William Martin

Who succeeds Billy Graham? Reporters are all over the map trying to answer that question

Who succeeds Billy Graham? Reporters are all over the map trying to answer that question

Even though it's been three days since Billy Graham died, you'll be hearing more about him for at least one more week. His funeral preparations alone are worthy of a head of state, starting with a 130-mile procession from Asheville to Charlotte, N.C., where he’ll lie “in repose” for two days.

Then he’ll be flown to Washington, DC to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. That’s totally unprecedented for a minister. The most recent private citizen to receive that honor was Civil Rights Movement matriarch Rosa Parks in 2005.

A “private” funeral will be held March 2 back in Charlotte although it’s unknown how private an event for 2,300 invitees can be. 

Along with all the tributes comes the inevitable question that the experts have been asking for decades: Who –- if anyone –- can replace this man? A few publications have already run “what next” articles.

Ed Stetzer, in an opinion piece in USA Today, said replacing Graham in impossible, possibly a snub toward heir-apparent and oldest son Franklin Graham.

In a culture always looking for the "next Michael Jordan" or "the next John Wayne," there will undoubtedly be articles asking who will fill Graham’s shoes, and inherit his legacy. There is no next Billy Graham. There are and will be many effective preachers of the Christian gospel, but Billy Graham’s ministry of influence will forever be unique and unparalleled.

Tim Funk of the Charlotte Observer foresaw this question and tackled it last May. His answer -- care of one of the go-to Graham experts for journalists -- was essentially what Graham himself has been saying for several decades.

“I don’t think any single person will be ‘the next Billy Graham,’ ” says William Martin, author of “A Prophet with Honor,” long considered the definitive biography of Graham. “That’s in part because evangelical Christianity has become so large and multifaceted -- in significant measure because of what Graham did -- that no one person can dominate it, regardless of talent or dedication. It’s just not going to happen.”…

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Turtle on a fence post? Concerning Billy Graham, St. Pope John Paul II, Bob Dylan and journalism

Turtle on a fence post? Concerning Billy Graham, St. Pope John Paul II, Bob Dylan and journalism

The Rev. Billy Graham must have told the turtle story a million times, so surely -- somewhere in the tsunami of analog and digital news ink we will see tomorrow -- there will be journalists who include it in their features marking the great evangelist's death.

Graham, 99, died Wednesday morning at the family's rambling log home in the mountains outside Asheville, N.C. They bought the land 60 years or so ago, when it cost next to nothing and that's where Billy and Ruth stayed. What will happen to it now? Getting to spend part of a day there while interviewing him was certainly one of the highlights of my reporting career.

But I digress. Members of the GetReligion team will start looking at the actual coverage of his life and career tomorrow. With only a few hours before deadline, I wrote my own piece on Graham and you can read it right here (with the permission of my Universal syndicate editors).

Please send us links to the good and the bad. Obviously, there is a massive package already at Christianity Today, which Graham founded long ago, and at The Charlotte Observer (main story here). Here is the  main Associated Press story.

But let's return to the turtle and the fence post. Here is how I retold that story soon after the creation of this blog:

For decades, Graham has been asked -- thousands of times, I am sure -- why he has been so remarkably successful, preaching to more people in person than anyone else in history. Why have so many people, from the earliest days of his career, responded to his call to accept Jesus Christ as Savior? What's so special about Billy Graham?
At this point, Graham almost always offers the following explanation. If you are walking down a road, he says, and you happen to see a turtle sitting on top of a tall fence post, what would you assume? You would, of course, assume that the turtle did not climb up there on his own. You would assume that someone far larger than the turtle picked him up and then placed him atop the tall post for some mysterious reason.
Get the point? Clearly Graham did not get on top by his own merits.

That's a perfect example of Graham being folksy and safe, but there is content there if you think about it.

Obviously, Graham was a skilled media personality, with decades of experience in the trenches facing journalists who knew his life and work inside out as well as general-assignment reporters who, believe it or not, were sent to cover him after reading little more than a sheet of PR material.

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Thinking about Billy Graham and the Queen: Religion news can be found all over the place

Thinking about Billy Graham and the Queen: Religion news can be found all over the place

Once upon a time, newspaper editors thought that religion was the kind of narrow, insider subject that could be locked into a weekly journalism ghetto called the "church page."

No, honest.

That eventually evolved into the "religion" page, but the idea was pretty much the same. This concept began fading about the time I reached the news biz, in the early 1980s.

Now, I don't think there is anything wrong with having a section or a column dedicated to religion-news topics. I had better think that, since I have been writing that kind of column for 30 years or more. It's nice to have a place in the news format in which you KNOW you can get a religion topic into print.

The crucial point, however, is that religion is a subject that wants to roam all over the place, if journalists take it seriously. It should end up on A1, on the education beat, in the business section, in the sports pages, etc., etc. I have had a lot of fun through the decades (and wrote a book about it) following religion ideas, symbols and trends into the world of popular culture and entertainment.

So with that in mind let me (a) highly, highly recommend a new Sarah Pulliam Bailey piece about the Netflix series "The Crown" that included scenes about Queen Elizabeth's faith and her 1955 encounter with a young American evangelist -- as in Billy Graham. At the same time, I would like to (b) ask people out there in dead-tree-pulp land where The Washington Post editors played this story in the actual newspaper, as opposed to its "Acts of Faith" status online. I sure hope that this ran, in print, in the Style or Entertainment sections. That's where it belongs.

The piece is a must-read, if you have the slightest interest in these two towering figures in 20th Century world culture. This is top-flight popular culture writing that also -- as you would expect -- pays serious attention to the religious content.

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Ticking clock in Charlotte: Billy Graham has already answered the 'who comes next' question

Ticking clock in Charlotte: Billy Graham has already answered the 'who comes next' question

Journalists and religion scholars started talking -- seriously -- about the retirement of the Rev. Billy Graham back in the mid-1980s.

I remember that when the evangelist's 1987 Rocky Mountain Crusade was announced, people were already preparing lists of where he could go "for the last time" to do full-scale crusades before semi-retirement. It wasn't a long list.

In the 1990s, a news hook for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was its efforts to extend the reach of crusades by using satellite signals to other locations -- multi-site events. That way, more people could hear Graham preach live, in real time, since he was really starting to limit the number of boots-on-the-ground events.

Of course, people were already asking the question: "Who is the next Billy Graham?"

Some of the nominees on those early lists are now approaching retirement.

I bring this up because of an interesting piece that ran the other day in The Charlotte Observer that, I imagine, gives us a hint of what that newspaper is planning for its memorial edition for the pulpit legend, who is currently 98 years old.

How many pages will there be in that special edition? How many new and pre-written stories will they run on the day after his death? Can you imagine receiving this assignment from your editor: Sum up the life of Billy Graham in one story. You have about 2,000 words. (Actually, I can imagine that. I already know that I will have 750 words, because that's the assigned length for my syndicated "On Religion" columns.)

You can see hints of what is to come in the current Observer feature's overture:

Who will be the next Billy Graham?
The Charlotte-born Graham is now 98, lives quietly in his mountain home in Montreat, N.C., and hasn't preached to a packed-stadium crusade in 12 years.

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