Many years ago, Robert Benchley, a celebrated humorist, essayist, film actor and regular at New York’s Algonquin Round Table, took time in an article to reflect on misconceptions about his city, widely viewed in those days as a cesspool of sin, gin and cynical sophistication. In truth, he wrote, the typical New Yorker goes through life sharing many of the hopes, fears and attitudes of the typical citizen of Peoria, Minneapolis or Fresno. He is, wrote Benchley, someone “at whom one does not look a second time, because there are so many of him and, furthermore, because he would not justify a second look . . . a composite of the small-town qualities of every State in the Union.”
The Rev. Billy Graham, who died Wednesday at age 99, must have had much the same insight when he launched his “crusades” into the teeming cities of mid-20th-century America: a realization that the country was a good deal less jaded and materialistic than many believed it to be, and that people everywhere were seeking continuity with their past, reassurance about the beliefs of parents and family, and guidance for the future. Above all, perhaps, they wanted someone who understood this, who spoke to their needs in ways they could understand and who could, quite simply, be trusted.
Graham kept his message relatively simple, which may be one reason it endured. He was never a great hero of the political left or right, though he took a stand fairly early in this country’s civil rights movement against segregation, and spoke often, if somewhat vaguely, on the need for social justice.
When he was young, Graham had a close friendship with Charles Templeton, a fellow evangelist. The two eventually parted ways, with Templeton going on to what he saw as a more intellectual and skeptical view of religion. Many years later, Templeton recalled of his old friend, “I disagree with him profoundly on his view of Christianity and think that much of what he says in the pulpit is puerile nonsense. But there is no feigning in him: he believes what he believes with an invincible innocence. He is the only mass evangelist I would trust. And I miss him.”