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The Tragedy of Compromise

by Ernest Pickering

Broadening the Sawdust Trail

Billy Graham was for many years a fundamentalist. He was supported by fundamentalists. He spoke in fundamentalist gatherings and aided fundamentalist enterprises. But something happened; something changed. What was it that propelled the young evangelist from being a fundamentalist to becoming the acknowledged leader of the New Evangelicalism?

Several incidents began to alarm fundamentalist leaders and cause them to wonder what was happening to Graham. He publicly endorsed the Revised Standard Version of the Bible in his Pittsburgh campaign before it had ever been released for examination. This translation was produced by liberal scholars under the auspices of the National Council of Churches. Additional doubts began to arise when reports of Graham's campaigns in Japan began to reach this country. Prominent on the lists of cooperating pastors and religious leaders were members of the "Kyodan," the Japanese equivalent of the liberal National Council of Churches. Noted Japanese liberals appeared on the platform with Graham. These actions caused great confusion among the missionaries in that country who had taken a stand against the "Kyodan."

Similar trends began to emerge in some of the Graham campaigns in Great Britain. Liberal churchmen participated in the crusades. Converts were advised to return to Church of England congregations that were liberal. Fundamentalist leaders in that country were chagrined, feeling that one who claimed to be a fellow fundamentalist had undercut their position. During his Scotland campaign, Billy repudiated the title "fundamentalist," declaring there was an aura of bigotry and narrowness associated with the term which he himself did not claim. In a letter to Tom Malone defending his developing policy of cooperating with liberals, Graham claimed that the doctrinal differences were not that serious. "They differ with us on the inspiration of the Bible and on the theories of the atonement."5 Of course, the differences were much more numerous than these, but even if limited to these, they would be very significant.

It was becoming increasingly apparent that Billy Graham had shifted his position and was no longer the outspoken fundamentalist that he had once been. In writing to Dr. James, editor of a Southern Baptist paper, Baptist Standard, Graham remarked that he thought the Southern Baptist Cooperative Program was the finest way in the world to encourage Christians to give, and that those who opposed the program did not understand the parable of the wheat and the tares and were trying to root out the tares now rather than leave them until the judgment day. Such an endorsement was a great disappointment to many who had been opposing the Cooperative Program because it funded liberal colleges, seminaries, and missionary endeavors that were destroying the faith of thousands. Out-and-out liberals and neo-orthodox lecturers such as Emil Brunner and Robert McCracken were honored guest lecturers at Southern Baptist institutions funded by the Cooperative Program. After reading Graham's statement, John R. Rice wrote asking him, as a member of the Cooperating Board of The Sword of the Lord, if he could in good conscience continue to sign the doctrinal statement which appeared on the front page of every issue. It read; "An Independent Christian Weekly, Standing for the Verbal Inspiration of the Bible, the Deity of Christ, His Blood Atonement, Salvation by Faith, New Testament Soul-Winning, and the Premillennial Return of Christ. Opposes Modernism, Worldliness and Formalism." Graham, in replying, stated that he did not believe he could any longer agree to the doctrinal statement as carried by the paper and submitted his resignation from the Cooperating Board.

What happened to Billy Graham? Did he succumb to the lure of popularity? Did he come to the conclusion that to be a fundamentalist would ostracize him from most of this world's religious elite? During his 1949 campaign in Los Angeles, prior to his open break with fundamentalism, he attracted the attention of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate. In telling of his experience at Los Angeles, Graham said that one night he noticed "reporters and cameramen crawling all over the place. One of them told me they had had a memo from Mr. Hearst which said, 'Puff Graham,' and the two Hearst papers gave me great publicity. The others soon followed."6

That Graham has changed cannot be challenged. Whether the change is for the good or the bad is vigorously debated. Martin Marty, a liberal, sees Graham's change as positive: "He has changed and grown . . . . All to say that Graham brought neo-evangelicalism, now evangelicalism, into an ecumenical orbit without having it lose its soul . . . . While many fundamentalists and evangelicals kept huddled in sectarian pride, Graham would refuse to come to your town unless there was broad 'church federation' backing."7 Others feel that Graham left the high plane for the low. "But Graham is more evangelical prodigal than pilgrim. His journey has been a progressive flight from his solid fundamental Christian roots to the far country of ecumenical compromise.8

Bob Shuler, a fundamentalist leader who knew Graham about as well as anyone, made this observation: "But believe me, there is a great gulf between the Billy Graham I saw and knew and loved and trusted in the Los Angeles revival, as he stood without a thread of compromise and declared that he would not associate either in his personal testimony or his gospel ministry with the liberals and modernists of that great city—I say, there is an impassable barrier between that position of separation and the attitude of this great evangelist in New York and San Francisco."9

How sad to have to pen such words!

A Lengthy Trail of Compromise

Worms in the Big Apple

Although Billy Graham began weakening his position prior to 1957, it was in that year that the major turning point in his career was reached. In 1951 a group of fundamentalist ministers in New York City had a meeting and decided to invite the evangelist for a campaign. Graham replied to them that he would not come unless every Protestant church in the area was invited to participate and unless every cooperating church had representatives on the various campaign committees. Jack Wyrtzen, noted New York youth leader, and about ten other fundamentalists felt that they could not enter into such a campaign unless cooperating men and churches agreed to sign a fundamentalist doctrinal statement. A doctrinal statement was drawn up, approved by Graham, but rejected by certain members of the Executive Committee. A number of members resigned; Graham then wrote a letter to the Committee in which he insisted that "the committee unanimously endorse the program of an ecumenical spirit to be exhibited throughout the campaign: and should "present an ecumenical spirit of love toward those of all stripes."10 After further discussion Graham rejected the invitation of the fundamentalists as he did another invitation issued in 1954. He did finally accept an invitation from the Protestant Council of New York, an affiliate of the National Council of Churches.

In 1957 the crusade was held in New York City. Blatant liberals were prominent, including Henry P. Van Dusen, at that time president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, one of the rankest of liberal and left-wing schools in America. In spite of this fact, Graham hailed him as a great religious leader and a convert of Billy Sunday.11 Also included was Methodist modernist Ralph Sockman, a former member of the Communist-front organization the "Methodist Federation for Social Action." Another leading light in the crusade was John Sutherland Bonnell, pastor of the liberal Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. Graham was guest speaker at the left-wing Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, a bastion of apostasy. Attorney James Bennett, a long-time resident of New York City and strong Christian leader there for years, estimated that the General Crusade Committee was composed of about 120 modernists and unbelievers and about twenty fundamentalists. The Executive Committee contained about fifteen modernists and five fundamentalists.


The Tradedy of Compromise. ByErnest Pickering. ©1994. BJU Press. Reproduction prohibited. This work is available for purchase at the Bob Jones University Campus Store (phone: 1-800-252-1927; web address: www.bju.edu/store.)

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