Reinhold Niebuhr Timeline: Critiques Billy Graham's evangelical fundamentalism

Reinhold Niebuhr Timeline: Critiques Billy Graham's evangelical fundamentalism

Correspondence from Sherwood Eddy

Dear Reinnie: Will you and John Bennett let me have your frank criticisms of this end of my chapter on Prayer in my book Why I Believe?
Sherwood Eddy
Jacksonville Illinois


Why should the writer ask prayer especially for these two apparently most successful and utterly different men? Because he knows of few Christians doing so much good—and so much harm—who are being blest to so many and at the same time proving a stumbling block to so many by the inadequacy of the gospel they preach. Both are undoubtedly earnest Christians but the writer believes it can be shown that neither has as yet grasped and preached a whole gospel, that both are within a short step of what might mean blessing for multitudes and that their shortcomings are not merely individual or personal but very close to national shortcomings of a multitude of Americans.

But does the writer dare judge these men far more successful than he is, or ever was, and all unworthy as he is himself? Emphatically he is not worthy and dares not judge them, but perhaps a mere layman who has no standing in any ecclesiastical organization may voice a criticism publicly that multitudes are making privately. Even if the writer feels bound to speak why not "go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you
you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen … tell it to the church." (Matthew 18:17). That is exactly and literally what he is doing.

As soon as this is typed a copy is being sent to Billy Graham and to Norman Vincent Peale. If either sees the defect that thousands of others think they see in them and corrects it, this will never be published without needed correction. If they do not see it then this is published in order to "tell it to the church." And if this reaches Christians it is meant as an earnest request for positive prayer instead of fruitless negative criticism, just as Paul asked prayer for so many in Corinth, Philippi or Rome that they might live and proclaim a whole gospel; without putting a stumbling block in the way of others.

First, Billy Graham. No one who reads the papers can deny that he is undoubtedly an earnest Christian, that he has the largest audiences of any evangelist in all history, that he has not the vulgarity of the late Billy Sunday, that there are not charges of scandalous financial profits of which Billy Sunday was accused, and that he is obviously a gentleman, a man of faith, of prayer and of unprecedented success. No one can deny that multitudes hear him gladly, that large numbers are converted, that many of them go to the churches and stand firm, that if a single man like the great British athlete, Roger Bannister, is reached then the converts are not "all of one type" on the fringe of the churches.

Why then does the writer find so many communities over Asia and so many cities over America hesitate so long before they dare ask Billy Graham to come, or take on themselves the serious responsibility of deciding not to let their people hear him? Because the fear for the evil as well as the good that always results from his present missions. There are thousands of the most intelligent ministers and laymen who feel that Billy Graham does not yet grasp, or comprehend or preach a whole gospel.(see footnote 1) With millions of other American Christians
he seems to many to accept and preach an orthodox fundamentalism that is a superficial, short-circuited, shallow message that is far from being a full gospel.

When Paul and Silas, who had preached at Philippi, were attacked by both the mob and the magistrates, beaten with rods and thrown into the inner prison, they were suddenly released with all the prisoners by an earthquake. The responsible jailer "drew his sword and was about to kill himself" until assured by Paul that the prisoners were all safe. Finally he cried: "What must I do to be saved?" Paul just had time to say: "Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household." (Acts 16:30). That wholly exceptionally, breathless crisis does not do away with the necessity for the patient, continuous work of the churches over all the years and place all men at the feet of Billy Graham, or Billy Sunday, for the one fateful decision of our lives in a crisis similar to that of the Philippian jailor. Rather the Apostle Paul says to me (in Philippians 2:12,13) "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for God is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure." It take a whole Bible and a long life to tell me how simple yet how complicated that whole salvation is that has to be worked out. It takes four gospels, a score of epistles, teachers differing as much as Paul, Apollos and Cephos; it takes the whole "world," all like as well as death, the present and all the future (1 Cor. 3:21-23) to unfold the meaning of great salvation that I have a part in working out. We are all concerned not only With a breathless Billy Sunday or Billy Graham artificial minute for our soul's salvation, but with the whole of an abundant life, where nothing human is foreign to us. Nothing is unimportant in the spiritual, the moral, the economic, the political, the cultural or the intellectual life where "all things are yours."

The good news every Christian evangelist has to preach is that God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. Like John Wesley I personally accepted God's gift of life in Christ. I began to work out my salvation in following Jesus' way of life till I should become like him in the long eternal journey that is divided before and after death, just as history is divided B.C. and A.D., before and after Christ. Consciously or unconsciously the Billy Sunday type of evangelist short-circuits eternity and this eternal gospel by an overemphasis upon two moments. One, the moment of conversion like the Philippian jailor when he is saved forever; the other the moment of death when he is supposed by many to be clapped into a mold and perfected—all made alike in doctrine and character to enter the monotony of flat, stagnant, eternal heaven of bliss and harp-playing on golden streets. Plenty of verses may be found in this great library of "little books," covering eight differing systems of theology in the New Testament alone, to substantiate almost any statement the evangelist may make. The evangelist may be a Francis of Asissi Roman Catholic, a Billy Sunday fundamentalist, or a Harry Fosdick Protestant liberal. The convert, as in Corinth, may claim, "I belong to Paul," "I belong to Apollos," "I belong to Cephos," or "I belong to Christ." He may be a Mormon, one of Jehovah's Witnesses, an intolerant fundamentalist sectarian setting all others at naught or a humble Christian tolerant of all others.

When the writer arrived in Asia last year he found one of the greatest Christian missionaries in the world, with the whole local community considering arranging with some trepidation meetings for Billy Graham. He had just been evicted from China, the greatest mission field in the world, after imprisonment and trial by the Communists there. He said to the writer in substance: "I believe that Marxian communism has been permitted by God to challenge this whole type of Christianity embodied in Billy Graham, this selfish, personal, possessive type of religion where one is saved forever in a revival that has no conception of any social obligation for others, to build a better world, or a new social order. This type of religion is one reason why we failed in China—and should have failed—and why with all our numbers and percentages of Christians and apparent success in America we may even fail there. If with all this apparent success in America we do not repent, grasp the meaning of a whole gospel-both individual and social, that must not only build a new man within but a new social order and a new world without-a new America, a new Asia, a new world. Alas our opportunity of building a new China has been lost for the present and atheist Communists are to have their chance." They were giving a hearing to Billy Graham as the lesser of two evils, but they feared that his shallow type of a selfish, personal, possessive salvation would not solve but increase their problem however many his hearers or his converts "saved" to his type of religion.

Alan Walker tells in the Christian Century of May 2, 1956, of how a national evangelistic mission was conducted successfully in Australia three years ago and how it might be possible in America. Unlike the Billy Graham meetings he says "it would have to be at once personal and social and the conversion of men must be sought in a total life situation. Partial conversions which leave a man's economic and political judgments untouched have been the curse of our recent evangelism. The call for a new social conscience must be heard as a part of the summons to commitment to Christ." Mr. Walker points out the weaknesses of 19th century, or Billy Graham, evangelism: "A presentation of the gospel which denies the great gains of Biblical scholarship; a personal evangelism which has no social dynamic; an inadequate relationship with the church as the Body of Christ; an exaggerated confidence in mass meetings as much and the calling for commitment to Christ in an emotional atmosphere with a limited intellectual and specific content. In a word, 19th century evangelism preaches a partial, truncated gospel and is not sufficiently involved in the total life of the people." The aim of such a national evangelistic mission would be for the whole Christian church to challenge the entire nation, especially the 50 per cent of the nation that is unchurched. And, second, "to bring the corporate life of the nation-business, political, international affairs—up before the judgment seat of Christ." It has happened in Australia. The United Church of Canada is to launch its "Mission to the
Nation" in September. Is there any who can deny that Billy Graham might rise to be a mouthpiece of the whole Church, to preach a whole gospel, both personal and social? Appreciating his ability and his qualities of greatness can we not all pray for Billy Graham's growth and development into his full power?

1. Frank Lanbach wrote the writer that Billy Graham was willing to preach
A social sermon if only he knew the facts. Probably he meant about poverty, injustice, etc. I sent him material telling his secretary if he could stand this I would send him much more but no request has come.

Reinhold Niebuhr Papers: Library of Congress, Manuscript Reading Room

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Paul Elie

is senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.

Jean Bethke Elshtain

is an author and Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Robin Lovin

is Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, and the author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism.