There have been great Baptist leaders, writers and thinkers in every century: Thomas Helwys and John Bunyan in the 17th, Dan Taylor in the 18th, Alexander MacLaren and Charles Spurgeon in the 19th. In the 20th Century: Martin Luther King Jr and Billy Graham.
It is 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King as he left his motel room on 4 April 1968. Dr King was not a perfect man, no one is, and there are things that critics might want to say about him from all sides of the civil rights movement. But like Moses before him, he was able to cry out for freedom for the oppressed. Few of us can imagine what it was like to be African-American in the Southern States before the Civil Rights Movement. Dr King found himself thrust into the leadership of that movement and paid the price with his life. His ability to bring a biblical perspective and prophetic voice to the movement, and his commitment to non-violence, gave Civil Rights an unstoppable momentum. He was only 39 when he died.
It is easy to look at other countries and feel smugly that we behave differently but sadly we have forgotten many of the injustices that were present in our own country at the same time. Small ads in the paper for lodgings and accommodation often ended with the words: ‘No pets, no students, no Irish, no Blacks’. We are still getting things horribly wrong at times – the recent treatment of the Windrush generation is an appalling example. And in case this still looks like pointing the finger at others, let me say that in seeking to build the church of Christ, we seek to build the church of all nations, where everyone has equality of status and opportunity. If we ever fail in that task, please point out our failings to us and we will address them.
In contrast to Dr King, the second great Baptist of the 20th Century, Billy Graham, was in his 100th year when he died in February. We cannot begin to estimate the debt that we owe to Billy Graham. As I mentioned in a service after his death, my mother-in-law came to know Christ at a Billy Graham rally at Haringey. Without that she would never have met my father-in-law and I wouldn’t have met my wife. There are innumerable stories like that that people can tell.
Not only were his rallies so powerfully used by God to call people into his kingdom, but organisationally his influence was immense. His work with Youth for Christ established it as a major evangelistic organisation. He defined financial propriety for the church. His influence led to the rise of evangelicals across the world but he had a peaceful mission that incorporated all denominations. He shared a platform with Dr King and insisted on racial integration at all of his meetings. It is estimated that in his lifetime he preached to 210 million people in 185 countries.
Over the next few weeks we are going to think about his influence and how God is calling us to mission as we move forward. Our series Life after Billy will commence with Billy Graham’s final message, which he left for us all. You will not be surprised to know that his message can be summed up with words from 1 Corinthinans 1:23-25:
‘…but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.’
Yours in Christ,