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Billy Graham drew less from Old Testament as years went by, new exhibit shows

Guests tour the new exhibition, “Pilgrim Preacher: Billy Graham, the Bible, and the Challenges of the Modern World,” at the Museum of the Bible in Washington on Aug. 11, 2018. RNS photo by Menachem Wecker

WASHINGTON (RNS) — In the 1950s, 1 in 3 verses that Billy Graham used to anchor his sermons came from Jewish Scripture known to Graham — and most Christians — as the Old Testament. With each ensuing decade, however, America’s pastor drew increasingly on the New Testament.

The decrease in Old Testament citations, said Anthony Schmidt, an associate curator at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., reflects Graham’s relative concern about the threat of communism through his career. As the Cold War was still taking shape and Graham’s anti-communism was egged on by, among others, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Graham drew upon fire-and-brimstone Old Testament admonishments. As the Red threat dissipated, he sought biblical citations with a softer tone.

The findings are part of the museum’s new exhibition, “Pilgrim Preacher: Billy Graham, the Bible, and the Challenges of the Modern World,” which Schmidt curated.

Poring over about 1,300 sermon notes from “America’s pastor,” Schmidt found that 33 percent of the verses around which Graham built his sermons came from the Old Testament in the 1950s but that the percentage dropped in each following decade: 29.06 percent in the 1960s, 25 percent in the ’70s, 21.59 percent in the ’80s, 17.05 percent in the ’90s and 9.62 percent by the 2000s.

“If we don’t get our act together here in America, the communists are going to come bomb and kill us,” Schmidt said, characterizing the sermons before the shift began in the late 1950s. “He begins to slow down with that type of rhetoric, and he emphasizes God’s love instead of judgment.”

The last pulpit used by Billy Graham is in the new exhibition at the Museum of the Bible in Washington. RNS photo by Menachem Wecker

The exhibition, which runs through Jan. 27, contains about 100 objects related to Graham’s crusades, as he called his revival-style evangelistic meetings. There is the suit that Graham wore on his final crusade in 2005, his traveling case, personal Bible, sermon notes and artifacts of his broadcast ministries.

The display is bookended by two pulpits that are on view for the first time, according to Schmidt: a plain, wooden traveling pulpit Graham used on his first major crusade in Modesto, Calif., in 1948 and the one from which he preached his last sermon on July 9, 2006, at Baltimore’s Camden Yards at age 87.

Anthony Schmidt, an associate curator at the Museum of the Bible. Photo courtesy of Anthony Schmidt

The latter pulpit, adorned with a cross and designed to accommodate a chair so Graham could sit, contains an inscription from Nehemiah 8:4, “And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for this purpose.”

The museum set out to humanize and historicize, but not to deify Graham, according to Schmidt, who admits being disappointed to find that the handwritten notes in the margins of Graham’s New Testament were often “just short words” and what seemed like random underlining. “I was hoping it had something profound, like, ‘Here’s the answer.’ There was nothing like that,” Schmidt said.

The sermon index Schmidt has created from the sermon records held at Wheaton College in Illinois (and which he intends to make public) was revelatory, however. Other scholars who have studied Graham also found the new research compelling. A sermon index of Graham’s preaching is something that Bill Leonard, an emeritus professor at Wake Forest University’s Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C., has wanted for a long time. “I love this, and I can’t believe they went to the trouble to do it,” he said.

Leonard looks forward to studying Schmidt’s index when it’s available, but the finding that Graham scaled back his Old Testament quotes is consistent with what Leonard knows about the preacher. “Graham, in his sermons, moved from legalism to gospel, or from legalism to Jesus,” he said.

Barry Hankins, professor and chair of the history department at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, also finds the sermon index fascinating and potentially significant.

When one preaches, as Graham did, about America being in covenant with God, according to Hankins, the natural place to cite is the Old Testament, where lines can be drawn from the Israelites’ covenant with God to America’s.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Graham admitted that he had identified America too closely with Christianity earlier in his career, Hankins noted.

“As Graham’s preaching moved away from the Christian America ideal, he found the Old Testament, perhaps, less and less useful to what he was preaching about,” Hankins said.

Details from the Gospel of John in a Billy Graham Bible at the new exhibit “Pilgrim Preacher: Billy Graham, the Bible, and the Challenges of the Modern World,” at the Museum of the Bible in Washington on Aug. 11, 2018. RNS photo by Menachem Wecker

Though he agrees that Graham seemed to find the Old Testament more relevant when preaching against communist rivals, Hankins noted that evangelicals like Graham don’t make a firm distinction between Old and New Testament citations. They see the Bible as a unity, and so when Graham cited the Old Testament, he saw it as a precursor to the New Testament, not an alternative text.

Graham’s evolution toward the New Testament, however, paralleled his acceptance of Catholics and more liberal Protestants. Graham got into trouble with fundamentalist Christians throughout his career when, starting in the late ’50s, he invited representatives of those two groups onto the platform with him to participate in his crusades.

“I think he did that much more intentionally the older he got,” Leonard said. “He came to see that there were layers of humanity and gospel.”

Graham increasingly identified with Jesus making “gospel exceptions” for people who crossed his path who were marginalized at the time, including women, those of other races and the disabled. “Maybe that move from anchor text suggests Graham came to terms with Jesus in ways that he hadn’t before,” Leonard said.

A video clip in the Museum of the Bible’s exhibition touts Graham’s solidarity with the civil rights movement, showing him telling a huge audience that Jesus was a Middle Eastern, and thus Asian, man, rather than a white person.

Along the way, there were missteps. Graham was infamously caught on tape telling President Nixon that Jews had too much control over the media, a statement of which he later repented, according to Hankins. And while Graham has been praised for integrating his crusades, he slid back sometimes and allowed some subsequent sermons to be segregated, Hankins said. Graham’s relationship with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was marked by an ambivalence about King’s methods, if not his goals.

“In some ways, he was pretty progressive for the time in terms of race, but he was still, as a white, Southern male, dragging his feet in some ways too,” said Schmidt.

The new exhibition, “Pilgrim Preacher: Billy Graham, the Bible, and the Challenges of the Modern World,” at the Museum of the Bible in Washington. Photo courtesy of MOTB

Graham’s increasing use of New Testament anchor texts doesn’t presume racial or religious tolerance. Like many Christian thinkers, Graham preached that the Old Testament covenant based on the Jewish law had been transcended by Jesus’ message of love, and that the Jews of Jesus’ day were too committed to the law, rather than God’s activity among them. “That’s a very strong message, and underneath it, particularly through the Gospel of John, is an abiding anti-Semitism,” said Hankins.

After Graham’s death at 99 last February, Rabbi A. James Rudin, former director of interfaith affairs at the American Jewish Committee (and a Religion News Service contributor), told RNS that Graham worked behind the scenes on many political causes that were important to Jews. Rudin met with Graham three times and corresponded with him between the meetings.

“I’m guessing that Graham softened some of that harshness about the role of the Jews as he got older, because he does open up dialogue with certain rabbinic communities,” Leonard said.

Still, even if the Hebrew Scriptures’ sometimes vengeful tone was tailor-made for denouncing communists, Graham might have heard a different view from his communications with rabbis. If Graham wanted to preach more love and less fire and brimstone, some might point out, he could have continued to draw from Jewish Scripture a third of the time without running out of material.

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Menachem Wecker

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  • Just a quickie note: There is anti-Semitism in America, and you can find examples on both the left and right.

    But there is NO anti-Semitism in the Bible. There is flat-out none in the Gospel of John.

    So Christians, don’t back down from this reality, whenever you are challenged on this specific issue. The Scriptures are God”s Word to all of humanity. Period. God doesn’t do anti-semitism. Period.

    So do the extra homework, enjoy rhe apologetics, and be ready for occasional interesting dialogue.

  • Wanna know why “the handwritten notes in the margins of [Billy] Graham’s New Testament were often ‘just short words’ and what seemed like random underlining … [with no] ‘Here’s the answer’ … nothing like that”?!

    Here’s one theory, articulated by Billy Graham himself in Just As I Am, HarperOne/HarperCollins, 2007:

    “Could I trust the Bible? … O God! … In this book … there are many seeming contradictions. There are some areas in it that do not seem to correlate with modern science. … Father, I am … going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts.”

  • “The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. … set out to humanize … [Billy] Graham”?!?!?!

    Somebody – anybody (but me) – please, please, troll that statement from this article! Preferrably non-atheists, but hey, choosers can’t be beggars, innit.

  • Billy Graham had to move away from Biblical truth because he sold out to a cheap grace doctrine.

  • The “Christian Church” began at the fall in Eden! The Bible is a cohesive message and word from God that must be taken in entirety! The creator,Angel of the Lord, Rock of Salvation is the same Jesus Christ , Son of Man.

  • Inflationary “cheap”? Child-labor “cheap”? Gucci-imitation “cheap”? Illegal-alien “cheap”? Reusable-teabag “cheap”? Never-take-a-bath “cheap”? Diseased-ho “cheap”?

  • Eden, Texas?
    Eden, North Carolina?
    Eden, New York?
    Eden, Cagayan Valley, Philippines?
    Eden, New South Wales, Australia?

  • glad to know that we christians have been reading the gospel of john wrong for nearly 2000 years .

    or, floydlee, i would wish you were right . but the evidence of john is hostile to those jews who did not accept jesus and the gospel became the basis of christianity’s anti-semiticism for these 1900 years since .

  • Hankins didn’t actually say that the Gospel of John is antisemitic. While it’s a vast oversimplification to say that John contains no antisemitism, it cannot reasonably be questioned that it has, as Hankins wrote, been used historically to promote antisemitism.

  • I grew up with Billy Graham on my mother’s TV. I loved watching people go down the aisles in the crusades to get saved. It was touching to me as a child and still is—–the grace of Jesus moving people under the message of a good pulpit preacher, asking, asking, asking. I liked arena crusades better than local church. Still do. I was grateful for the New Testament unburdening people from the excesses and craziness of the Old Testament. Still am.

    How ON EARTH those “whole Bible is true” insisters mostly went off with racists, financial sharpies and environmental destroyers to form Modern American Political Conservatism is a mystery and a sadness to me in older age. We were supposed to move toward kindness, tolerance, inclusion, true talk. The saved Christians were supposed to lead it——and DANG—–Ronald, Rush, Rupert, (some others) and now Donald have tied much of the The Church in a knot of confused meanness and mostly ruined religion in America. Can’t blame Jesus for that. So I guess we have to blame the negativity caused by people immersing themselves in OT baloney until they think Donald is the new David and Jesus ain’t the point anymore.

  • There are no excesses, there is no craziness, in the Old Testament.

    Jesus pointed out that the OT Scriptures are the unbreakable word of God, in John 10:35. Certainly no Christian would want to call Jesus a liar.

  • Looking at Hankins’ quoted words there, they’re honestly way too specific to allow for any wiggle room. He is clearly accusing the Gospel of John of anti-Semitism. In fact he clearly emphasizes it, using a couple of pointed words there.

    “… underneath it (Graham”s message), **particularly** through the Gospel of John, is an **abiding** anti-Semitism.”

  • Graham ignored the New Testament as well!!!

    Graham was nothing more than the Hireling — John 10:12

  • Perhaps the Right Reverend saw fit to move away from GEN 3 and move towards GEN 1. Rather than laboring over the fall of man focus on peace and God’s intended perfection. If a child is hanging on a branch, your better off yelling for him to hang on than to not let go. We should of course repent and turn from sin, but it needs to be done with meditation on all we can be. Kinda cool someone took the time to do the research. I’ve never been a fan of his but glad to see this if it were true.

  • Strange thing that the people of the time who were most interested in defending all that OT scripture actually did think Jesus was a liar. That is the context of the story you quote in John 10 and they ultimately continued with it until they finally got him executed.

  • That’s too much to ask of Christians. Homophobia and transphobia are misuses of the bible.

  • Christians are too stupid to do any research. That’s why they still cling so desperately to their homophobia and transphobia.

  • “…the OT Scriptures are the unbreakable word of God….”

    i am curious then when you read : 1 Samuel 15:2-3 (KJV)
    “Thus saith the Lord of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt.
    “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”

    what is your way of interpretation :
    1) god said it . god meant it . it was good .
    2) god said it and meant it . it was necessary in that day and age .
    3) god didn’t say it but because of the time and place, that’s the way samuel heard it and reported it .
    4) god had nothing to do with it, but that’s the way it went down and the result was what people thought it was what god wanted and so attributed what happened to god’s will .
    5) it really did not happen at all . these were legends of ancient times and kings and warriors that made it into the bible as stories explaining origins of the jews in the holy land .
    6) or some other ?

    if jesus meant that everything in the scriptures are the “unbreakable word of god” how do you explain god ordering mass killing ? as you say “There are no excesses, there is no craziness, in the Old Testament.”

  • Steve, you make a broad theological claim there . you give nothing to back it up, or even to explain what you mean by it . was jesus into a cheap grace doctrine when all he said was “go and sin no more” .

  • please, Charlotte N/A . i understand the frustration of dealing with those whose minds are made up, shut up and closed for business .

    but you must know that many christians have done the research . do understand that the scriptures don’t support the customary readings that condemn people for non traditional ways of being .

    please leave lines of communication open . don’t trash those who would be your allies if you were more judicious in your comments .

  • Well, I always advise folks to just check out the texts. Like John 4:22, where Jesus says “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews“, Exactly how is that anti-Semitic?

    Also, you say that “the evidence of john is hostile to those Jews who did not accept Jesus and the Gospel.”
    But that’s a huge, brake-slamming qualifier you have inserted. It immediately wrecks the label of “Anti-Semitic.”

    “Anti-Semitic” is simply the wrong category to apply to the fourth gospel: whatever hostilities are present turn on theological issues related to the acceptance or rejection of revelation, not on race.
    How could it be otherwise, when all of the first Christians were Jews and when, on this reading, both the fourth evangelist and his primary readers were Jews and Jewish proselytes?”

    — DA Carson and Douglas Moo, Introduction to the New Testament 2nd ed. (2005), pg. 272.

  • Ah yes, God’s judgment on Amalek. I think my atheist professor briefly brought up that one many years ago. A perennial favorite on the skeptic circuit, it seems. Briefly, Items 3 though 6 go straight to the incinerator where they belong. That leaves Items 1 and 2, which are both true.

    (Of course, Jesus, as an observant Jew and Old Testament-literate teacher, would be familiar with the book of 1 Samuel, and likewise the account of God’s judgment upon Amalek. So we do have to face the fact that Jesus’s statement in John 10:35, means that 1 Samuel 15:2-3 is likewise “unbreakable” and “the word of God.”)

    So that brings up the usual skeptics’ objection, trying to impugn God’s character, because God’s judgment on Amalek involved all of them, including women, children and animals. So how do Christians explain it?

  • An important priority of Jesus’ mission for his disciples is the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 and Luke 24:44-48. I think Billy Graham tried to carry out that mission. For all of his flaws, weaknesses, and mistakes, it seems to me, as I recall, that he always brought his sermons back to receiving Jesus Christ as personal savior.

  • i would note that the professors i had (more years ago than i like to remember) were deeply and profoundly christian . and they had no truck with the thought that god literally instructed anything like the slaughter written about amalek . this is not a christian vs atheist discussion .

    this is a christian discussion about god, about the bible and what its inspiration means, and the reality of salvation history .

  • First — and much apology to you for me taking an extra day to reply — let’s do Amalek. All over the textbooks, all over the online Bible sites, the story is the same: Amalek ultimately reaped what Amalek happily sowed.

    The Amalekites just loved, loved, loved to attack Israel. AND, whenever they attacked Israel, they loved, loved, loved, to slice up the women, the children, the elderly, the slowed-down folks. They made a POINT of this.

    Now between Exodus and 1 Samuel, God truly gave these Amalek Boneheads time to repent and stop their craziness. As Glenn Miller of Christian Thinktank wrote, Amalek had at least 200+ years to stop acting a Foolio. But they loved doing their vicious mess. So God’s national judgment simply fit their national crime. God is Judge.

    “Samuel said (to the king of Amalek), ‘As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.’ And Samuel hacked Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.” (1 Sam. 15:33)

  • Hmm. Does that mean that God enjoyed it? Laughing & giggling when His final judgment fell upon the nation of Amalek, and THEIR women and children finally got what Amalek had been happily dishing out to Israelite women and children?

    Nope. God didn’t enjoy having to do final justice and final judgment on the Amalekites. That’s why God gave Amalek 200+ years of mercy and grace, so they would stop their mess, stop going after women & kids. But God is Judge, He judges nations. Mess around and keep on bucking God, one day His grace will transform into His justice.

    God cared about Amalek too, their men & women & children, just as much as He cared for the men, women, and children of Israel. God don’t want anybody to perish, but to come to repentance (2. Pet.3:9).

  • “Graham, in his sermons, moved from legalism to gospel, or from legalism to Jesus,” (Bill Leonard)

    ““Maybe that move from anchor text suggests Graham came to terms with Jesus in ways that he hadn’t before,” (Bill Leonard)

    I came to admire Rev. Billy Graham many years ago as he focused more on Jesus in the Gospel and less on harsh passages in the Old Testament. Perhaps Graham came to better understand the Truth that God is Love, not judgment and condemnation.

    May he rest in peace.

  • “The fourth gospel is not simply history; the narrative has been organized and adapted to serve the evangelist’s theological purposes as well. Among them are the opposition to the synagogue of the day and to John the Baptist’s followers, who tried to exalt their master at Jesus’ expense, the desire to show that Jesus was the Messiah, and the desire to convince Christians that their religious belief and practice must be rooted in Jesus. Such theological purposes have impelled the evangelist to emphasize motifs that were not so clear in the synoptic account of Jesus’ ministry, e.g., the explicit emphasis on his divinity.

    “The polemic between synagogue and church produced bitter and harsh invective, especially regarding the hostility toward Jesus of the authorities—Pharisees and Sadducees—who are combined and referred to frequently as ‘the Jews’ (see note on Jn 1:19). These opponents are even described in Jn 8:44 as springing from their father the devil, whose conduct they imitate in opposing God by rejecting Jesus, whom God has sent. On the other hand, the author of this gospel seems to take pains to show that women are not inferior to men in the Christian community: the woman at the well in Samaria (Jn 4) is presented as a prototype of a missionary (Jn 4:4–42), and the first witness of the resurrection is a woman (Jn 20:11–18).”

    SOURCE: http://www.usccb.org/bible/scripture.cfm?bk=John&ch=

    See also:

    + http://www.crosscurrents.org/BoysSpring2004.htm

    + https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/jrf/vol8/iss1/

    + http://catholic-resources.org/John/Themes-Jews.htm

  • I asked because the four gospels, containing as they do the remembered teaching of Jesus himself, constitute the heart of all Christian scripture. They take precedence over the rest of the New Testament for that very reason. I have seen too often that when I have asked someone to quote Jesus, they end up quoting anyone *but* Jesus.

  • Curious — what do you mean when you say “take precedence”?
    Could you mean that the Epistles etc., should be understood in light of the Gospels? Or do you discount them altogether.

  • By “take precedence”, I mean that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John override any other sources in the New Testament. The Gospels are most important because they give us the life and teachings of Jesus himself. I don’t discount the other N.T. writings, but I think they must — as you’ve noted — be understood in light of the Gospels. If there is any contradiction in letter or spirit, the Gospels have priority.

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