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Billy Graham made sure his integrity was never in question

(RNS) — Two photos of evangelist Billy Graham ran prominently in the local paper after his successful 1950 Atlanta crusade. In one, Graham grinned broadly as he waved goodbye; in the other, crusade ushers hauled off four bulging money bags full of “love offerings.”

Deeply stung, Graham, who died on Wednesday (Feb. 21) at age 99, determined he would never again give people reason to suspect his motives. Steps he took before and after the publication of those photos help account for the longevity of Graham’s ministry. “America’s preacher” escaped the major money and sex scandals that plagued so many other traveling evangelists.

“He was a model of financial respectability,” said Graham’s biographer, William Martin, senior fellow for religion at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “There was never a desperation pitch.”

Although collections were still sought at each of his crusades, Graham agreed after the Atlanta crusade to take a fixed salary from the newly formed Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

In 1952 his salary was $15,000, according to Martin; by the late 1990s he earned nearly $200,000 a year from his organization, according to MinistryWatch, a North Carolina-based group that rates the financial health of Christian ministries. The same went for his crusade team. Never again would they pocket any money raised at his crusades — it all went to the local crusade committee.

Billy Graham speaks during the Albany, NY Crusade in 1990.

Billy Graham speaks during the Albany, N.Y., Crusade in 1990. Photo courtesy of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

That particular rule was part of the 1948 “Modesto Manifesto.” At a Modesto, Calif., hotel, Graham and his staff also pledged to avoid being alone with women other than their wives and to rely on crowd estimates of local officials — to avoid the appearance of inflating their numbers.

Rusty Leonard, the founder and CEO of MinistryWatch, said the BGEA consistently won an “A” rating for financial transparency.

“There’s no question that Billy Graham has always been very open and transparent,” said Leonard, who has been tracking ministries since the early 1990s.

Indeed, Graham was a zealous advocate for full financial disclosure. In 1979, he was among the founders of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Graham spoke eloquently about the need for such an organization:

“If you give to any Christian charity (including the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association), and you don’t insist on an understandable financial accounting of your gift, you are in danger of falling prey to (dishonesty),” Graham was quoted as saying in Martin’s book, “A Prophet with Honor.”

By 2016, the BGEA had $394 million in assets, the ministry said. Leonard said he expected the ministry to retool and survive — possibly as an organization that provides training for future evangelists.

“The Graham name will endure for a long time,” he said. “It’s not going to fall off the face of the Earth.”

Over the course of nearly six decades, Graham tweaked many other aspects of the crusade event — his signature contribution to Christian evangelism. Historians say he perfected a system that began as a tent revival and was ultimately copied by many other Christian leaders with varying degrees of success.

Billy Graham, left, and his son Franklin Graham smile during a groundbreaking ceremony for the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C., on Aug. 26, 2005. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

First, Graham never picked the destination of his crusades. He responded to letters of invitation from local pastors. Second, once he had accepted an invitation his team took months, sometimes as many as two years, to plan a crusade. Third, each crusade was set up as a nonprofit organization in the city in which it took place, with the local committee raising money from offerings and donations from individuals and churches to pay for crusade expenses. Several months after the end of the crusade, the organization was dissolved.

Typically, the Billy Graham association sent in a half-dozen employees a year ahead of the crusade to meet with pastors, choose a venue and begin training volunteers.

Beginning in 1957, Graham agreed to work with more liberal, mainline denominations, and over the years he involved African-American and Roman Catholic churches as well.

“We didn’t care what denomination they’re from,” said Kent Withington, a communications director for the 2005 New York City crusade. That particular crusade partnered with 1,400 area churches.

The success of any crusade was largely the work of thousands of volunteers — essentially lay people — who did everything from setting up chairs to singing in the choir.

One of the volunteers’ most important tasks was to counsel those who had responded to the altar call at the end of each day’s sermon. Concerned that some people responding to the call may have only a fleeting faith, Graham and his team developed a training program for each crusade.

After taking a four-week class, counselors were then ready to help people clarify the decision they made, take down their names and addresses, and follow up with them after the crusade to see if they had found a welcoming church home.

“There was so much preparation,” Martin said. “People told me the crusade could be a success even if Billy Graham never showed up.”

Still, with Graham’s death, one thing seemed certain. Few other evangelists will be able to pack stadiums the way he did, drawing the widest range of Christians.

“There’s nobody I know of who can come in and get all the churches to cooperate,” Martin said. “I think we’ll not see anybody replace him.”

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is an RNS National Reporter and Senior Editor.

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