Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety

By Andrew S. Finstuen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Billy Graham, America’s Evangelist

In the summer of 1950, Billy Graham received a wedding band in the mail. A man who identified himself only as a veteran of World War II had enclosed the ring as a “symbol of my broken marriage.” In his letter, this former soldier explained that he had attended Graham’s crusade in Boston earlier that year and had responded to the evangelist’s call to accept Christ into his life. He had done so, he reported, in “an effort to save my marriage of 5 years,” confessing he was “deep in sin.” He asked Graham to hold the ring in trust until “with the Lord’s help” he and his wife might “get together once more in God’s love.” The anonymous veteran had devised a clever plan to retrieve the ring if he and his wife reunited. He tore off the upper right-hand corner of the stationery on which he had written the letter, keeping the matching piece himself. If the marriage were saved, Graham would receive the missing corner “signifying regained happiness and love,” at which point he was to send the ring back to the veteran. Sadly, the wedding band remained in the envelope fifty-four years after the heartbroken man had mailed it to Graham.1

Graham inspired similar confessions of sin in countless other midtwentieth-century American Protestants. Yet Graham the confessor is mostly absent from scholarly chronicles of his ministry. Skeptics of Graham’s ministry, both then and now, have explained his appeal for everyday Protestants not in terms of his message of sin and salvation but in terms of conformity and the emotional impact of his sermons—especially within the crusade atmosphere—and the emotionally turbulent cold war era. Fear, nostalgia, and excitement, no doubt, welled up in Graham’s audiences—whether they heard him at a crusade or on the radio or read his books or advice column. But Graham and his team consciously sought to avoid gross manipulation of their audiences. Graham himself was skeptical of markedly emotional conversions and professions of faith. Accordingly, he preached, for the most part, without resorting to histrionic exhorta-

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