Zondervan, 2018. 825pp.
A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story (updated edition) is a tome of a biography of the most famous Christian evangelist of the 20th century. Originally published in 1991, the book was written by William Martin who was personally requested by Graham. In Graham’s own words, he thought “a book concerning my life, ministry, and any niche in history our work may have” was in order. Martin agreed. Five years later—after unprecedented access to Graham, his team, and the BGEA organization and archives—Martin’s work was finished.
Martin begins with a history of religion in America and continuing through the brightest- and lesser-light evangelists in our history. Despite the pietism of the early British arrivals, religion in early America was already on the wane by 1660. He notes:
[L]ess than half of New England’s inhabitants were church members, and ministers began to lower the standards of membership to avoid further losses. When Solomon Stoddard came to the frontier parish of Northampton in 1669, the church had fourteen adults members and attendance was meager. (p. 33)
It was to this church Stoddard’s grandson came: Jonathan Edwards, the face of the First Great Awakening.
Chronicling his way through revivalist early America, Martin works his way step-by-step to Graham’s birth: Whitefield, McGready, Finney, Moody, Sunday, and the “vivid, fire-breathing…colorful old war-horse named Mordecai Ham” (p. 65). It was under Ham’s preaching that William Franklin “Billy Frank” Graham, Jr. was converted. A Prophet with Honor continues with Graham’s early life in North Carolina, salvation, call to ministry, marriage, and growth to a worldwide, decades-long ministry.
The book is replete with stories of early crusades, embarrassing (yet honest) blunders, and learning along the way. Graham’s wholehearted pursuit of God is clear and unquestioned, even if his actions (such as his early self-promotion) were not always humble. For example, posters advertising his first London crusade read simply, “Hear Billy Graham.”
The volume includes the ministry of Graham’s children, chronicling the effort to have Franklin take over the crusade ministry. Chapters like “The Work of an Evangelist,” “Having Faithful Children,”and “The Last Days” round out the book.
Benefit for Pastoral Ministry
With Graham’s recent passing, column after column has been written honoring him. He became one of only four people in the country’s history to lie in state in the capitol rotunda. These were honors deserved for one who lived so long and so well in the public eye. It is a reason Martin’s work is important to consider.
A Prophet with Honor pulls few punches regarding either Graham or those who preceded him. Martin’s narrative history of the evangelists mentioned above is worth pondering. Finney’s use of the public invitation is remembered as is the full racial integration and co-educational enrollment of his Oberlin College. Yet Finney is criticized as one who “made revivalism a profession,” while Dwight L. Moody “made it a big business” (p. 47). Of Billy Sunday, who is often mentioned with the most influential revivalists, Martin writes:
[He] left little tangible legacy—no important, writings, no college or training school, no distinctive approach others have preserved.
Graham’s own early flip-flopping on segregation at his crusades is treated as straightforwardly as the rest of his ministry: wise moves are commended and mistakes receive no gloss.
It’s the lack of hagiographic gloss and honesty about dross that makes A Prophet With Honor worthwhile. Doubtless Graham and his ministry, as evaluated by church historians, will surpass many of those mentioned above if not all of them. He and the BGEA will be studied for decades to come. This work is massive—698 pages of text and more than 100 pages of notes—but is worth the time. Martin saves for last this complimentary paragraph:
The remarkable success, scope, and complexity of the movement to which Billy Graham contributed so much make it unlikely that any single figure could ever match or exceed his influence over it. It is possible, of course, that ten, fifty, or a hundred years from now, some young man or woman with just the right combination—a combination easy to describe but apparently harder to embody—will manifest comparable achievement and leadership. It may be than developments in transportation and communication will enable this New Light to shine more brightly than Billy Graham’s ever could, just as jet power and radio and television and satellite and computer technology enabled him to reach more people than any of his predecessors could have dreamed possible. But unless and until that happens, William Franklin Graham, Jr., can safely be regarded as the best who every lived at what he did—”a workman,” as Scripture says, “who needeth not to be ashamed.”
Essential — Recommended — Helpful — Pass It By