Saturday, December 5, 2009

Books and "The Book" of Billy Graham

The Evangelists' Evangelist

Not too long ago, I'd heard a story on NPR about someone--perhaps a journalist--recounting their recent visit to the new Billy Graham Center and Museum. More accurately, it was a visit to the Billy Graham Evangelical Association's Library and Museum in Charlotte, NC--which you can see in the following link (

The segment seemed to tell about what some may consider the "cheese-ball" factor of the museum, recounting the over-Evangelization and theme-park feel of the place, especially in the wake of Ruth Bell Graham's death in June 2007. This sort of media narrative doesn't portray such industry in the best of lights (the fact of it "being an industry," specifically a "God industry," which earns tens of millions of dollars a year in sales makes it even more of a target by journalists and writers). Nonetheless, we should only assume that a place constructed by Billy Graham and family would be "over-Evangelizing," if such an expression were accurate or to even exist! As the Evangelists' Evangelist--taken almost biblically from pages of scripture like "King of Kings!"--or as the "Preacher to the Presidents," Billy Graham and his corporation are truly an American monarchy of Bible Industry.

I don't believe the Rev. Graham was necessarily considering a monetary powerhouse or kingdom on earth back in 1950-1, when he was setting off to preach his Gospel to the world, but 60 years on, and now in his 92nd year (he'll be 92 in November), one can see how the vision and passion of some individuals can lead to extraordinary messages, outcomes, and experiences. So whether or not you agree with or are comfortable with the preaching and legacy of the Rev. Graham, it is still a remarkable thing to partake in the experience of the Graham enterprises and see for yourself what sort of "over-Evangelizing" and historico-theatrical trappings go with such organizations. And that's just about where my tour began: not in North Carolina, but at another Graham Center and locale. It was one afternoon, when I was visiting Wheaton College, that I happened to have a chance to visit this other Grahamtastic facility. It was the same day that I'd been at the CARA Conference, and had just visited the archives on the floors above.

You see, the Billy Graham Center Museum is located on the ground floor of the Graham Center--a vast complex located in a mammoth 5+ story neo-colonial/Federal/Georgian style structure. Admission is free, but donations (or, "free will offerings") are accepted. Surely, why would it cost one money to enter into the Evangelist's tent? And this is where the tour begins--it is a self guided tour, with the help of visual cues and placards. In the reception area, where a woman greets visitors at the information desk, you can look slightly to one side and find a blocked passageway (seen here), which is actually a view of one of the final rooms in the museum. But its placement seemed evangelistically relevant: it was the famed passage of John 3:16, used in many American Evangelical circles as the battle cry for salvation. From this position, visitors would be greeted by the verse, but so too later, reminded at the end of their visit (or "journey?"), why they had not just gone through the museum, but why they were on earth, and what their role was in embracing Christianity!

The museum itself began with an interesting motif and pattern. One entered a circular room, with a fairly high ceiling, which makes the visitor feel extremely small. Almost as if you are being funneled down to the center. It is called the "Rotunda of Witnesses," and includes long narrow quilts draped down from the ceiling, each depicting a "Christian Witness." For Graham, these witnesses include Apostle Paul, Justin Martyr, Gregory the Great, Francis of Assisi, John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, Blaise Pascal, Jonathan Edwards, and Oswald Chamber. Indeed, and interesting group! It makes one feel like they are being looked down upon by some giants of the past, almost passing judgement on you in the present, and for the future of the human species! The darkness is illuminated by track-lighting set upon the quilts, and you turn in circles, looking at each quilt, wondering about them, just as it seems they might be wondering about you! "What have you accomplished?" they seem to ask.

Passing through the rotunda, one now enters into perhaps the most apropos portion of the "Books and Biblios" itinerary: the book exhibits. The Graham Museum has done an exquisite job at displaying a vast and expansive number of books on spirituality, mission, and evangelization. And each of these books holds distinct historical significance to the American enterprise of evangelism. Starting with fine examples of 18th century tomes on missions to the Native Americans (see here, Essays on Instruction on the Indians...), published in 1740. If you enlarge the image you will note some of the notes in the lengthy title (titles well into the early 20th century had long descriptive titles)--and this one notes information about directions and prayers for "the heathen world," among other directives!

Early American Bible printing can be seen in this next image. It is a page from the first such example: an Algonquin Bible, printed in 1663. It wasn't for nearly another eighty years that a Bible in any European language was published in the colonies. In 1743, Christoph Sauer published his German-language Bible in the colonies--it was the first such in any European tongue.

Above we find works about "Indian converts" and Puritans. Below, an original manuscript sermon from the famed Puritan preacher Cotton Mather, entitled "Spiritual Blessings."

More history in the making: the Bible above, printed in 1782, was the first such authorized edition printed in the nascent United States, granted by the Continental Congress. This, as the sign reads, was a result of the blockades from the American Revolution, disallowing imports of Bibles from England. Below, we find a window into the American past on the construction and operation of the Erie Canal, in "Five Years on the Erie Canal" by D.M. Eaton.

This book is very interesting and of importance to those interested in various layers of American history, whether local history, Erie Canal or American fluvial history, maritime history, or religious history. Its availability may be limited, but is easily found and accessible on Google books. It details the sights and sounds and actions of those who milled around the banks and on the boats of the Erie more than 175 years ago, and includes such chapter headings as "Orphan Boys," "Silent Ministers," "Traveling Christians should not leave their religion at home," "More Opposition--Roman Catholics and Black-legs," "Conversion of a Boat's Crew," "The Swearer's Pledge," "The Colored Man and his Bible," and "Two Infidels." There's always something hidden in lost books like this; something that may yield another find or intrigue.

Pamphlets like these above, discussing such issues as "the Bible in schools," were very common during the 18th and 19th century, and easily producible.

A display of two magnificent books--an early edition of Phyllis Wheatley's poems, seen above, may be part of almost every American's memory of high school social studies. The now famous image of Miss Wheatley sitting pensively at her desk, considering what to write in her poems, has been reprinted in the school books of millions of school children. I recalled this image instantly when I saw it. Of course, we never read any of her poems in school! So as a tribute, to Miss Wheatley, here is one of her poems, entitled...

An Hymn to the Morning

ATTEND my lays, ye ever honour'd nine,
Assist my labours, and my strains refine;
In smoothest numbers pour the notes along,
For bright Aurora now demands my song.
Aurora hail, and all the thousand dies,
Which deck thy progress through the vaulted skies:
The morn awakes, and wide extends her rays,
On ev'ry leaf the gentle zephyr plays;
Harmonious lays the feather'd race resume,
Dart the bright eye, and shake the painted plume.
Ye shady groves, your verdant gloom display
To shield your poet from the burning day:
Calliope awake the sacred lyre,
While thy fair sisters fan the pleasing fire:
The bow'rs, the gales, the variegated skies
In all their pleasures in my bosom rise.
See in the east th' illustrious king of day!
His rising radiance drives the shades away--
But Oh! I feel his fervid beams too strong,
And scarce begun, concludes th' abortive song.

The other work is by a pioneering African-American woman Evangelist, Amanda Smith (1837-1915). Mrs. Smith had been a slave in Maryland. After the Civil War her husband and children had died, and she devoted herself to preaching, outreach, and evangelism. And after 1878, she began traveling more regularly abroad, to England, then to India, Africa, and beyond. She set up an orphanage for African-American children in Harvey (south of Chicago), which was later taken over by the state and re-named the Amanda Smith Industrial School for Girls. Unfortunately, three years after her death, the building burned to the ground in 1918, (cf. African-American Registry, Amanda Smith).

Of course, there were many more curiosities throughout the museum, like this wood carving of a preacher and his flock. And below: a cut out of another early 20th century American evangelist, pasted to the wall, and surrounded by early hymnals.

Now, perhaps one of the most striking objects in the museum was this Christ on a Cross sculpture, which in reality, is more like "Christ IN a Cross." It is quite an amazing object. I'd be curious to take down visitors' reactions of this object, as it is clearly meant to evoke a sense of pain endured through crucifixion. And yet, being within this crystal-glass entombment, the totally humanized character strains under some worldly and external stresses, appearing almost gelatinized. While at the same time, being stationed in a room of complete darkness with an illumination source coming from within or below the sculptured object, one is forced to think about the spirituality of the moment, the character, and so forth. This is yet another gentle reminder of the museum, which mixes media and art and religious iconography, to let the visitor know the intentions of evangelism.

Above and below, one can see the trappings of the good Billy Graham himself: photos, notes, letters, and Bibles--here is one given to Rev. Graham by his mother.

His passport and his pulpit!

Now just imagine, you've gone through the whole museum, and you find yourself confronted with a variety of images and rooms, which are each designed to remind you of, say, God's greatness. After the whole serpentine tour of the museum, you enter another dark room, with a diorama style painting of biblical antiquity. You are meant to be drawn into the world (or, worlds) of the Bible. You are meant to be reflective. It is dark. You think about whatever it is you're thinking about, and you think you are leaving. An "EXIT" signs glows above the door.

 are not there yet! You are reminded just a few more times as to what is really happening here: the emotive heartstrings of evangelism working at every step of the way. First, we have this hallway--a "cross shaped" hallway, leading to a cross on the wall farther on. The thing I remember about this passage was that it seemed to close in on you, not necessarily that you were embracing the cross, but that the cross was embracing you! Also, this passage way was inclined, so that when you went "through the cross," you were walking up a ramp, which made it feel like a difficult journey: you were being both constrained (or, one may argue "restricted" vs. "embraced"--depending on how you felt about the experience; or perhaps both, paradoxically) and forced to walk up an incline, somehow heightening the experience of that space. But you're also forced to look ahead, at the cross, which some people might think: "do you accept it or not!?"

Once you've gone through the Tunnel of the Cross or Tunnel of Christ, whichever you think appropriate, you'll turn left, and find this image of an angel on a large glass wall, again in a very dark room. The angel points to the words "He Is Risen, He is Not Here...";

And one final room, after the angel, is silent, but not dark. Rather, it is illuminated by another room-sized image of clouds, meant presumably to evoke our understanding of heaven. I thought to myself: "where am I?" And perhaps, that IS the question that they want you to ask!

I finally climbed out of the darkness, haze, and tints of the museum, and out of the cumulus of evangelism that afternoon. I was glad that I went through it, as I wasn't really quite sure what to expect. Wheaton itself is an extraordinary place, and the Billy Graham Center and Museum has both charm and character, even if it may go over the top on a few of its devices and evangelistic trappings. I went into the light of the fine autumn afternoon. The sky was bright with its own clouds, seen here over and beyond the Graham Center itself. I realized as I walked around the campus commons and felt the soft breezes and calmness of the afternoon and the fresh air encapsulate me that creation and the world and all that was "real" were outside. I didn't need dark rooms to tell me about the greatness of humanity and the world. But then again, maybe I wouldn't have appreciated the day, the afternoon, or that moment on the commons in the fresh air, if I hadn't had the contrast of a dark museum. Billy Graham had worked his magic once again.


  1. I love your writing and I LOVE your

  2. We need more people like Rev. Billy Graham. Thanks for the postings.