and two congressmen had been injured. I requested special prayer for them. That incident gave a backdrop for my message on the universality of human sin, and the need we all have for God’s forgiveness.”

The stagecraft (“backdrop”) overwhelms the message (“the universality of sin”). Perhaps the strangest effect of Just As I Am is that it leaves us with a sense that we have seen this modern-day Whitefield through the perspective of an admiring non-believer such as Franklin—who regarded the great revivalist as an impressive producer and performer, but missed entirely the existential ground of his appeal. For Franklin, Whitefield’s genius was chiefly acoustical:

He had a loud and clear Voice, and articulated his Words & Sentences so perfectly that he might be heard and understood at a great Distance, especially as his Auditories, however numerous, observ’d the most exact Silence. He preach’d one Evening from the Top of the Court House Steps, which are in the Middle of Market Street, and on the West Side of Second Street which crosses it at right angles. Both Streets were fill’d with his Hearers to a considerable Distance. Being among the hindmost in Market Street, I had the Curiosity to learn how far he could be heard, by retiring backwards down the Street toward the River, and I found his Voice distinct till I came near Front-Street, when some Noise in that Street, obscur’d it. Imagining then a Semi-Circle, of which my Distance should be the Radius, and that it were fill’d with Auditors, to each of whom I allow’d two square feet, I computed that he might well be heard by more than Thirty-Thousand. This reconcil’d me to the Newspaper Accounts of his having preach’d to 25,000 People in the Fields, and to the ancient Histories of Generals haranguing whole Armies, of which I had sometimes doubted.

When Billy Graham packed Yankee Stadium at the start of his campaign to go national, there must have been 30,000 people on the playing field alone. They came, and they still come, to hear the man who embodies better than anyone the spiritual hunger and the self-acquitting sentimentality of postwar American culture. Graham has built a church of appearances. What happens to that church in the intervals between broadcasts is a mystery that his book does little to illuminate. Perhaps, when the television goes dark or is filled with the usual noise, it ceases to exist.