Smithsonian’s Curator of Religion on Billy Graham’s Legacy

He was among the most influential religious leaders in U.S. history, says Peter Manseau

Billy Graham, Jr. by James Pease Blair, 1958 (NPG, gift of James P. Blair ©1958, James P. Blair)
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Sixty-two years ago, during one of the epic global evangelizing crusades that would eventually take him to nearly 200 countries, the Reverend Billy Graham made a startling admission. 

“I want to tell you something that I haven’t told others on this trip around the world,” he said to 1,200 missionaries gathered to hear him in Osaka, Japan. “I feel tonight as if my ministry is going to be brief. My name has appeared in too many newspapers. It has been placed on too many posters. There has been too much praise given to a man, and the Bible says God will not share His glory with any man.”

“The message is important,” he added, “not the messenger.”

Across the decades, the millions who heard Graham speak in churches, stadiums, and even the White House might beg to differ. In Graham, the messenger was inseparable from the message, and his ministry—begun with his first preaching in 1938—was the furthest imaginable from brief. 

Now that he has died at the age of 99, it can officially be said that his was among the most influential religious leaders in U.S. history. A pioneer of religious media on radio, television (and even movies as a film producer), he was best known for the revival meetings that regularly drew crowds in the tens and even hundreds of thousands. His singular stature led him to serve as informal counselor to U.S. presidents beginning with Dwight D. Eisenhower and including most controversially, Richard Nixon, whose secret recordings revealed in 2002 that Graham had made disparaging comments about Jews 30 years before—an offense for which Graham quickly apologized.

NPG_2012_77_42 Graham R.jpg
Billy Graham, Jr. by Yousuf Karsh, 1972 (NPG, gift of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh © Estate of Yousuf Karsh)

As has recently been dramatized with some creative license on The Crown, Graham also enjoyed a longtime connection to the British royal family. "No one in Britain has been more cordial toward us than Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II,” he recalled in his autobiography Just As I Am

Billy Graham has been a household name and an American icon for so long that few remember the charismatic personality and dynamic preaching style that first brought him acclaim. 

Press accounts of the revival meetings he led beginning in 1944 as a full-time evangelist for the Youth for Christ movement called attention to his loud ties and argyle socks. Along with his humble upbringing on a dairy farm near Charlotte, North Carolina, his lackluster academic career and his thwarted athletic aspirations often served to frame his unlikely rise. When word spread that he had once hoped to play professional baseball, journalists grew fond of the notion that he now filled the stands in a different way. “Young Man gives Up Sports Career to Become Evangelist—Packs ‘Em in,” a 1950 headline declared.   

His youth undoubtedly was a key to his success. In the postwar era hungry for new visions of America, newspapers could not get enough of him. Details from a 1950 profile would have seemed more at home in a story about a brash young Hollywood star. “Graham bites his fingernails nervously, hardly has any at all. Another indication of his nervousness is his driving. In his two-tone convertible, he tears down the highway and weaves speedily in and out of downtown traffic. He likes loud music, as his theme song will testify. It’s the Battle Hymn of the Republic. The louder it’s played, the better he likes it.”

This early media fascination with Graham did not diminish his seriousness of purpose, and, as he hinted when he suggested he might have received too much attention, it did not always sit easy with him. Despite his youthful predictions of the likely brevity of his career, however, the middle of the 20th-century was only the beginning. He went on to embrace and build upon the attention he once feared would undermine his ministry. In the decades that followed, he became one of the greatest messengers in history for the message of his faith, reaching an audience in person and through broadcast media that now is estimated in the billions. 

“If there are newspapers in heaven the name of Billy Graham will not be on the front page,” he said in 1956.  

Yet as the headlines around the world now marking his death attest, on earth the name of Billy Graham continues to make news.  

A newly installed 1972 portrait of the Rev. Billy Graham by photographer Yousef Karsh is on view at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in the museum's In Memoriam gallery through Sunday, March 25.

About Peter Manseau
Peter Manseau

Peter Manseau is is the Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History at the National Museum of American History and the author most recently of The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost.

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