Summary: An evaluation of Billy Graham’s place in history.
I have been reluctant to read biographies of living people recently. Sometimes it just feels like we need more distance to be really able to understand a person’s contributions, and when that person is beloved, their weaknesses as well.
So I was not planning on reading America’s Pastor. I have read Billy Graham’s own, way too long and detailed without being all that interesting autobiography(-ish), Just As I Am. And I figured that was probably enough for the next decade or so. But after two pretty positive reviews by Mark Noll and Ted Olsen and then the same day being offered a review copy, I decided to pick it up.
And I am glad I did. America’s Pastor is not a biography. There is a fairly short overview of Graham’s life at the beginning, but the rest of the book is chapters focused on different aspects of Graham’s work, image or legacy. The eight chapters are: Preacher, Icon, Southerner, Entrepreneur, Architect, Pilgrim, Pastor and Patriarch.
Grant Wacker is a real historian and uses all the academic historian tools. But this is an eminently fair evaluation, if anything I agree with Noll’s assessment that the very fact of Wacker’s grace toward some of Graham’s weaknesses make those criticisms more real.
There is no white washing here. The more known mistakes around politics, especially with Kennedy and Nixon are dealt with well. The end result is that Wacker believes that political interest and the access to power is just one of the weaknesses that Graham had, despite his awareness of it in later years. But there are also a number of missteps that I (being too young for really knowing Graham as anything other than icon) did not know about.
Despite (or maybe because) of those missteps, Graham became trusted, more trusted than almost any person in history. That trust was based in large part on Graham’s character. He made mistakes and admitted them, he did not claim to be more than he was, his humility behind the scenes and in front of cameras, his willingness to be misunderstood for the sake of spreading the gospel makes him someone unique.
It is this uniqueness that I think Wacker best captures. Billy Graham could not have come to existence in any other age. He was a creature of his generation and made by the events of his generation. This is not to minimize what he did or who he was, but Wacker spends some time talking about who his mantle should pass to and comes to the conclusion that it is the wrong question. There will not be another Billy Graham because we will not live in a world that gave rise to Billy Graham again.
There were a few pages that dragged in the last quarter because part of the weakness of the topical view of Graham meant that there had to be some repetition, but I think this is going to be the best thing written on Graham for quite a while.
If you are looking for a straight biography, this is not it. But if you really want to look at Graham’s impact and legacy, and how he shaped both America and American Evangelicalism, this is well worth picking up.
The audiobook was provided by christianaudiobook.com for purposes of review.