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Who Is Billy Graham, and Why Should I Visit His Library?

billy graham 1951
Billy Graham, 1951, when he was still associated with the Sword of the Lord

Guest post by ObstacleChick

Recently, my New Jersey-based family took a trip to North Carolina for a long weekend to celebrate my birthday. We flew into Charlotte, rented a car, and traveled about an hour and a half west to our destination. My son, having visited Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina several months prior while visiting colleges, wanted to play our favorite highway game in the South – “count the Jesus signs.”  The rules are simple: merely spot an overtly Christian billboard or other sign not part of a church campus.

It didn’t take long for us to see a sign featuring a picture of a Bible and the message “Who is Jesus? Read Matthew’s Gospel 855-FOR-TRUTH.” This is a professional billboard that you can find on Gospel Billboards offered by Christian Aid Ministries. According to its website, CAM is a religious charity organization for Amish, Mennonite, and Anabaptist groups and people to provide physical aid and to spread their version of the gospel to different sites around the world. As I researched CAM, I came across this article regarding an investigation of a CAM aid worker who was indicted for 7 felony charges of gross sexual imposition and seven misdemeanor charges of sexual imposition. There is an investigation regarding whether 2 CAM managers knew of the sexual abuses for several years yet allowed this individual to continue to “minister” to those in need. (Please see Black Collar Crime: Mennonite Aid Worker Jeriah Mast Accused of Sex Crimes and Black Collar Crime: Mennonite Aid Worker Jeriah Mast Pleads Guilty to Sexually Abusing Minors)

We saw several more signs our first evening of driving, including a series of white wooden crosses with a different message on either side and elaborately floodlit so that they were visible at night. Apparently, these crosses are the work of Henry “Hank” Vegter, a Saluda, NC based Baptist pastor.

Here are some of the messages:

  • Jesus Paid It All
  • Blood Secured Redemption
  • Jesus Saves From Sin
  • Jesus Died For Sinners
  • Jesus’ Incorruptible Blood

My family thought it was funny when I told them that “Jesus Paid It All” is a common hymn, and I sang it for them. As my husband and kids have rarely ever attended an evangelical church service, they are always amazed at my wealth of knowledge regarding hymns, evangelical Christian messages and doctrines, and those doctrines’ implications for current politics.

My son was excited to spot the small yellow “Thank You Jesus” sign in a yard, as he recalled seeing dozens of them in North Carolina several months ago. One morning, we counted a dozen of these signs within a 30-minute time period. These signs were the brainchild of a North Carolina teen who wanted to spread the gospel. (Please see Thank You Jesus Signs.) These signs may be purchased to fund the 503(c)3 organization whose mission is to spread the gospel. In addition to the signs, one may purchase magnets, bracelets, and garden flags.

At the end of our trip, on our drive back to the airport in Charlotte, we saw more Christian signs. One from Gospel Billboards spurred a discussion. “The Bible: Wisdom, Correction, Truth” was the message, and I pointed out that the creators of the billboard probably wanted to say “Discipline” instead of “Correction” but most likely realized that “Discipline” might be off-putting to potential converts. I asked my husband and completely nonreligious kids what they thought when they saw that sign, and their reactions included ambivalence and rejection. We saw two billboards listing John 3:16 in full, but because the verse is so long and the font was difficult to read, my son had trouble catching the whole message, thus negating the purpose of the advertisement. Fortunately for all involved, my years of early childhood indoctrination ensured that I was able to recite the verse in its entirety.

At the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, we saw several signs that encouraged people to visit the Billy Graham Library. My daughter asked, “Who is Billy Graham, and why should I visit his library?” I explained that Billy Graham was a Christian evangelist who spent decades touring the world spreading the message of Christianity. My husband mentioned that Billy Graham was fairly free from scandal, unlike Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart and a host of other evangelists who quite publicly used their ministries for personal gain. My kids were fairly unimpressed.

If my mother or grandparents were still alive, they would be horrified that my kids know very little of Evangelical Christianity or its vaunted icon Billy Graham. My mom was “saved” at a Billy Graham crusade in Nashville in the mid-1950s. My grandmother rarely watched television, but she ALWAYS watched the televised Billy Graham crusades. I have a very vague recollection of attending a Billy Graham Crusade in Nashville in the 1970s, as a group from our church rode our church bus to the downtown Municipal Auditorium for the grand event. I wasn’t “saved” there as I resisted “going down front” for altar calls as long as I was able to avoid doing so.

Whenever I visit the South, I am reminded of the familiarity of Evangelical culture but am very much put off by it. My kids find the culture curious, and we are all bothered by the “Blue Laws” that affect us as malls and stores aren’t open until after church hours. And that was another question from my kids – how long does church last on Sunday? My response was that it depends. The truly devout attend hour-long Sunday School, followed by a worship service, and some churches have a coffee hour or some other “fellowship” after the service. They were both glad that they were not required to attend church services, and instead able to enjoy other activities.

Do you live in an area where there are a lot of religious road-side signs? Do you live in an area with blue laws? Are you nonreligious or casually religious but living in a religiously saturated area?

17 Comments

  1. Avatar
    leigh

    Jesus paid it all!
    All to him I owe
    Sin had left a crimson stain
    He washed it white as snow!

    Thank you ever so much for tonight’s earworm. Especially since all I can remember is that chorus. 😛

    My brought-up-without-religion young adult niece and I were recently discussing a conversation she had had with her boyfriend, who isn’t currently overly religious but was brought up with it. I empathized with his point of view and explained the mindset behind it. I’m not sure I’d ever actually *seen* another adult have an epiphany before. As for road signs, we live in a blue island of a red state, so luckily most of the overt “turn or burn” crap is a few minutes out of town.

  2. Avatar
    DJ

    When I was an avid Christian/Church goer, I tried very hard to follow all the things I was suppose to do & be….even going into a store – fellow Christians may be watching (judging) my behavior and they could probably tell if I was was acting Christian or not (as Christians are “filled with the Spirit & can discern many things…yeah). I was pleasantly relieved, after I left Christianity, that the so-called Christians in my town were mostly…Catholics! They DON’T CARE and never did!

  3. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    Leigh, sorry I got that chorus into your head! I can’t remember the verses either, as it’s probably been 25 years since I heard that song. My kids raised without religion and my husband raised nominally Catholic have difficulty understanding the all-encompassing pervasiveness of fundamentalist religion.

  4. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    DJ, correct , most of the Catholics don’t really care! They follow the tradition of performing the sacraments, many because of family pressure, but most aren’t as avid about their religion as fundamentalist Christians are (though there’s a segment of fundamentalist Catholics who are similar to their fundamentalist protestant counterparts).

  5. Avatar
    Brunetto Latini

    I attended an ultra-liberal church at the beginning of my apostasy. It was interesting what some of the members (who were from my parent’s and grandparents’ generations) told me. A number of them had kids who had converted to traditional evangelical Christianity.

    I guess I would be concerned –if I had kids, which I don’t — that unfamiliarity with evangelical Christianity might leave them vulnerable to proselytizing in the future.

    • Avatar
      Caroline

      That was exactly one of my irrational fears when my daughter was young! She is a card-carrying agnostic like the rest of us, but I really did worry that she might be vulnerable to extreme religions. Of course I didn’t know what a reasonable and thinking person she would turn into.

  6. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    Brunette, I buried my evangelical upbringing for a very long time. My husband knew bits and pieces but not many details. It wasn’t until I saw how evangelicals were worshiping Trump that it triggered all these memories and I started sharing some things with my family. Now they are aware of what evangelical Christianity is and that some in its ranks want to legislate their ideas onto the rest of us. I didn’t think to prepare them.for possible proselytizing until the 2016 election fiasco. Hopefully as adults they won’t get sucked into a cult. They both study statistics, data manipulation, experiment design and interpretation of data enough to at least be aware that they should be skeptical of outrageous claims.

  7. Avatar
    Maloyo

    In late 1990 to late summer 1991 I worked for Macy’s NE security (at the time 60+ stores in NY, NJ & CT; I worked from Herald Square Macy’s HQ). I worked the Sunday morning opening shift for four months. In a few places in New Jersey the malls did not open until 12 pm or 1 pm due to blue laws. Don’t remember where and I have no idea it this still the case, but even then I was a little surprised. OTOH, I remember voting in both my old Cleveland district in the mid-1980s and in my NYC district shortly after I moved here in the late 1980s to allow beer & wine sales on Sundays after 12:00 pm.

    I visited a good friend of mine who lives in the mountains of NC a few years ago and I remember the over-abundance of Jesus-related signs. Different world. I also remember the Billy Graham crusades on TV over the years. My mom would watch them, mainly to see Ethel Waters who was usually there (not that she was a fan of either person). Back in the day, there weren’t a lot of Black folks on TV so we tended to watch every program that had one. JET magazine used to publish a listing of “Blacks on TV this week” on the last page of their weekly publication. We would have been on the lookout for something like this. Seriously.

    • Avatar
      Becky Wiren

      I live in the same area as Bruce. Less than a decade ago, I worked at the small mall in Defiance, OH, 18 miles away. Except for holiday hours the stores NEVER opened Sunday morning, not until 1 pm. And they may not have EVER opened before 1 pm on Sunday, but I last worked in the mall several years ago so I can’t be definite. Pretty sure, though.

  8. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    Maloyo, I live in Bergen county, NJ which is just across the river from Manhattan, and there are still blue laws. Retail stores are closed on Sundays, but the blue laws haven’t remained in place for religious reasons but because the residents in and around Paramus,NJ where so many of the malls and stores are wanted a traffic break one day a week. People come from NY to shop in our stores because NJ doesn’t charge sales tax on clothing but NY does. We get a TON of traffic around those shopping areas.

    That says a lot about the lack of diversity on TV that your family would resort to watching an evangelism event just to see someone of color.

  9. Avatar
    Van

    I have a blurred recollection of being taken to a Billy Graham service in the local stadium as a young child in the 60s.

    I think that vestige of blue laws in Texas are for alcohol and cars. Car dealerships can be open on Saturday or Sunday, but not consecutive Saturdays and Sundays. Most seem to choose to open on Saturday and close on Sunday.

  10. Avatar
    Caroline

    I live in a populated part of New England where there is hardly any sign of this kind of advertising. The evangelicals are a definite minority. But, my daughter (who just graduated from a super-liberal women’s college in Massachusetts) went with her rowing team to Clemson University for training for two years in a row. She reported this kind of roadside advertising and was mildly amused. All of her friends from Bible Belt states have not returned to those states. Maybe just a coincidence, but I don’t think so.

    I imagine certain places in the South would be like visiting a different country. I would have a hard time in that part of the country especially in our current political climate.
    (Another friend who lived in South Carolina for a time was constantly asked which church she attended. “None”, was her reply. The reaction was usually uncomfortable silence, she reports.)

  11. Avatar
    Carolk

    ObstacleChick;, I was recently at the Charlotte Airport and saw the signs that told me that the Billy Graham library was the best tourist attraction in Charlotte. Not hardly! There are the Panthers and Hornets, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Carowinds and IKEA. Seriously, IKEA is one of the big reasons we go to Charlotte.

    In the Saluda area, there are tons of crosses erected and I’d wondered why. Thanks for filling me in on that score.

    Caroline, years ago, one of my friends was an atheist originally from Philly. When she and her husband moved to Clemson, she found the constant questioning of where she went to church annoying. I do have some neighbors who said upon our first meeting that they weren’t religious. Our neighbor Jolene and I both said we weren’t either.

    On the other hand, a woman who works for my husband called me a sister-in-Christ at the company Christmas party last night. Nope, I’m not. We’d been talking about our recent trip to Tanzania where we visited some churches that my husband has a relationship to. (That’s a long story.) I did not go to these churches by choice. The people were lovely; the four hour church service were too damn long! I would like to do something to help the women of these churches though through the Church of England Mother’s Unions

  12. Avatar
    Maloyo

    ObstacleChick, thanks for the explanation; makes a lot of sense. I know how to drive and have a valid license, but I’ve never owned a car here. When I first arrived in 1987 I really missed the freedom of having a car, but I’ve gotten over it now. The traffic and parking issues (I live and work in Manhattan) would drive me NUTS!

  13. Avatar
    howitis

    Last summer, my significant other spent a few weeks in Saint George, Utah for work. He grew up in rural central Pennsylvania in a nominally Methodist family and has familiarity with fundies, but he’d never been around Mormons and the experience was eye-opening,to say the least. Saint George is more than 90 percent Mormon, and nearly all the restaurants in town are closed on Sundays, apparently because Mormons are expected to basically spend all day at church, followed by “family time” in the evenings. The only restaurants open were fast-food places that are probably required by their corporate headquarters to be open 7 days a week (and fast food is not SO’s preference.) You can’t buy alcohol or order a drink in Utah before 11:30 a.m., and it’s the only state in the country apparently where 3.2 percent beer is still a thing. And hubby was told that those rules represent a recent attempt by Utah to “modernize” its liquor laws. Sheesh…

  14. Avatar
    angiep

    ObstacleChick, I think the Southeast is becoming even more fundamentalist than it was when I was growing up in Alabama. I didn’t see the yard signs and messages on crosses that you describe. Frankly, this trend worries me…
    The blue laws were in full force then, which I didn’t really question at the time. When I moved to California and first saw wine and liquor in a Safeway, I thought I had stepped into the Twilight Zone. My brain couldn’t comprehend it!
    As for Billy Graham, my Mom loved and respected him even though she didn’t attend church. His message didn’t resonate with me as a child or teen. Now I feel a sort of revulsion to his practices and his son’s taking up where dad left off. Thanks for the excellent post!

  15. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    Caroline, there are a lot of us in the northeast who came from the Bible Belt and never went back. Conversely, a lot of people I know are retiring to VA or the Carolinas. I wonder how they will deal! My daughter goes to college in Nashville and says that in the city vs outside are like 2 different countries. I suppose the cities are like that?

    Carolk, Charlotte definitely has a lot more going on than Billy Graham!

    Maloyo, I hate driving in NYC – went to a Broadway show Saturday and just about ran over 27 people as I was trying to leave the theater district.

    Howitis, Utah is definitely an experience. My company has clients who are LDS and we always have to remind ourselves which employees are LDS and which aren’t so we don’t inadvertently order a glass of wine at dinner.

    Angiep, I don’t know if the South is getting more fundamentalist or if I have gotten way liberal or both….but it’s sure a jolt to be inundated with the Jesus stuff when I visit.

    Thank you all for reading and commenting!

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