Just over a year ago, on February 21, 2018, The New York Times published the obituary of the Rev. Billy Graham, calling the 99-year-old preacher “the nation’s best-known Christian evangelist for more than 60 years.” It is certainly true that Graham has remained a steadfast, household name throughout his long and storied ministry career, remembered for his popular radio and TV appearances, as well as his consistently stated goal of convincing others to “commit to a life of Christian faith.” A testament to his affable nature and commanding performances, Graham has appeared on Gallup’s “Ten Most Admired” poll a record 61 times, surpassing Nelson Mandela, Queen Elizabeth II, and Oprah. Yet behind Graham’s near-perfect public image is a lesser-known web of mass-appeal strategy and marketing tactics, providing insight into how exactly a “North Carolina farmer’s son” was able to catapult to the top of America’s social hierarchy as a religious leader.
From Tents to TV
After a series of smaller collegiate engagements, Graham became the president of Northwestern Bible College in Minneapolis in 1948. The affable preacher’s booming voice and emphatic sermons began to reach a wider audience in 1949, when he held his first “crusade” in Los Angeles — a radical public style of rally-preaching that came to be synonymous with his image. Conducted under a canvas tent, the eight-week affair was the first step towards Graham’s rising fame. The revivalist event garnered support from several celebrities, including William Randolph Hearst, and the final attendance count ballooned to 350,000. The location, too, was important for the crusade’s media success. Graham’s choice of L.A., America’s entertainment capital, was an early indication of his lifelong tendency to capitalize on new media outlets and to spread the gospel though often nontraditional methods.
Graham took his first step into the technological sphere with radio. The preacher’s weekly broadcast, called the “Hour of Decision,” began its 60 year run in 1950, delivering evangelist sermons directly into American homes. Yet the main turning point came in 1957: Graham began a 16-week crusade in Madison Square Garden, prompting a TV special on ABC and a long future of primetime purchases by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association (BGEA). His outreach through this medium was massive, with his TV specials and live events reaching an audience of around 215 million people. Graham also spread his non-denominational Protestant views as a frequent guest on popular talk shows, such as the The Tonight Show with Jack Paar and Johnny Carson .
Embodying a Contradiction
Despite his prolific media career, the case of Graham is especially notable due to his ability to bridge a traditional dichotomy other public figures could not. An especially difficult feat today, he managed to simultaneously capitalize on new technological outreach methods and self-market effectively while maintaining a high level of perceived integrity and general public admiration. Despite commercializing his image and ministry through numerous media outreach formats (the royalties from his books alone — 33 in total — netted him millions), the North Carolina-born preacher maintained a relatively humble and pious reputation and was widely lauded for it, even posthumously. His funeral, which took place in Charlotte, N.C., drew thousands of guest to a 28,000-square-foot tent, reminiscent of his early crusades. He was the first religious leader honored in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, after serving as a spiritual advisor to every U.S. president since Harry Truman. And despite facing criticism that his non-denominational preaching style was too vague, he managed to garner support far beyond the walls of traditional white evangelicalism, publicly denouncing racism from a scriptural view and encouraging non-denominational salvation.
Although Graham chose to identify himself on his grave marker as merely a “Preacher of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ”, there’s no denying that he succeeded in transforming himself into a celebrity giant over the course of his life, and built an impressive net worth doing so. So how did he manage to escape the accusations of superficiality and commercial exploitation of religion that damned the careers of so many other televangelists?
A Tactical Approach
The combination of Graham’s simplistic preaching style and his avoidance of solid stances on controversial social issues greatly contributed to a relatively untarnished image. By ignoring logically-challenging theological questions, and including “country boys” without formal theological educations in his religious rhetoric, Graham widened his audience to include less traditionally devout Christians. The preacher was also a self-proclaimed opponent of racism (often demonstrated through a highly publicized friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and frequently preached about its spiritual sins. Yet, he shied away from formally supporting actual civil rights demonstrations and legislative proposals, leading many to believe that he failed to leverage his platform. Graham’s middle-of-the-road, ambiguous stance fell short of enacting any concrete change (particularly in combination with his support of many conservative white fundamentalists), yet was effective at avoiding scandal and bolstering his intentionally uncontroversial image.
Graham’s purposeful neutrality and popularity-seeking behavior fit perfectly with the concurrent rise of America’s newest obsession: the television. Although the technology had existed since the late 1920s, post-World War II America saw a meteoric rise in the popularity of family television sets, with ownership inflating from several thousand to over 30 million homes between 1947 and 1955. The attitudes towards the new medium were overwhelmingly positive at this time, and most treated the household TV set as a way to connect and socialize as a family. Graham’s cultivated public image as a man of integrity was perfect for this role, and he strategically capitalized on the opportunity. The time slots purchased by Willow Communications (the media unit of his ministry) were expensive primetime slots on the most popular stations available — Sunday nights being a frequent choice.
Looking back at Graham’s behind-the-scenes business savvy is especially impressive in today’s context. His apparent, yet capitalistic, “wholesomeness” has become nearly impossible to achieve in the present-day technological sphere of social media, and the implications its transparency holds for self-marketing and covering undesirable scandals. By recognizing Graham’s tactics beyond merely preaching the Gospel, we ultimately gain a deeper understanding of ‘America’s First Pastor.’
Image Credit: Unsplash/Aaron Burden