For they will prolong your life many years and bring you prosperity.
Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.
Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.
Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil.
For the ninth significant prayer event in United States history we move back six years in time from the kitchen table where Martin Luther King, Jr, had an encounter with the presence of Jesus Christ. I have felt justified in presenting these two events in reverse chronological order because the effects of the event I am about to describe came to full fruition later than the Civil Rights movement that Dr. King led.
The two events were similar in that both of them were the encounter of a single individual with God, private events that later had vast ramifications in the world. Both events involved one man coming to the conviction that Jesus Christ was with him and calling him to a particular mission; both events transformed postwar Christianity in America; and both events involved ordained Baptist ministers from the South who had been educated in the North. I have already described to you Martin Luther King Jr’s “kitchen table” experience—our ninth event involves a crucial moment in the life of the greatest evangelist of the 20th century, Billy Graham.
William Franklin “Billy” Graham was born in North Carolina in 1918 to a devout rural Presbyterian family. In 1934 Billy committed his life to Christ during revival meetings led by Mordecai Ham. Beginning to sense the stirrings of a call to ministry, Billy enrolled in the very conservative Bob Jones college, a school that was too straight-laced for him. He transferred to Florida Bible :Institute (where he was baptized, twice, and was ordained as a Baptist minister). He graduated FBI and enrolled in Wheaton College, an emerging powerhouse among Christian Colleges, where he achieved a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Anthropology in 1943 and where he met and married Ruth Bell, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries to China.
Already in Florida and later in Illinois, Billy Graham began to have a reputation as a gifted preacher. He was called to pastor a church while still a college student and while at his second church he began a radio ministry in the Chicago area, a program that featured George Beverly Shea as a soloist.
Billy did not last long in the pastorate. In 1945 Billy was invited to become Vice President of Youth for Christ and along with fellow evangelist and preacher Chuck Templeton (more about him later) began touring the country and eventually travelled to Europe. At Wheaton and in Youth for Christ, Graham grew beyond the parochial Christianity of the South and formed a network of friendships that would transform American Christianity.
But before Graham’s career took off, he had a personal crisis to face. In 1947 Billy was invited to become the President of Northwestern College in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was the youngest college president in the country, and with only a bachelor’s degree, he felt himself one of the least educated. Billy’s friend and fellow evangelist, Chuck Templeton, had also felt the lack of education and had resigned from Youth for Christ to enroll at Princeton Seminary. There his simple faith and message were challenged, and he in turn communicated to his friend Billy what he was learning. Billy’s desire to be respectable and educated led him to begin reading the great theologians of the day, men like Karl Barth and Reinhold Neibhur who, while rejecting the liberalism that had gone before them, nonetheless had very nuanced views of Scripture and affirmed the value of critical (and sometimes skeptical) Biblical scholarship. Eventually, the crisis of faith brought on by theological investigation led Chuck Templeton to a loss of faith, and he ultimately became an avowed agnostic who returned to his native Canada to excell in television, journalism, and politics.
Before that happened, however, both Billy and Chuck were invited to Forest Home Retreat Center in California by Henrietta Mears, the legendary Christian Educator at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, to join other Christian luminaries in a youth event there. In his autobiography, Just as I am, Billy tells of his love and respect for Chuck Templeton and how his friend brought Billy’s own spiritual crisis to a head by challenging his faith in the integrity of Scripture by saying, “Billy, you’re fifty years out of date. People no longer accept the Bible as being inspired the way you do. Your faith is too simple. Your language is out of date. You’re going to have to learn the new jargon if you’re going to be successful in your ministry.”
Billy was indeed struggling with nagging doubts, not about the faith in general or the Gospel of Salvation in Christ: “The particular intellectual problem I was wrestling with, for the first time since my conversion as a teenager, was the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures.”
During the entire 20th century the issue of the authority of the Scriptures was the key shaper of American Christianity. In the previous century, German scholars had applied the scientific principles of the Enlightenment to the Scriptures and methodically reinterpreted them in the light of the modern conviction that Supernatural events are impossible. In the early 20th century German scholarship jumped the Atlantic and became ever more influential in the major Divinity schools and seminaries. In the 1920’s a conservative reaction set in that sought to affirm that certain supernatural claims made in the Bible were non-negotiables of the Christian faith. A series of tracts called “The Fundamentals” were written and widely distributed that affirmed as literal truth the Virgin Birth, the supernatural forgiveness of sins by Jesus’ death on the Cross, His literal Resurrection from the dead, the bodily Second Coming of Christ, and the direct divine inspiration of the Bible. In the controversies that followed several northern Protestant denominations split-- most notably in the case of the Northern Presbyterians, the faculty of Princeton Seminary split and the conservatives left their school and denomination to found both the Presbyterian Church in America and Westminster Seminary.