While Billy Graham was widely known for working across denominational lines, he also was more involved in his own denomination – the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) – than many may realize.
When Billy Graham preached at the 1979 SBC annual meeting, more than 1,200 people registered decisions to “go where [God] wants you to go,” as Graham put it.
Graham, who died Feb. 21, spoke at 13 SBC annual meetings between 1951 and 1995, served as a trustee of two SBC entities, and, including references to two institutions and a professorship named in his honor, his name has been mentioned in every SBC Annual since 1951.
He even was nominated for SBC president in 1963 – though then-convention president Herschel Hobbs ruled Graham could not be considered for office that year because he was not an SBC messenger.
Graham “has an interesting variety of denominational ties,” said Tom Johnston, a Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MBTS) professor and author of Examining Billy Graham’s Theology of Evangelism. But “among the Southern Baptists he found a home of warmth and welcome for his evangelistic gift.”
Raised in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Graham became a Southern Baptist in 1937, receiving baptism at East Palatka (Fla.) Baptist Church along with new believers saved at a revival he had preached, Johnston, professor of evangelism at MBTS, told Baptist Press (BP).
Graham went on to hold membership at Curtis Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga.; First Baptist Church in Dallas for 55 years; and most recently First Baptist Church in Spartanburg, S.C., according to BP reports.
The first of 67 consecutive years Graham was named in the SBC Annuals – record books published by the convention – came in 1951, when the evangelist addressed the SBC annual meeting in San Francisco on “the need for revival.”
In a handful of those 67 years, the only mentions of Graham were the endowed chair and school of missions, evangelism and ministry named for him at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). But at the vast majority of their annual meetings, Southern Baptists mentioned Graham in motions, resolutions, reports of his crusades, sermons and announcements of his service on boards and committees.
BP file photo
Billy Graham, who died Feb. 21, addresses the 1995 sesquicentennial meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Atlanta, one of several SBC annual meetings he addressed starting in 1951.
Graham told the SBC at its 1995 Atlanta meeting, “Many of the great Southern Baptist leaders encouraged me from the beginning of my ministry when they weren’t even sure I was a Southern Baptist … I remember Dr. R.G. Lee and J.D. Gray and Jimmy Morgan and Herschel Hobbs and Duke McCall and W.A. Criswell and many others – I could go down the line – that encouraged me from the very beginning,” according to a transcript of his address.
His friendship with Hobbs was evident in 1970, when Graham made a surprise visit to an elderly woman in an Oklahoma City nursing home at Hobbs’ request, BP reported.
Only two of Graham’s addresses to the SBC – 1979 and 1987 – came during the height of the convention’s Conservative Resurgence, and Graham made a point of not taking sides.
He said in 1987, “I have determined that as an evangelist I do not want to get into a denominational dispute that in my mind is a combination of theological differences and personality clashes.”
Two years earlier, however, Graham did find himself briefly in the middle of the conflict when a message he intended as a private communication with then-SBC President Charles Stanley was made public. Graham conveyed to Stanley that if he were a messenger, he would vote for Stanley’s reelection – to the surprise of Stanley’s moderate opponents.
Graham later clarified the reason for his vote would be that the convention customarily granted presidents a second one-year term.
A 1979 missions-themed sermon to the SBC culminated with more than 1,200 annual meeting attendees registering decisions to, as Graham put it in his message, “go where [God] wants you to go, and be what he wants you to be.”
Then SBC-President R.G. Lee, right, introduced Billy Graham at the 1951 SBC annual meeting in San Francisco, where Graham made his first of 13 preaching appearances before the convention.
Graham served as a trustee of the Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board) in the late 1950s and early 1960s, according to SBC Annuals, and a trustee of the SBC’s Radio and Television Commission in the late 1960s.
In 1972, Graham wrote to then-FMB executive secretary Baker James Cauthen that “no mission board in the world compares with the effectiveness of the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Graham said of the Cooperative Program in 1969, “No other denomination has devised a better plan for supporting the total missions program,” BP reported at the time.
He was elected to preach the 1961 convention sermon but did not deliver that message because he was in the midst of a crusade in London and hospitalized with illness, according to SBC Annuals.
The convention elected Graham as one of its representatives on the Baptist Joint Committee in 1962.
SBC entities where Graham did not serve as a trustee also counted him as a friend.
SBTS is “the sole institution to receive authorization by Graham to use his name for its graduate school,” according to a 2014 issue of Southern Seminary Magazine. Graham spoke at the inauguration of SBTS President R. Albert Mohler Jr. in 1993.
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary counts Graham as an honorary life member of the Southwestern Advisory Council, BP reported in 1997.
Graham’s relationship with the Home Mission Board (now the North American Mission Board) was evidenced by a visit to HMB offices in 1973 and an address at an HMB conference in 1985, BP reported.
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission presented Graham with its Distinguished Service Award in 1983 and 2007.
Johnston, of MBTS, said Graham’s broad “appeal across denominations” might have caused the evangelist “not to overly emphasize his work as a Southern Baptist.” Still, Graham “was very grateful for the evangelistic ethos of the Southern Baptist Convention, and he was grateful for being a part of such a wonderful group of Christians.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – With reporting by Baptist Press senior editor Art Toalston.)