More than any other person in the 20th century, Billy Graham, who died this week aged 99, was the voice of America.
And what a voice! When I saw him give his last sermon in New York in his last ‘crusade’ in 2005, he was 86 and suffering from fluid on the brain, prostate cancer, a pelvic fracture and Parkinson’s disease.
Yet you wouldn’t have known it: he looked film-star terrific with his flowing mane of snow-white hair, sober dark suit and crisp, white shirt.
And then there was the voice – resonant and thick with the southern accent of his native Charlotte, North Carolina.
Graham was no sweet-talking huckster like Jim Bakker, the televangelist jailed in 1988 for embezzling money from his South Carolina Christian theme park. That evening in New York, he did have the backing of a 1,200-strong choir, belting out Amazing Grace behind him. But really, that 80,000-strong crowd in Flushing Meadow, Queens, were entranced by the voice of one man alone.
He spoke slowly but intelligently, with no showbiz schmaltz, hectoring or wild, rhetorical flourishes. In his youth, he talked much more quickly – he was nicknamed ‘God’s machine gun’ for the speed and volume of his delivery. By 2005, he had slowed down, to great effect, and cut out the Bible-thumping of his younger days.
In three sermons over that weekend in 2005, he preached to 200,000 people – a drop in the ocean compared to the 210 million he’d addressed around the world, including huge audiences in Britain, in his lifetime.
Graham was a master of the dramatic pause. The crowd, made up of all races and ages, went wild when he took to the stage. He waited – and waited – before hitting the peroration of his sermon: “We’re all sinners, every one of us, and radical change is needed for all of us to be accepted by God. I’m asking you tonight to be born into God’s family. God will fill the void in your heart, searching for peace and meaning. Let the Lord Jesus come into your heart.”
The sermon was a mixture of scripture and serious Christian thought, combined with elegiac, jokey memories of the beginning of his career, 66 years earlier.
“I gave my first sermon in North Florida in 1939,” he said, adopting a lighter tone, “There was an old, pot-bellied stove in the middle of the room. I had four sermon outlines in my pocket. I preached all four in 10 minutes. It was an anti-climax. I hope tonight isn’t an anti-climax.”
“No,” the crowd roared.
It was an intensely moving experience.
I had arrived an agnostic – albeit one christened and confirmed in the Church of England. And I left an agnostic, too. When Graham invited forward the congregation – as he always did in his sermons – to accept Jesus as their saviour, I didn’t feel the urge to join them. But I did admire the uncynical, optimistic faith of both the congregation and Graham himself.
Graham was a brilliant salesman; he had, after all, started life as the most successful door-to-door salesman in the Carolinas in the 1930s
That optimism was the optimism of America, combined with its continuing open embrace of Christianity. This week, President Trump opened up his White House discussion with relatives of the victims of the Florida school shooting with a long prayer from a pastor. Theresa May is a committed Christian, but you can’t imagine a filmed Downing Street seminar beginning the same way.
If you head inwards from the east and west coasts of America – as I did as the Telegraph’s New York correspondent between 2005-06 – you find tens of millions of Americans who share Graham’s outspoken Christianity, which seems alien to British Christians, who tend to keep their faith to themselves.
In a deeply devout country – which is still 74 per cent Christian – Billy Graham was the elder statesman of American preachers; by far the most famous and by far the most respected. And by far the most electorally useful. It was said that Graham’s support of a presidential candidate garnered them 16 million votes.
No wonder Bill Clinton popped up on that summer evening in Flushing Meadow to hail Graham as “a man I love”.
Graham had been around for so long that he’d preached in front of Clinton (born in 1946) when he was just a little boy.
The young Clinton, brought up in the segregated south in Arkansas, had then admired Graham’s refusal to address a segregated audience. “I was just a little boy, and I never forgot it and I’ve loved him ever since,” said Mr Clinton. “He’s the only person I know who I’ve never seen fail to live his faith.”
Graham was a registered Democrat all his life. But both Democrat and Republican Presidents, from Harry Truman in 1947 onwards, rushed to get Graham’s endorsement – particularly as a man of God who took against Communism during the Cold War and backed a free enterprise, capitalist economy. President Reagan gave Graham the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983. Graham also helped George W Bush to give up his heavy drinking and turn towards high political office.
Billy Graham’s personal life was unencumbered by lurid infamy, though some of his views, such as his vocal disapproval of homosexuality, understandably drew widespread criticism. He remained happily married to his wife, Ruth, for 64 years until her death in 2007. In 1948, he and his advisers composed the “Modesto Manifesto”, drawn up in a hotel room in Modesto, California, which stipulated that the money he raised had to be spent in an altruistic way. As such he was never hit by the scandals that struck Jim Bakker and their peers.
On that evening in 2005, the Graham operation was undeniably a slick one, with teams of trained counsellors waiting to meet the ‘inquirers’ who came forward, and to present them with a copy of St John’s Gospel.
Graham was, admittedly, a brilliant salesman; he had, after all, started life as the most successful door-to-door salesman in the Carolinas in the 1930s. But there was no hard sell; no one approached me for money that night.
The Modesto Manifesto also laid out the “Billy Graham rule”, under which he was never alone with a woman other than his wife - a rule to which Mike Pence, the American Vice President, also ascribes.
“From that day on, I did not travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than my wife,” wrote Graham. “We determined that the Apostle Paul’s mandate to the young pastor Timothy would be ours as well, ‘Flee, youthful lusts.’”
He applied the rule to everyone, including Hillary Clinton and the Queen, who formed a strong bond with Graham. This week, the Queen sent condolences to the Graham family on his death.
Graham had a gift for appealing beyond his own Calvinism to those of different denominations – like the Queen, who holds her Church of England faith dear, not least as the Defender of the Faith.
The most memorable stain on the character of ‘Golden Graham’ character developed with Richard Nixon’s arrival at the White House. At Nixon’s inauguration in 1969, Graham backed him to the hilt, addressing God, saying, “Thou has permitted Richard Nixon to lead us at this momentous hour of our history.”
Graham managed to detach himself from Nixon at the time of the Watergate scandal. But he was pitched into controversy in 2002, when 400 hours of Nixon tapes were released. Nixon was recorded making anti-Semitic remarks, which were backed up by Graham.
Graham was recorded saying of Jews, “They’re the ones putting out the pornographic stuff. This [Jewish] stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain.”
Graham was still backtracking on those remarks three years later when I heard him speak in 2005 in Flushing Meadows – where the first meetings of the United Nations were held after the Second World War.
“Here, in 1948, they voted to establish the great state of Israel,” said Graham, “The great state of Israel was born right here.”
Graham got into trouble again in 1993, when he said in Columbus, Ohio, “Is AIDS a judgment of God? I could not be sure, but I think so.”
Again, he backtracked on his words – a rare slip-up for a man who had until then been a consummate media-handler. His newspaper column, ‘My Answer’, was syndicated across America, with more than five million readers; the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association broadcast on radio and television across the world, making it the biggest religious media organisation on the planet.
It was quite a journey for someone who’d first started preaching to alligators, birds and bullfrogs in the swamps near the Florida Bible Institute where he studied in the late 1930s.
I could hear that journey across America – and the history of America – in his voice that evening: in those Southern tones; in the Biblical oratory that went back to the Founding Fathers, to his Scottish Presbyterian ancestors, to Plymouth Rock and all the way back to Jesus Christ.