- The Washington Times - Friday, June 24, 2005

The man who has preached to more people than any man in history approaches the end of the long, long sawdust trail tonight in New York City.

When he moves slowly to the pulpit in an arena in Flushing Meadow, Billy Graham will open his 417th crusade in the service of Jesus Christ, and over three days will put finis to a remarkable phenomenon of the nation’s history.

The confidant of presidents, who will take a text from the Bible and hold forth for 25 minutes, is a pale reflection of the man who set Gotham aflame in New York City in 1957. But his message, shorn of politics and partisanship, will be as familiar as ever: that God changes lives through faith in “His only begotten Son.”

He’s frail now at 86, suffering from a half-dozen diseases, but when he holds up his well-worn Bible, the weight of the years will fall away, the bright blue eyes will blaze in the klieg lights, and he will become once more the youthful boy of summer, a dashing if no longer athletic man of a hundred tent revivals, accompanied by the crickets of summer nights singing in the Johnson grass just beyond the sawdust that leads to an altar of repentance and redemption.

There was no large supporting cast at his first New York crusade a half-century ago, when he booked Madison Square Garden for six weeks and arrived to jeers that Gotham was too sophisticated for the old-time religion. He stayed for 16 weeks, preaching to 2 million persons and became the talk of the town.

The triumph in New York was a reprise of a similar success in London, where he opened to catcalls and stayed for months, preaching to millions and making converts of media, royalty, the titled and the commoners, barrow boys and aristocrats alike. The notion that the public had moved beyond the evangelism of Charles Spurgeon, Billy Sunday, Gipsy Smith and the revivalists of the early 20th century was spectacularly smashed.

This will be his last crusade in America, though he may make one more visit to London if his health permits. Billy Graham has never been touched by scandal and only rarely by controversy. The collection plate is fully audited and the results made public. Throughout his ministry he has kept to a rule that he will never be alone in a room with a woman not related to him, avoiding the temptations that have taken down revivalists before him.

He has stepped into controversies. He returned from a crusade in Moscow in the waning days of the Cold War to report that tales of hunger in Russia must have been exaggerated because he was treated to caviar everywhere he went. He apologized and said he had mistaken how he was treated for the way all Russians lived. He was caught on one of Richard Nixon’s tape recordings agreeing to disrespectful remarks about Jews. He sought out leaders of Jewish organizations to apologize, and in fact his relations with Jews are cordial. So, too, his friendships with blacks; he shared the platform with Martin Luther King at an earlier crusade in New York City, and insisted on open seating at Southern revivals when segregation was the law.

He has always hewed closely to the revivalist’s message, never softening the good news of the Gospel with appeals to a fuzzy, feel-good prosperity gospel. I heard him preach in Pyongyang more than a decade ago, to a small congregation closely watched by the harsh and suspicious North Korean government. He took as his text John 3:16, and preached the Bible plain.

“If you forget everything else I’ve said here today,” he told them, “remember this: God loves you. He proved it by giving His Son to die on the cross for our sins. He raised Him from the dead. The Bible says He’s alive and some day He’s coming back. Until then, we are to live good lives, love our neighbors, obey laws and be good citizens. I know I’m going to heaven. Not because I deserve it, but because Jesus Christ died on that cross for my sins, and He died for your sins, too.”

On the way back to our hotel, our “minder,” a tough, bright young communist who never gave us a rest from reciting the rhetoric of Kim il-Sung and the world’s most brutal Marxist regime, asked whether we had ever heard that message before.

“Yes, we have.”

“Well, I never have.” He stared out the window of the car, through a pounding winter’s rain, and kept a brooding, thoughtful silence for the rest of the half-hour ride. “I want to think about that.”

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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