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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

A little quiz

Is ignorance about one of America’s greatest evangelists a worrying sign?

A little quiz

Billy Graham (Associated Press/Photo by Kevork Djansezian)

One of the more delightful aspects of my job here at WORLD Magazine and World News Group is the regular opportunity to meet those of you who are readers of our magazines or users of our various digital media. I love it especially during these summer months when you make it a point to stop by our headquarters in Asheville, N.C., and say hello.

I love that partly because it gives me a chance to invite you into my office for a 15-minute history lesson. I’m intrigued to discover how much you know about WORLD’s background—and about the religious landscape in general.

So as we get seated, I test the waters by asking: “Do you folks know who Nelson Bell was?” A positive response—which through the years I’ve gotten from perhaps two-thirds of my guests—means we can move on right away to a more advanced discussion. It helps to have a reference point.

But if I draw a blank with my Nelson Bell query, I know I’ve got a bit of work to do. So, hoping to surprise and impress my guests, I spell out the connection: “Nelson Bell, who founded this company that you’re visiting right now, was the father-in-law of Billy Graham!”

‘Who,’ my guests asked, ‘is Billy Graham?’

How do you beat that? It’s a simple fact that most people are more interested in our past if that history includes someone as famous as Billy Graham. And until just a few days ago, my little quiz never failed me. “Really!” my guests regularly responded. “Tell me more. I had no idea you had such a connection.” Which, of course, was exactly the bridge I wanted. From there, it was so much easier to bring the story back to Dr. L. Nelson Bell. (If you missed some of the details of this remarkable man’s life—and his connection to us—go back to my column in our May 27 issue this past spring.)

My point here, however, is quite different. I said that “until a few days ago, my little quiz never failed me.” Here I want to report that at least twice during these summer months my quiz failed me in a surprising way. At least twice, when I was launching into my little history lesson and drew a blank when I asked my visitors if they knew who Nelson Bell was, I noted that he was Billy Graham’s father-in-law. That’s when I was stunned to draw yet another blank. “Who,” my guests asked, “is Billy Graham?”

It had to happen, sooner or later. It has to happen to us all. But Billy Graham hasn’t even died yet. Big green signs at both ends of Asheville announce that the main interstate highway through our city is the “Billy Graham Freeway.” Although ghostwritten, Billy Graham’s advice column still appears every day in our very liberal local newspaper.

And a couple of our readers—I would guess both were in their late 20s—say they don’t know who Billy Graham is.

Ever since launching WORLD Magazine in 1986, I’ve asked hundreds of our readers who, among Christian authors, has most shaped their thinking. Until recently, I could almost predict the regularity with which I heard references to Francis Schaeffer, whose outsized influence reached around the globe. I also heard the names of C.S. Lewis (of course), Charles Colson (whose conversion grew from Lewis’ writing), Carl F.H. Henry, J.I. Packer, and—more and more—women like Joni Eareckson Tada. But as significant as those authors might have been in their leadership of the evangelical world, I’m no longer surprised not to hear their names with the consistency I found a decade or two ago.

But Billy Graham?

I’ll keep asking the question. And I may discover that these were the only folks in current Christendom who were wearing such blinders. But these two visitors to my office were not country bumpkins. They were conversant on other matters. Something tells me that the worldview these visitors demonstrated was indeed less and less a minority perspective, and more and more typical of the incredibly secular society we’ve inhabited.

It’s not as though an awareness of Billy Graham is critical. But if they can’t even identify him, how much else don’t they know?


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  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Tue, 08/01/2017 08:59 pm

    20th century church history *must* include Billy Graham in its syllabus.  But then, I wonder if these people would have known of George Washington.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Mon, 08/14/2017 10:21 pm

    Brendan, your post made me laugh most heartily! Thanks!

  • JU
    Posted: Fri, 08/04/2017 10:02 am

    Joel, I am very sorry I didn't get the chance to stop by and visit you at the WORLD office in June when I attended my 50th high school reunion in Black Mountain.  My sister and I were very privileged to have attended Dr. Billy Graham's church in Montreat while we were students at Ben Lippen High School in Asheville.  I also attended Weaverville Presbyterian Church pastored by Dr. Dendy who was the Managing Editor of the PRESBYTERIAN JOURNAL, the forerunner to WORLD.

    I have followed Billy Graham through his crusades, books, and newspaper columns.  I have truly been blessed by his ministry and his exemplary life.  It is truly sad that any young person today does not recognize his name.  It's even sadder when they don't recognize Jesus, the man Dr. Graham proclaimed throughout his illustrious life.

    -Jim Uttley, Jr.

  • TWH
    Posted: Fri, 08/04/2017 08:02 pm

    Reformed Baptist apologist James White often wryly observes that American Evangelicals seem to believe Christian history began with Billy Graham. I guess he will have to do a little updating!

  • DZ
    Posted: Wed, 08/09/2017 09:21 pm

    Interesting !!!  But, after our theological pendulum swung from full Arminian, towards Reformed, I began to wonder if everything Billy did was for the best.  Why?  Because we were raised Southern Baptist, and witnessed first hand the fruit of his type of evangelism.  Just thinking, Don & Cindy

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Mon, 08/28/2017 06:02 am

    Having grown up in the Church. I was a PK. We saw the movies growing up that always included Billy Graham preaching and offering an invitation. How could I not know. And of course there were his parents who I know about but might not have remembered in a pop quiz. Now I'm hesitant to stop by your home office, Joel!

    I did have the pleasure of meeting Chuck Colson at a DC event of some sort. And I certainly have read Lewis, and Schaeffer, and all of these people have left indelible marks on my life. To be honest I can't always remember them all, but the most important issue is whether or not the mark of my Maker, and his son is on my life. That is a mark that I cherish and cannot forget. 

    I should also mention the oft criticized Tony Campolo who spoke at my college commencement in the 70s on "The Square Christian in a Round World." It changed my life and propelled me into a life of deeper committment and trust in Jesus. There are all sorts of Christian leaders who in imperfect ways spread the good news and often in spite of themselves, ourselves, are used by God for his glory. And this included Billy Graham and his son Franklin who not so quietly was asked to leave LeTourneau University during his rebellious years.