Billy Graham had a rocky relationship with Bob Jones presidents

Evangelist Billy Graham had a rocky relationship with the past presidents of Bob Jones University, which he once attended.

In March of 1966, Bob Jones Jr. said Graham, who died Wednesday, was “doing more harm to the cause of Jesus Christ than any living man,” according to the archives of The Greenville News and Time magazine.

What angered Jones was Graham’s outreach to churches and faith leaders that Jones considered to be liberal.

In that same month, 3,800 Bob Jones students and faculty boycotted Graham’s packed crusade at Greenville’s old Textile Hall, Time magazine reported. Jones had threatened BJU students who attended the crusade with expulsion.

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Thirty years earlier, Bob Jones Sr., founder of the university, had pronounced the young Graham a “failure” when the 18-year-old decided to leave what was then known as Bob Jones College, located in Cleveland, Tennessee.

Yet Graham always acknowledged his spiritual debt to Bob Jones Sr., who influenced Graham’s own passionate sermons and oratorical gestures, according to Graham’s biographers.

In 1948, 12 years after Jones Sr. called Graham a failure, the university bestowed on Graham a doctorate of humanities, Time magazine reported.

Graham also preached before a crowd of 3,500 at BJU, now located in Greenville, in 1950 during a two-week crusade in South Carolina.

On Wednesday BJU mourned with Christians and others worldwide at news of Graham’s death at the age of 99.

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“Bob Jones University extends its sympathy to the family and associates of Billy Graham at this time of loss and trust they will experience God’s comfort and strength,” BJU’s current president, Steve Pettit, said in a prepared statement.

“As an evangelist, Dr. Graham desired that men and women hear the Gospel and come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ,” Pettit said. “We rejoice for all of those who accepted Christ’s free gift of salvation through his ministry.”

BJU officials on Wednesday declined to discuss the university’s mixed history with Graham.

“Now is not the time to elaborate on any issues that we may have had,” said BJU spokesman Randy Page. “The differences we had with some positions held by Dr. Graham are well documented.” 

The tension between Graham and BJU officials stretches back to the university’s beginning in Tennessee. Graham attended one semester in the fall of 1936 and left.

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“I found myself in an environment so rigidly regimented that it shocked me,” Graham recalled in his 1997 autobiography, “Just As I Am.”

“Our social life was restricted,” he said. “Dating had to be scheduled and was governed by the dean’s code book. When you did date, you could not sit on the same sofa or chair as the girl. You were chaperoned and watched like a hawk. Outside of approved dating times, you could not stop to talk to your girlfriend.”

Intellectual life at the college also was subject to strict regulation, Graham wrote.

“Teaching in every subject was dogmatic, and there was little chance to raise questions,” Graham wrote. “Dr. Bob’s interpretation of doctrine, ethics, and academics was the only one allowed. Very few students ever questioned his authority to his face.”

After only one semester, Graham decided to leave the college — a decision that was not well received by Bob Jones Sr., according to Graham.

“I disliked the overwhelming discipline, which often seemed to have little rationale behind it,” Graham wrote. “And I disliked being told what to think without being given the opportunity to reason issues through on my own or to look at other viewpoints.

“I asked for an interview with Dr. Bob (Sr.) in his office and told him about my discontent and my thoughts of leaving,” Graham wrote. “His voice booming, he pronounced me a failure and predicted only more failure ahead. I left his office disillusioned and dejected.”

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Graham was welcomed by Bob Jones Jr. to the university in 1950, when Graham preached before a packed auditorium, but by the early 1960s the relationship between the two had soured.

Graham’s biographers suggest that the rift was caused by Graham accepting support from non-fundamentalist churches, for what Graham himself called his “growing ecumenism.”

Graham also integrated his rallies in the 1950s, angering segregationists, according to biographers.

Graham’s official biographer, John Pollock, said BJU officials viewed Graham as “the arch-compromiser, to be shunned and testified against as a menace to the cause of evangelism. In (evangelist) Billy Kim’s memory, no man spoke from the Bob Jones chapel pulpit unless known to take a strong stand against Graham.”

In his diaries, Graham noted frequent opposition from both “extreme fundamentalists” and “extreme liberals.”

Jones Jr.’s stinging criticism of Graham — “I think Dr. Graham is doing more harm to the cause of Jesus Christ than any living man” — was based on “scriptural differences” and caught national attention in 1966.

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Jones Jr. blasted Graham for his endorsement of faith leaders who, Jones said, were liberal and too ecumenical. Jones Jr. also criticized Graham for sending preachers to liberal churches — “unbelieving churches,” in Jones’ words — and reaching out to people of other faiths.

“Billy says he’ll send his converts back to anywhere — Catholic, Protestant or Jewish,” Jones said, as quoted in The Greenville News. “Well, we believe the Bible teaches separation on these points. We do not think it is right to send a man back to a false teacher or to a Unitarian church if a man claims to be a Christian. We believe that man ought to be sent where he can be fed in the word of God, and that is what the word of God says.”

Commenting to Time magazine in 1966 on his difficult relationship with BJU, Graham said,  “I really do love Bob Jones Senior, and Junior too.”

Greenville News reporter Nathaniel Cary contributed research to this report. Paul Hyde covers education and everything else under the South Carolina sun. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.

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