Ever heard of Elmer Gantry?
If not — or if the name only vaguely rings a bell — then you might, like many today, lack an important bit of context for understanding the origins of the so-called “Billy Graham Rule.”
The choice of the singular “Rule” also may represent two additional misunderstandings. Graham and his three closest ministry associates made four resolutions, not one — and importantly, they did not call them rules (to enforce on others) but resolutions (embraced for their own lives). Graham says it was an “informal understanding among ourselves.”
Just as He Was
In his autobiography, Just as I Am, published in 1997, Graham himself tells the story of the beginning of the now (in)famous “Rule” that bears his name. During a two-week crusade in Modesto, California, in October of 1948, the 29-year-old Graham found himself at a critical juncture.
He had been working as an evangelist for a large and long-established ministry called Youth for Christ. Now, he was beginning to launch out on his own, to begin a new work as an independent evangelist, and he and his team felt the weight of the public scrutiny they’d be under. And they longed not to become, or even appear to be, what characterized some evangelists in the first half of the twentieth century. They heard their share of stories, and personally knew evangelists whose “success” became devastating. Such men slid from one small degree of compromise to the next in their desires for money, power, and illicit sex, all under the cloak of Christian ministry and seeming fruitfulness.
Graham and his team were not the only ones aware of such stories. Twenty years before, in 1927, author Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951) — the “red-haired tornado from the Minnesota wilds,” as H.L. Mencken called him — published the satirical novel Elmer Gantry, dedicated to Mencken, his fellow satirist. The title character was a narcissistic, womanizing evangelist. And the book was as a sensation.
On the one hand, it was banned in Boston and denounced by evangelist Billy Sunday, Graham’s forerunner, as “Satan’s cohort.” On the other, it became the bestselling fiction work of 1927. And this just two years after the 1925 “Scopes monkey trial,” reported on by Mencken, as part of the growing social critique of “fundamentalist” Christianity. (The fictional Gantry would make another pop culture appearance in the 1960 summer film bearing his name, introducing the character, and his notorious lack of character, to yet another generation.)
Hallmark of Integrity
In the fall of 1948, as Graham contemplated leaving the security of a respected and rooted ministry to found his own evangelistic association, he saw an imposing obstacle on the horizon: “the recurring problems many evangelists seemed to have, and . . . the poor image so-called mass evangelism had in the eyes of many people.” Then he adds, “Sinclair Lewis’s fictional character Elmer Gantry unquestionably had given traveling evangelists a bad name” (127).
Importantly, Graham says these resolutions among the four founders “did not mark a radical departure for us; we had always held these principles.” Yet the act of resolving, and doing so together, had purpose and effect. “It did,” he says, “settle in our hearts and minds, once and for all, the determination that integrity would be the hallmark of both our lives and our ministry” (129). (The 500-word section in Graham’s autobiography on the four resolutions is available online at billygraham.org.)
First Up: Money
What, then, were these four resolutions (rather than one rule) that made up the “Modesto Manifesto,” as Graham and his team came to call it?
First, they renounced “the temptation to wring as much money as possible out of an audience.” I’m not aware of any public outcry then or today against this first resolve. Traveling evangelists had little accountability in those days. As they moved from town to town, supporters had no clear sense as to whether the evangelistic team had fallen behind on its costs, or was way ahead, and living in hidden luxury.
The temptation was great to push the extra buttons to wrest as much income as possible out of each town, like the televangelists of the next generation would learn to do on cable TV. Knowing the love of money to be the “root of all evils,” Graham and his team resolved then, ahead of time — before one subtle concession after another dulled their conscience to the danger and accustomed their tastes to indulgence — to steer clear of such “financial abuses” and to “downplay the offering” and “depend as much as possible on money raised by the local committees in advance” (128).
They wanted to make reasonable efforts, like the apostle Paul, not to be perceived as “peddlers of God’s word” (2 Corinthians 2:17) but as those who had “renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways” (2 Corinthians 4:2). Who knows what devastation, and shipwreck, they saved themselves, and others, by this early resolve to handle their finances with Christian integrity?
Second, and now famously, Graham and friends resolved — expressly in light of their constant travel and being so regularly away from home — to take particular precautions against sexual sin. Graham writes,
We all knew of evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman other than my wife. (128)
In contrast to Elmer Gantry, known for his sexual exploits, Graham and his team committed to take unusual care to protect their marriages, not indulge the suspicions of cynics, and work toward establishing a new reputation for their profession.
Then, Of Course: Power
The fourth Modesto resolution (we’ll come back to the third) addressed publicity, or truth in advertising. Graham and friends renounced “the tendency among some evangelists . . . to exaggerate their successes or to claim higher attendance numbers than they really had.” In other words, “we committed ourselves to integrity in our publicity and our reporting” (129). That is, the reporting and publicity that goes hand in hand with a lust for power and sinful ambition to swell influence. Is this not yet another resolution all can rally to?
Power in itself is not evil. And in local churches, the question is not whether pastors have power but how they use it, whether to serve self or the flock. So too with evangelists, holy influence is understandably desirous, to be put to holy use in gospel work. But deception and exaggeration, however seemingly good the intended end, poison the work. Graham and his team saw it then, before fame had clouded their vision, and they resolved to be honest and accurate. Oh, for more such “integrity in our publicity” today.
Finally: Pride — and the Local Church
Whatever the thinking behind Graham’s ordering, and whether third in the list was intended as the climactic position or not, it is no small inclusion that the third resolution purposed to commend, rather than criticize, local churches and their leaders. And especially given the particular traveling or “wider ministry” sphere of the team’s work.
In their own words, they determined “to avoid an antichurch or anticlergy attitude” (129). What troubled Graham, he says, was “the tendency of many evangelists to carry on their work apart from the local church, even to criticize local pastors and churches openly and scathingly.”
In an important sense, the resolutions about money, sex, and power aren’t all that surprising, or even probing. This deadly trio, while ruinous, does not represent the deepest sins of the heart. They are manifestations of unbelief and rebellion, but they grow in the soil of “the great evil,” as C.S. Lewis calls it: pride.
So, it’s actually this third resolution — the one that many eyes might overlook — that may be the most preceptive and profound, the most searching, the most unexpected and significant of the four: to not talk down churches and pastors.
Graham and his associates demonstrated admirable maturity and biblical anchorage in their relative youth in resolving for their new evangelistic endeavor to respect, bless, and partner with the local church, rather than criticize it.
Cherish the Local Church
Doubtless, they faced a great temptation at this critical juncture. Unproven and perhaps insecure about their own place in the constellation of Christian ministries, they might have focused on the evangelistic work local churches weren’t doing, which made Graham’s work necessary. Surely, the team heard the worst of stories about local churches and pastors as it traveled. With a prideful, self-serving mindset, it would have been easy to seize upon those, and ignore the other stories of God at work in local churches.
But the young evangelistic associates, with their emphasis on preaching the gospel, knew that faith in Christ not only creates new individual persons but also a new people. In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul celebrates this people as the church, the corporate body that has received the sovereign Christ as its head (Ephesians 1:22; 5:23), has been loved by him (Ephesians 5:25), and is nourished and cherished by him (Ephesians 5:29).
Paul himself had a traveling team, but when it came time to say how the manifold wisdom of God is made known not only in more and more earthly places, but also in the spiritual realm, he says it happens through the church (Ephesians 3:10). The hosts of heaven are watching. And not only is our God glorified in Christ Jesus and his perfect gospel but also in the church (Ephesians 3:21) and his imperfect people.
We will do well to remember not just one infamous Billy Graham “rule,” but all four resolutions, and particularly the one we may be most prone to conveniently overlook: cherishing the local church.