How Billy Graham Has Shaped Christian Music
When a person hears the name “Billy Graham,” the first thought in their minds is certainly not music.
In their mind’s eye they see epic stadium crusades packed with thousands of hungry souls gathering around the light and heat of God’s Word. They see an articulate, bold preacher infiltrating the Soviet Union to preach the Gospel behind the Iron Curtain for the first time. They see Graham preaching side-by-side with Martin Luther King, Jr. in New York and bailing King out of prison after a demonstration got him arrested. They see United States presidents courting the favor and wisdom of Graham, like Israel’s kings of old seeking the council and blessing of a prophet.
God has shown Billy Graham favor from the beginning when—for reasons still unknown and debated today—William Randolph Hearst, the most powerful media magnate in the world at that time, uttered two simple words that would transform Graham’s life forever.
We sometimes sneer at people of power “in the world,” but we forget that God uses “the heathen” to do mighty works for His glory, whether those individuals realize it or not. I think of King Cyrus giving Nehemiah extraordinary favor to rebuild Jerusalem.
In a similar way, Hearst, after learning of Graham’s ministry, told every editor of every newspaper he owned to “puff Graham”—which led to incredible favor in the press and a media blitz that grew exponentially as other major newspapers mimicked Hearst’s papers and ran dozens of cover stories about Graham’s crusades—all within the course of a few weeks in the autumn of 1949. Almost overnight, the blitz turned Graham into a household name. This sudden favor opened doors for Graham to preach the Gospel to ever-growing multitudes. Whenever he spoke, he had the entire nation’s ear.
The rest is history. Over the course of his entire ministry to the present day, Graham has preached the Gospel to over 2.2 billion people.
So what’s all this have to do with music? It’s not the most obvious thing about Graham’s ministry, but it is undeniable: Graham has shaped modern Christian music.
Not only was the incorporation of music during his message a crucial part of his ministry, but also the testimony of the musicians themselves—including famous ones such as the Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash, who was a regular participant at Graham crusades. The exposure legitimized Cash’s expressions of faith in his music and helped the rock superstar find a voice in the Christian world that persists to this day.
Graham’s close working partnership with George Beverly Shea, who became one of the most famous Gospel singers of all-time thanks in part to his constant appearances with Graham, brought many beloved hymns—including “How Great Thou Art”—to multitudes around the globe who had never heard them before. Shea also cemented the popularity of such hymns in the West. In recent years, classic hymns have seen a resurgence in CCM releases, but many of these hymns would likely never have become “classic” in the modern cultural conscious if Graham had not towed Shea to his crusades.
On Thursday, November 7, 2013, 95-year-old Graham gave what might be his last message to the United States; and, even then, he used music as a potent tool. The program featured the testimonies of rapper LaCrae and former Flyleaf lead singer Lacey Sturm.
It is important to understand the forces that shape us. The next time you hear a classic hymn in a contemporary worship service or hear a Johnny Cash song about God, or if you begin to hear the name LaCrae pop up more often in the media know that it’s not farfetched to say that Billy Graham had a hand in making that happen.
And this adds an even richer depth to Billy Graham’s legacy.