A Prophet with Honor. By William Martin. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991. 734 pp. Cloth, $25.00.
In 1985 Billy Graham asked William Martin to consider writing his life story. Martin is Harvard Divinity School trained and a professor at Rice University, where he teaches sociology of religion. From the outset he makes it clear that he was not writing “an in-house, ‘authorized”‘ biography that was guaranteed to view Graham favorably (p. 13). He was granted access to all records of Graham’s life along with unconditional freedom to write a critical biography. In the process of research, Martin was favorably impressed with Graham, and the result is a detailed, positive, yet critical analysis of Graham’s life and ministry.
The book is divided into four parts which block Graham’s life into four stages. These detail his maturing as a Christian leader in the evangelical movement during the last half of the twentieth century. The first part details Billy Graham’s Reformed Presbyterian roots in a pious Christian family, his theological education, his brief pastorate, his ministry with Youth for Christ, and his Los Angeles crusade that catapulted the evangelist into national attention in 1948. The second part covers Graham’s ministry in the 1950’s. It was during this time that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) came into being and established its crusade methodology. The third part traces the ministry from 1960 to 1974. This section is primarily centered on Graham’s increasing political ties to world leaders. The last part covers from 1974 to the present, and details Graham’s international involvement as an evangelist, as a political agent (particularly in opening up the Soviet Union to greater religious freedom), and most importantly as a mentor of evangelists in the task of world evangelization through the Amsterdam conferences in 1983 and 1986.
Martin’s book is a masterpiece of detail and provides rich insight into the life and ministry of one of the most important (if not the most important) religious leaders in the twentieth century. It is must reading for anyone who desires to understand the burgeoning “evangelical movement” in the last half of the twentieth century.
The book is not without significant flaws, however, which hinder its value in helping one to understand the present theological scene. Two weaknesses stand out.
The first weakness is that Martin fails to grapple with the breadth of what is now called “evangelicalism.” Graham’s well-known split from the “fundamentalists” (such as Carl McIntyre and Bob Jones) is detailed well. The problem is that he seems to place anyone who would disagree with Graham on doctrinal or practical grounds in the same category. Not all those who find fault with Graham’s ministry would want to be identified as “fundamentalists,” and the evangelical faith is also represented in more conservative schools of thought than Fuller Seminary (mentioned 11 times in the book).
A second, and greater, failure of the book is that it contains less interaction with Graham’s theology than would be expected. There are numerous comments throughout the book about theological issues, and chap 35 at the end is devoted to Graham’s theology (“The Bible [Still] Says …”). There is little discussion, however, as to the impact of Graham’s erasure of the distinctions between the evangelical Protestant faith and the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. His “softening attitude toward liberal Protestants and Roman Catholics” (p. 294) is mentioned, but without any interaction with what this has meant for the fiber of evangelicalism.
Regarding Graham’s doctrine of salvation there is almost no information. He is presented as a simple “decisionist” throughout the book. Phrases like “giving one’s life to Christ” (p. 52), “accepting Christ” (p. 595), and “letting Christ into the heart” (p. 68) are sprinkled liberally throughout the book but are never defined by any substantive explanation of biblical themes like atonement, faith, justification, or security. As a result, it is impossible for the discerning reader to come to grips either with where Graham stands on major theological issues or how to evaluate his ministry as an evangelist in any biblical way.
Despite these failures, Martin does help the reader to understand Billy Graham. Like most who make an enormous impact on a generation, Graham is a complex figure. His integrity and sincerity have led to an unparalleled impact for the “evangelical” faith on the world scene. The results of some of his innovations in evangelistic methods, and of his broad acceptance of non-evangelicals as co-workers in the Gospel, await a future day. There is no doubt, however, that his life has made a difference, and anyone who wants to understand the contemporary theological landscape should seek to know Billy Graham’s place in the world scene.
Thomas G. Lewellen
White Lake, MI