By A. Larry Ross
As scholars codify the legacy of evangelist Billy Graham, 99, who was laid to rest March 2, 2018, next to his wife, Ruth, at the Library bearing his name, highlighting the crux of a momentary crisis of faith for a man known for his unmatched contributions to evangelicalism and the wider Christian world across more than 60 years reminds us that small decisions – sometimes made in literal darkness – are often the ones that matter most.
In 1949, a 30-year-old Billy Graham found himself in a dark wood, having wandered off the main trail. A featured speaker at a seminary conference, he had just been assaulted with theological questions for which he lacked the formal seminary education to answer. Turning his doubt over and over in his mind, Graham hiked into the pines surrounding the retreat center. At one point, he sat down, opened his Bible upon a stump, and cried out to God.
According to biographer William Martin, for a few months prior to that fateful night in the woods, Billy Graham had been engaged in an intellectual tête-à-tête with Youth for Christ (YFC) colleague Chuck Templeton. Spotlighted in a 1946 National Association of Evangelicals “best used of God” spread that did not include Graham, Templeton was considered “worldly” and “intellectually curious” and known for preaching less substantive but more eloquent sermons than Graham.
Despite his accolades, Templeton was insecure about his lack of formal education. He resigned from YFC, applied for and gained admission to Princeton Theological Seminary, then visited Graham in North Carolina, entreating the young preacher to join him at seminary.
Though intrigued by the offer, Graham harbored deep reservations, having recently been appointed president of Northwestern Bible College. To then enroll in a different American school would seem peculiar. But before turning down Templeton’s offer, he stuck out his hand and posed the following compromise: “Chuck, go to Oxford, and I’ll go with you.”
Templeton refused, but over the next year, whenever Graham was in New York, the pair would meet for lengthy stints of prayer and discussion. Sveltely outfitted with his new learning, Templeton challenged Billy’s plainclothes doctrine, headily diving into topics such as historical and literary criticism of the Bible, pointing out where God’s Holy Word seemed to contradict itself.
Martin writes that Graham’s predicament “was real and threatening. If Scripture was not truly God’s inspired revelation, God’s literal Word, directly transmitted to the human agents who committed it to writing and trustworthy in every respect,” how could he go on preaching it with confidence?
When Graham and Templeton reconvened their debate before a gathering of students at the Forest Home retreat center outside Los Angeles, the depth of Billy’s doubt reached its nadir.
Singular moments of crisis ricochet through time. In his classic poem “Dark Night of the Soul,” Christian mystic St. John of the Cross writes of the Spirit’s transformation through trials. Throughout history, individuals later remembered as spiritual luminaries for the ages grappled with instances of doubt that, contrarily confronted, could have radically altered the outcomes of their lives.
Some 10 years after political turmoil banished him from his beloved Florence, 14th century poet Dante began the “Inferno” with these lines:
Halfway through the journey we are living
I found myself deep in a darkened forest,
For I had lost all trace of the straight path.
And in 1960, having lost his wife of four years to cancer, C. S. Lewis committed his agony and anger toward God in the slim volume, “A Grief Observed.”
In grief, Lewis wrote, “nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs.” Why is it, he wondered, that God can seem “so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?”
In a 1989 interview with David Frost, Graham described his prayer in the woods: “Lord, I don’t understand all the things in this Book, but I accept it as your Word by faith. … I accept it as your revelation to us.”
John of the Cross’ treatise on his poem explains that doubt cleanses the intellect, leaving it free to accept truth. God grants the soul not only awareness of its own wretchedness, but also deeper comprehension of His “grandeur and majesty.”
Likewise, Lewis’ “A Grief Observed” demonstrates it is not only permissible to admit uncertainty, but a necessary spiritual discipline. He discovered that over-intellectualized belief is not faith, but “imagination,” and collapses like “a house of cards,” at the first sign of trouble.
In Martin’s account, not long after Templeton finished his degree he realized that his faith was in shambles and left the ministry field for a diverse career in radio, television, journalism and screenwriting. He later reflected upon his conversation with Billy Graham, “If I had shaken [Graham’s] hand I have no doubt in the world that the whole history of evangelism would have changed.”
Billy Graham was an intelligent man who through study and prayer always strove to learn more about the God he loved and served, but his debates with Templeton – as well as the divergent paths of their careers – reveal that sole reliance on rational conceptualization of God, unsupported by deeper conviction, can lead to spiritual ruin.
In 1949, mere months after his Forest Home experience, Graham was invited to speak at the annual Greater Los Angeles revival. When he took the pulpit, Martin recounts Graham preached “with a force and authority that impressed even his colleagues.” Indeed, his impact was so notable that newspaperman William Randolph Hearst instructed his reporters to “Puff Graham.”
Ironically, it was Billy Graham’s humble delivery that made him so effective. Critics accused him of appealing to the lowest common denominator of emotion – and as time went by, he gradually softened his preaching style – but never forfeited the authenticity of his message or the raw truth of God’s commands. “Over and over again,” Martin writes, Graham demanded his listeners heed his words “not because they were his but because ‘the Bible says …!'”
In James Finn Cotter’s introduction to his translation of the “Inferno,” he points out that “Dante begins his poem not with ‘I’ but ‘we.'” Poetry, prose and speech (even the simple, direct rhetoric of a country preacher) invite the listener to enter a collective experience that he or she exits transfigured.
In reverent imitation of his creator, Dante created an enduring vision of the afterlife and the soul’s longing for union with the divine. Lewis surfaced from his pain with a testimony demonstrating that doubt can be a form of worship.
And with Graham, uncertainty led to a decision to place all knowledge and assurance in God’s Word, his giftedness as a preacher bolstered with a recommitted adherence to the Bible’s infallibility. At the end of every Billy Graham crusade, having been brought to a searing awareness of their own sins and failings – in recreation of his own dark night – Graham offered his listeners a promise of transcendence to a better world through repentance and faith.
While others critiqued him for a lack of sophistication and scholarship, Graham understood the power of God’s love, and emphasized the foundational elements of faith that believers hold in common, rather than the particulars of doctrine, which will stand the test of time.
A. Larry Ross is president of A. Larry Ross Communications, a Dallas-based media/public relations agency founded in 1994 to provide cross-over media liaison at the intersection of faith and culture. For more than 33 years, he served as personal media spokesperson for evangelist Billy Graham and is responsible for the website http://www.billygrahamlegacy.info/ and curator of the video streaming channel, http://bit.ly/BillyGrahamLegacyYouTube.