On Finding Warnings for America from Rev. Billy Graham

The old dresser holds my prized possessions.  No jewels or money or a key to a safe deposit box – just simple things that hold a place in my heart.

Today, I've opened its weathered drawers to look for an old dress pattern – a memory that was jogged by a conversation with my elderly mother.  I opened the drawer and carefully started sifting through the contents – a 45rpm of John Lennon's "(Just Like) Starting Over" I'd bought before he was killed; a personal letter from Phyllis Schlafly on being conservative; People magazine's tribute on the death of Sir Lawrence Olivier, "Goodnight Sweet Prince."  Then I pulled out a theater program for Camelot signed by Richard Harris; a paperback titled Dark Shadows; and the last issue of George magazine, published before John F. Kennedy, Jr. flew to eternity.

"Ah," I always say with a smile – one of my favorite old snapshots of me posing in the lobby of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in front of their giant Gone with the Wind/Margaret Mitchell exhibit.  I don't think they could even have that on display today without threats or protests.

Then I ran across it.  Something I didn't even remember: a copy of Billy Graham's Decision magazine from March 1976.  The subscription was actually in my name – I was a precocious child.  Why I saved this particular issue, I'll never know...or maybe it explained itself.

It's just a few days after the death of Rev. Graham, and I feel as though I've run across this for a reason.  Though he was 99, his death felt like the passing of an era, and as I told my mother the news the day before, she began to cry.  My father and she had been married for 62 years; she is a widow now.  The summer they married, they drove to one of Billy Graham's largest crusades and rededicated their lives to God.  What a different world we live in – most young people don't even bother to get married anymore, let alone go to revival meetings!

Decision wasn't even really a magazine yet; it was more of a glossy newspaper format.  A small side banner read, "Two Billy Graham TV Specials from Rio de Janeiro and Brussels: consult your newspaper for times and channels."  Back then, it seemed as if everyone in America tuned in for a Billy Graham crusade.  The front cover began an article by Graham himself, titled "The Shaping of America."  In it, Graham critiques Life magazine's "100 Events that Shaped America."  Graham notes that only one or two of the events mentioned by Life could be considered "religious" in any way – certainly not Sigmund Freud's visit to the U.S., nor Babe Ruth and the introduction of big-money sports.  Graham has his own ideas of what should have made the list.

He begins with the Mayflower Compact, which began with the words "In the name of God, Amen."  (The document goes on to say the pilgrim's voyage to this new world was in large part "for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith.")  Graham argues that that document set the course for the entire colonial period and that the ensuing emigrants from Europe fleeing religious persecution "were influenced by the pattern of religious self-government under God, established in the Mayflower Compact."

Next he mentions the birth of the American Bible Society in 1816 that facilitated millions of copies of said holy book being distributed around the world.

He continues by mentioning the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, which, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1976, "probably made the greatest single contribution toward arousing antislavery opinion in the United States."  It was well known that the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was inspired by her family's Christian faith, abolitionist writings, and personal experiences.

Graham then points to the founding of our greatest universities: "Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia and Dartmouth" and "many other schools ... established to train students for Christian leadership in America."

He explores the 1806 "Haystack Prayer Meeting" in which five Williams College students, seeking shelter from rain, dove under a haystack and there prayed and conceptualized the "first documented resolution ever made by Americans to begin foreign missionary work."  (One of those students was Samuel Mills, who also "played a role in the founding of the American Bible Society and the United Foreign Missionary Society.")  Graham contends that Christian missions did "as much as anything else to bring about the emerging 'third world.'"  An African prime minister had recently told him that missionary outreach had largely contributed to the "struggle for freedom that has come to fruition in Africa (over) the past two decades."

The many biblical references to the disciples "speaking with boldness" are, according to some biblical authorities, translated to "freedom of speech."  With this point, Graham's article seems to make it clear that Christianity was instrumental not only to our country, but to America's global influence for freedom and democracy.  That's not the kind of democracy Ayn Rand or George Soros wants to hear about – but it's the only kind of democracy that can truly flourish: democracy with a Christian soul.

Also of interest is the paper's editorial, titled "1984."  It warns that the nations of the West must change their ways, or they will lose their freedoms, including "freedom of speech, of religion, of the press, of movement; economic freedom, ballot box freedom – everything.  It will all be swept away with the trash; and a lot of people will be glad about it!  Yes, they will say, 'Thank God, decency has come back.'  And it may so appear, but the democratic experiment will be over."   Predicting the loss of freedoms was one thing, but predicting the death of freedom as something that would be hailed and celebrated – that was spine-tingling.  Few people in 1976 envisioned the kind of world we live in today, where the death of freedom is openly threatened or begged for.

One entire page of Decision is dedicated to a man's struggle with drug addiction.  It could have easily been a message for 2018.

This magazine came out 23 years after my parents attended a Billy Graham crusade and 21 years after his historic crusades at Madison Square Garden, where nearly two and a half million flocked to hear him preach over a 16-week period.

For nearly 70 years, Billy Graham seemed to have his finger on the pulse of America.  His legacy will live on through his son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, but there is a deep, almost mysterious foreboding that lingers after news of his passing.  The man who preached Jesus Christ and biblical principles to more live audiences than anyone else in history is dead.  That should give us pause.

For those who believe in "no God" or the "new god" the world has created who loves everyone and judges nothing, everything still feels okay.  For the rest of us believers, there is a palpable sense that whether the Christian Second Coming is near or not, the world is well overdue for a good sound Judgement Day thrashing.  We can run from our sins no more.  A small gasp escapes as we're overcome with the uneasy feeling that mankind's day of atonement has passed – along with Rev. Billy Graham.

Susan D. Harris can be reached at www.susandharris.com.

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