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When Billy Graham Spoke at Harvard

Paul W. Swets

The Rev. Dr. Billy Graham

In his book, THE GOOD LIFE, former Chaplain at Harvard Peter Gomes describes what happened when extraordinary individuals were invited to speak to Harvard students. Here’s my summary of his account of the students' reaction to The Rev. Billy Graham.

A lion’s den for believers would not seem to be an ideal venue for Billy Graham. Yet, if he got a fair hearing in the Soviet Union, Latin America, and Yankee Stadium, then maybe Harvard students would listen.

Graham spoke on “Peace in a Nuclear Age.” Just back from a speaking trip to the Soviet Union, many expected him to give an account of the policy discussions he had there. But his speech was not what the crowd expected.

The peace he talked about was a “peace that passes all understanding,” an inner peace available through faith in Christ. “Just more religion” cried some critics; but the students were deeply moved.

After his message, Graham took questions from the floor. One student asked him why he had not used his influence with Johnson and Nixon to end the war in Viet Nam sooner. Graham disarmed the students by confessing his sin of not having been a better friend to these two men who had needed to hear the gospel from him. He then went further by confessing to the sin of procrastination in the early days of the struggle for civil rights. He said he had no trouble confessing to these sins of omission and commission because he believed in the redemptive love of a savior, Jesus Christ, who would receive him, just as Jesus did the penitent thief on the cross.

Again, this testimony was not expected; guilt, yes; contrition, maybe; but redemption and glorification?

Years later during his second invitation to Harvard, Billy was suffering from advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease. About his visible affliction he remarked, “It doesn’t kill you, but sometimes you wish it would!” He looked tired and his body was not entirely under his control. His opening words were, “I’m going to die soon, but that doesn’t scare me. Does it scare you?”

Harvard students were riveted by his message of inner peace through faith in Christ. When imminent death does not scare, here is an attitude about life--a personal peace--that not even the threat of death can destroy.

Do you have this peace? Do you know this joy?

I'd be happy to hear from you.

Paul W. Swets

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