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.
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.