This year, in the same spring that saw the conclusion of the long and full life of Billy Graham, we marked a half century since the violent and untimely end of Martin Luther King Jr. By most accounts, these were the two greatest American preachers of the twentieth century—one voice gracing the pulpits and airwaves for eight decades, the other for just over one.
The relationship between the two preachers is a matter of some controversy. King shared the stage with Graham at a “crusade” in 1957, and he wrote at that time that the latter’s stance on civil rights was “courageous.” The sixties saw a cooling of the relationship, however, when Graham spoke out against civil disobedience, especially after the Selma marches, saying that the Christian’s responsibility to abide by law made such actions morally culpable. Although they continued to travel and appear together infrequently—and one strand of tradition suggests that it was Graham who posted King’s bail in Birmingham in 1963, though biographers have found this claim to be unverifiable—King seems to have become increasingly frustrated with Graham’s view that one should abide by local custom, whether in Moscow or in Jackson, Mississippi. That stance meant that Graham’s courageous witness of integrating his crusades in the northern states was not one he was immediately prepared to repeat in the Deep South, though he did begin to integrate his crusades following the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Nor did Graham refuse to share his pulpit with segregationist politicians. Perhaps the most startling fracture for us today is Graham’s response to King’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom: Graham himself did not participate in the march, and he famously responded to King’s “dream” by saying that “only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.”
Graham’s critique of King seems to me to deserve some careful treatment. It seems prima facieobvious that Graham missed something in King’s speech, even if we set aside their other differences of conviction and action. But what exactly did he miss? It would be unfair to judge Graham for failing to predict that the lines he was challenging would soon become iconic, making King’s words at the Lincoln Memorial a rival for Lincoln’s own Gettysburg Address as the most famous speech in American history. In the immediate aftermath, not even King could have known that. So what exactly is wrong with Graham’s critique?
The easiest answer might be that it was racist. But that is a difficult charge. He does, after all, approve of the image of black and white children at play. One can imagine Governor George Wallace challenging Graham with a critique of his own: “If heaven is integrated, you can count me out.” To which King and others, and perhaps even Graham, would respond, in turn, “We’ll put in a word.”
When writers recall Graham’s words in print, they often seem to be incredulous that he critiqued that speech or incredulous that Graham’s followers showed no shame that Graham would say such a thing about the races. And yet, the charge against Graham cannot be, in all fairness, that his words were iconoclastic in the negative sense nor that they were racist in any overt way. If neither of these criticisms are fair, and we still want to explore Graham’s dismissal of King’s dream, we will need to examine it on its own terms. Which is to say, let’s assume that Graham actually meant what he said, that “when Jesus returns” the races will be at peace. This is a theological claim, and it can only be sufficiently evaluated on theological grounds. In fact, this statement reveals a great deal about two different doctrines of the end of history that were operative in Protestantism in the twentieth century and embodied in the divergence of Graham and King.
On June 19, 1985, Graham preached a sermon in Sheffield, England, on the second coming of Christ, calling that coming day “the hope that beats within the heart of every true believer.” He refers in that sermon to the gospel teaching that “no one knows the day or hour” but also to the paradoxical affirmation that there will be signs of the apocalypse as it draws near. Importantly, these signs are all negative, marking the imminence of the second advent by the opposition of the age to God. To the many signs of Luke 21, Graham adds the current turmoil in the Middle East, terrorism, and military buildup. Christ comes to counteract a world that is sinking further and further into disease and violence, Graham says—“The world would destroy itself if God doesn’t intervene.”
This eschatology, one that is well documented in evangelical theology, is known as premillennialism, which takes the biblical language about Christ’s thousand-year reign of peace and charity as one that will begin, rather than follow, his coming again. The opposite position, postmillennialism, supposes that the charitable millennium will proceed the second coming, as a kind of ramp-up to the end of history.
Belief that the second coming of Jesus will follow a time of terror and pestilence does not necessarily imply the belief that Christians have no social responsibilities. Graham was ever a close reader of Scripture, and he knew that Israel’s prophets had strong words for those who disregard the vulnerable and poor. In the same sermon, Graham follows Ezekiel’s analysis of the sins of Sodom as primarily sins of injustice, even surprisingly reading the “abominations” of the city as their oppression of the poor rather than as sexual sin (Ezek. 16:49). He then confronts his listeners with a rhetorical analogy: like Sodom, we refuse to care for the vulnerable who are unlike us. “Many times,” he says, “we ignore those of other races. We ignore those people in Africa who are suffering from famine, or maybe we don’t ignore them, but we don’t do as much as we could do. And God is going to hold us responsible.”
Yet it is perhaps not quite right to call this social responsibility. If the world will continue to get worse until Jesus returns, care for the poor is not necessarily about reversing those trends by attending to and critiquing social systems that oppress; instead, care for the poor is the work of a soul who is pursuing righteousness and avoiding sin so as to reign with Christ after his return. It is the private responsibility of a soul to engage in these actions. This is the reason that Graham could coherently express concern for racial injustice while not seeing the overturning of social systems or even “local customs” as tied in any obvious way to his gospel message. The task of the believer, as he saw it, was to turn to God and avoid sin—for members of the empowered classes, that included caring for the poor, and for the poor, it meant hoping in a change that will only come at the end of the age. This is why Stanley Hauerwas can critique Graham’s disregard for public and embodied faith, hyperbolically if not entirely unfairly, by saying that “Billy Graham is concerned with our souls and not our money.”
Graham’s eschatology, and its related ambivalence about social change, has deep roots in evangelical theology. Boyd Hilton refers to the rise of a hope disconnected from life on earth among English Protestants in the eighteenth century as the “Age of Atonement.” This age saw a prevalence of sermons that took the work of God fundamentally as the grace transferred in the sacrificial death of Christ, which in turn offers a pattern of world-denying sacrifice for the human soul. It’s not that these Protestants were against social reform but rather that such reform was beside the point. This helps explain why Lyman Beecher, one of the giants of evangelicalism in the nineteenth century, was ambivalent about slavery, even after his daughter Harriet wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the book that started the Civil War, as Lincoln is said to have quipped upon meeting her in November 1862.
Hilton also describes the evolution of another trajectory in English and American Protestantism, and it is here that we can see King’s inheritance taking form. Exemplified in the evangelical Anglican William Wilberforce’s organizing of forces against the slave trade, and coming to its fullest theological expression in F. D. Maurice’s treatises and sermons, is what Hilton calls “the Age of Incarnation.” These Christians saw God’s work not through the cross alone but through the work of “incarnation” in the broadest sense. Jesus is not the God who came only to die but the God who came to allow his love and justice and goodness to materialize on earth. And followers of Christ are followers of the incarnating God: rather than giving to the poor so that one’s soul can be saved, they gave to the poor because redistributing wealth leads to a just society, and a just society is one in which God’s salvation is at work.
This incarnational gospel made its way into twentieth-century American Protestantism, especially, though with significant revisions, through the teachings of Walter Rauschenbusch. Rauschenbusch argued that “a progressive reign of love in human affairs” would lead to the “progressive unity of mankind.” Eschatology in this conception is not a post-Armageddon advent that saves the world from itself but a kind of seamless progression of Christ’s way of life throughout the whole world. In this sense, a unified humanity is the second coming of Christ, since it incarnates globally what he incarnated individually. Along these lines, postmillennialism, or perhaps amillennialism, might suggest that after a thousand years of progressive love, Christians will look around and find that there is nothing more to expect.
Indeed, King said that Rauschenbusch’s connection of the gospel to social action left “an indelible imprint” on his theology. Within this incarnational framework, the tradition of black spirituals that always played such a key role in his rhetoric took on new levels of meaning. “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round” became a hymn not just about the metaphorical journey of the Christian path but about the literal road through the streets of Birmingham during the Freedom Riders campaign. “Over my head I see freedom in the air,” sung while watching the spray from water hoses, became a song about the ironic way in which tyranny is self-defeating. And on the night before his assassination, King declared the following:
It’s alright to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s alright to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s alright to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee.”
In rhetorical repetitions like this, one can feel the urgency of King’s gospel. If white robes and milk and honey do not turn our attention to the bare feet and empty stomachs around us, he suggests, then we are missing something essential to the biblical message.
Compared with King’s eschatology, Graham’s looks disembodied almost to the point of being mythological. His conviction that “our problems are basically spiritual problems and they require a spiritual solution,” as he put it in his 1965 Inauguration Day sermon delivered at the invitation of President Lyndon Johnson, got him into trouble more than once. He seems to have considered his access to the Oval Office to be a way of using political power to further his ministry, a strategy he would come to regret when he discovered the ways that the presidents—Richard Nixon most famously—were using him to their own advantage, not the least of which was to build a voting base among southern Protestants. Graham’s disregard for the persecuted church in Russia was, by most accounts, geopolitically naive. And his earlier comments in support of flooding North Vietnamese villages go beyond the naive in the direction of the reprehensible.
This, then, is how we should diagnose what Graham missed back in 1963. He was not being overtly racist, and he certainly cannot be expected to have known the future of King’s speech. But he was a good enough theologian that he ought to have been able to recognize the power of eschatology at work. That he could not recognize this points to the breakdown of a certain strand in the evangelical heritage. Textbooks sometimes identify eschatology as a blend of the already and the not yet, and on this measure Graham’s own eschatology was too heavily tilted toward the not yet. Or, returning to the christological theme, Graham’s heaven was one accessed only through the act of atonement, and this vision downplayed Jesus’s own ministry of incarnating God’s reign through courageous acts of justice seeking (which for Jesus included, on more than one occasion, acts of civil and religious disobedience). For such a close reader of Scripture, Graham somehow missed the petition in Christ’s prayer that God’s kingdom come, that God’s will be done not only in heaven but also on earth.
Still, there is also a hint of something in Graham’s eschatology that King too often missed or underemphasized. In a 1967 speech, King reminded his listeners that progress could lead to “a superficial, dangerous optimism.” For a student of the indefatigably optimistic Rauschenbusch, this is a significant claim, as it suggests there may be something besides human progress necessary for the construction of the beloved community. But this line is in fact only a preamble to King’s reminder that there is more work to be done, that “we are moving into a new phase of the struggle,” now aimed not just at decency but at “genuine equality on all levels.” This suggests that King was coming to see the eschaton, in both its already and not yet dimensions, as a matter of improved civil rights.
One might respond that there is a difference of rhetoric between King’s programmatic speeches and his sermons, and this is a fair point. Still, in his final sermon, quoted above and delivered in Memphis at the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, he famously rehearses the last days of Moses: “I have seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.” The rhetoric is powerful, as is the eerie insight into what the next morning would bring. Still, the sermon itself does not locate eschatology in the coming of God’s transcendent grace, but rather it celebrates the changes that the acts of civil disobedience brought throughout the decade—the sanitation strikes and the integration of public facilities, the wearing of decent clothing, for which “white robes” were only ever symbolic.
Is this the promised land that King saw? Shouldn’t Christians see in the coming of Christ a hope held out not just to those who have overcome politically but also to those who have not? Do the integrated playgrounds of King’s dream include a place for the girls who were killed when the bombs destroyed Sixteenth Street Baptist Church? Is social decency and civic equality enough for a people whose hope is in the coming of God’s peaceable kingdom? King, also a gifted student of Scripture, sometimes neglected the reminders from Israel’s prophets that the literal crossing of the Jordan by Israel was not the ultimate eschatological event, since on the other side they experienced enemies without and injustices within. If Graham could not see what bodies in the social political spaces of earth had to do with heaven, King could too often not see heaven as anything but this space.
At its best, Graham’s eschatology, and that of the evangelicalism that informed him, was a reminder of the excessive reserve that God’s promises have over any that we can fathom or create. This is, I might note, the aspect of that heritage that many more recent leaders of evangelicalism have lost. About the time Billy Graham was learning the lessons of Watergate and Moscow and pulling back from political interactions, the leaders of the Moral Majority began moving in the other direction, celebrating their ability to create the kind of change they saw as consistent with the reign of God. Now a new generation, including Billy’s son, celebrate their “unprecedented access” to a president whose morality is, as the evangelical and chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush notes, as far from the one proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount as imaginable. Somewhat ironically, the next Graham has, in practice, an eschatology that mimics the weaknesses of King’s but without the strong bond to a biblical vision of justice that was King’s greatest theological strength.
The black spirituals that formed a refrain to so many of King’s addresses, secular or sermonic, could have helped him escape some of the more reductive aspects of an incarnational eschatology. Another great theologian of the century whom we lost this year dug into this material. The late James Cone wrote in The Spirituals and the Blues that in the spirituals, heaven was the historical freedom from oppression and “also hope in the future of God, an expectation that the contradictions of slavery were not ultimate.” Hope in heaven is a hope born of resurrection, and such hope always exceeds what human action and organization can accomplish. This is what he calls the “transcendental future” manifested in the slaves’ music. “I’ve heard of a city called heaven,” as one song puts it, and “I’ve started to make it my home”—a work started here and now but completed by God in the eschatological future. When they sang about crossing the Jordan while looking out on the Ohio River toward the North, the slaves were invoking an eschatology beyond Graham’s, where heavenly hope provides an invitation to embodied action, even illegal action. But their heaven was also beyond King’s, because they didn’t just mean the Ohio River, according to Cone. Their transcendent hope was in an ultimate crossing that would take place on the banks of a Jordan even more real than the one Moses looked out over.
In the end, then, Graham was not wrong to critique King’s eschatology, but he was wrong in what it was that needed critiquing. Graham thought King’s dream went too far in hoping for the integrated play of Alabama’s children. I would say that in showing us what could be accomplished on this side of the Jordan, King was theologically and prophetically more right than any theologian of his time. But in mistaking the eschatological Jordan for the next bend in the Ohio, he didn’t dream far enough.