Billy Graham and The Division of Evangelicalism

The Cambridge Definition preamble states in part: ” the word “evangelical” has become so inclusive as to have lost its meaning. We face the peril of losing the unity it has taken centuries to achieve” (link). This crises of unity began as a small crack through asking a simple question: “Should evangelical Christians have a narrow, or broad view of partnership and cooperation for evangelism with regard to individuals or organizations that expressly deny the gospel, which evangelicals are defined by?”. That is the question raised by Billy Graham and the “cooperative Evangelism” scandal that came to divide the evangelical movement in the mid 1950’s. What was the story, and what lessons can it teach us today?

The Man

Billy Graham is a remarkable individual. Loved or despised, criticized by some and credited by others, he has had an impact on the evangelical scene and the broader world rarely matched. The controversy that surounds the legacy of the evangelist in evangelical circles, has never been about his personal orthodoxy, nor the gospel he faithfully preached. Rather it is over a fateful direction in which he charted his missionary efforts. In his book Evangelicalism Divided, Ian Murrey labels Billy Graham as history’s, “Catalyst for Change” (24).  This change would leave an enduring rift through conservative Christianity, and result in two very distinct streams of evangelical believers thereafter.

The Moment

The watershed of this division seemed to come to a head in 1957 when in his autobiography, Graham describes a “painful” experience. This experience was “the opposition” which he experienced regarding his upcoming New York Crusade, “from some of the leading fundamentalists”. Dr. Graham explains, “Their harshness and lack of love saddened me and struck me as being far from the spirit of Christ” (Just as I Am, 356). At the same time he could not fully ignore it, as “many had also been our strongest supporters in the early years of our public ministry” and “I greatly admired them and respected their commitment to Christ” (356). What could bring about such a strong rift between men and ministries with a shared “commitment to Christ”?

Ordained by the Southern Baptist Church and getting his start in traditionally Fundamental Evangelical circles, he had the support of men like Bob Jones Sr. (evangelist, pastor and founder of Bob Jones University), Carl McIntire (one of Westminster Theological Seminary’s first faculty members), and John R. Rice (respected as on of the foremost writers of the movement). Over time that support turned to an active conflict.

Ian Murrey describes the important issue of this Crusade as being “the first crusade in North America to accept the sponsorship of non evangelicals” (Evangelicalism Divided, 29). What is so shocking is that as President of  Northwestern Schools, he had recently written: “We do not condone nor have any fellowship with any form of modernism” (Pilot the fundamentalist school’s official magazine, April 1951 as quoted by Murrey, Evangelicalism Divided, 29).

The Method

Now in a seeming complete turn around, he would report, “I came to the firm conclusion …that God was leading us in a different direction” (Just as I Am, 357). Six years after writing the opposite view he would say with equal confidence, “My own position was that we should be willing to work with all who were willing to work with us” (358). One of the conservative wings great objections, was that Graham would send his “converts” and “seekers” back to their non-evangelical, and maybe even non-protestant churches.

This growing cooperation with liberal organizations  was in accord with Graham’s intentions for the Magazine Christianity Today, in which he articulated his intention to take: “the middle of the road… [and to] combine the best in liberalism and the best in fundamentalism without compromising theologically” (Evangelicalism Divided, 36).

What would be the result? At the time it was far from certain. William E. Ashbrook would write, “Billy Graham represents the most appalling enigma of our time, that he should on the one hand preach the gospel which fundamentalists hold dear, and that he should berate the consistent and long time exponents of that gospel… and constantly seeks out [on the other hand] the company and favors of men who hate the gospel he preaches… No other such phenomena have appeared in this confused age” (quoted in The Fundamentalist Phenomenon, 101).

The Message

What did Graham’s action say to those who observed them? One prominent liberal, known to specifically deny the atonement of Christ would control the discomfort Graham’s outreach to his non evangelical denomination was causing by saying: “Graham is helping to fill out churches. We can teach people theology when we have got someone to teach” (Kingsley Weatherhead, quoted by Murray Evangelicalism Divided, 58).

Graham, on the other hand summarized his aim this way: “Our message was clear, and if someone with a radically different theological view somehow decided to join with us in a Crusade that proclaimed Christ as the way of Salvation, he or she was the one compromising personal convictions and not we” (Just as I Am, 358).

Should one make principled or pragmatic decisions about “Separation” when obeying the biblical command to “make disciples”(Matthew 28:19)? What should the judgement of history be on the Graham controversy? This very issue is still unsettled for many in our day.  Of course no one can question the many positive impacts that Graham has achieved by his work and methods. But one has also to wrestle with the negatives that have followed on the heels of his ministry as well. Whether these negatives should be laid at Graham’s feet or not, is perhaps not the key lesson.  People make decisions without knowing all the consequences daily. Gospel impacting decisions however, ought to be made with a great deal more consideration than what clothes one will wear.

The Moral

Whenever an evangelical makes a decision about cooperating in the cause of the gospel, he or she should think very carefully about what that cooperation might say about the message of the gospel itself. When Evangelicals and Catholics signed the ECT many years later, they were following in Graham’s footsteps, and affirmed the legitimacy of the Roman Catholic Church. What impact has this had on Roman Catholics assurance of salvation, or what impact has this had on the average person’s passion to share the faith with Roman Catholics?

One real effect has been that those who believe that the Liberal doctrine of man’s  essential goodness and the Catholic doctrine of works are false gospels have been alienated from the mainline evangelical community, while those who preach and teach a false gospel have had open doors to come into the fold. Ian Murrey holds that the end result has been “to set up the alianation of contemporary evangelicals from their heritage and… History, which was to have the most serious and damaging results…. It has left evangelicalism a prey to novelty and passing fashion” (Evangelicalism Divided, 148).


Ian Murrey, Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of the Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000 (Cambridge, England: Banner of Truth Trust) 2000.

Billy Graham Just as I Am: The Official Autobiography (New York, NY: Harper Publishers) 1997

Ed Dobson et all The Fundamentalist Phenomenon Sec. Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House) 1986


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