Memory eternal, Cliff Barrows: A strategic voice inside the Billy Graham team

Back in the mid 1980s, people were already starting to talk about the Rev. Billy Graham doing his "final crusades." Thus, when the Graham team came to town for the Rocky Mountain Crusade in 1987, that event was hailed as the great evangelist's last major event in Denver and the press handled it that way.

I was at the Rocky Mountain News (RIP) at the time and flew back to Charlotte, where I had worked for the Charlotte News and the Charlotte Observer, and then drove up into the mountains to spend most of a day interviewing Graham. I was planning on writing a magazine piece on Graham's marriage to the brilliant, and very independent, Ruth Bell Graham -- so we talked quite a bit about issues linked to marriage and family.

In that context, Graham made an interesting comment about the core team that built the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and made the strategic decisions that set its course.

For some reason, he said, writers keep underestimating the role played by music director Cliff Barrows. The youngest member of the team was much more than the man who directed stadium-sized choirs and served as emcee for Graham events of all kinds. What they didn't understand was how important his voice was in private, offering counsel and advice at strategic moments, stressed Graham.

Now Barrows is gone, at age 93. Sure enough, the Associated Press obituary for Barrows -- at least the one I am seeing online -- is 126 words long and it seems even shorter than that. The basics are there, barely.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Cliff Barrows, the long-time music and program director for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, has died after a brief illness. He was 93. ...
The two men met in 1945 while Barrows was on his honeymoon, and together they went on to form the association. Barrows traveled the world with Graham since his first crusade in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1947. Barrows also hosted the weekly Hour of Decision radio program for more than 60 years.

As you would expect, the tribute in The Charlotte Observer is much, much longer and captures more of this man's role in the Graham organization, even if key links are not made explicit.

The key is that the piece includes a key piece of Graham team history that -- Graham always stressed -- was linked to Barrows and his wise advice. Here is some overview material at the top:

Barrows, who lived in Marvin in Union County, had traveled the world with Graham since the earliest crusades in 1947, in Charlotte and across the country. The two men met in Asheville in 1945 and soon formed a team that became the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. ...
In 1947, Graham and Barrows became a “trio” with George Beverly Shea, the iconic baritone who died in 2013 at age 104. They were young, spiritually ambitious and on fire to spread the Gospel through music and sermons. Today, they remain part of American religious history, linked in the hearts of the millions of Christians who heard them on radio, saw them on TV or packed stadiums for their crusades.

A few lines later, the evangelist's son Franklin, now head of the Charlotte-based BGEA, added that Barrow's "counsel and suggestions were invaluable." That's a hint.

The language of the Observer piece is often bluntly Southern and, at times, even more old-fashioned than the language the Graham team used to describe itself. For example:

Graham, Shea and Barrows were pioneers in selling the Old Time Gospel message on ever-more-modern media -- radio, TV and concert-like rallies in sports stadiums. For much of the 20th century, they and their crusades defined mainstream Christian evangelism in America.

Old Time Gospel? That sounds like the Rev. Jerry Falwell, not the folks around Graham.

But never mind. The one major hole in the story, at least in my opinion, is that it lacks input from the many critics of Graham and his team, as well as critics of large-scale evangelism -- period.

There were critics on the theological right (thinking of the Rev. Bob Jones of Bob Jones University) as well as on the left. Fundamentalists thought Graham was a heretic (especially for working with evangelical Anglicans and other liturgical churches) and liberals (especially liberal Anglicans) thought he was a fundamentalist hick who scared people with all that talk about sin and hell. And you know all those stories about how traveling evangelists behave, behind closed doors.

To be blunt: People kept waiting for Graham and his team to fall into disgrace, somehow, somewhere. Barrows was a key voice in the strategy meetings that helped Graham steer through the many minefields that the team faced in its journeys.

You can sense that in this crucial section of the Observer piece:

From the start, Billy Graham and his team were concerned with integrity. That led to the “Modesto Manifesto,” named for Modesto, Calif., near Barrows’ hometown.
In 1948, Graham had gathered the group -- Barrows, Shea and another associate, Grady Wilson -- in a hotel room there, and they listed the ways evangelists had been tripped up. Lust, greed and power had been the downfall of many a traveling preacher.
In their “Modesto Manifesto,” the men agreed to avoid situations that would put them alone with women other than their wives. On the road, they’d room near each other. And they’d ask God for help. They also decided on how to handle money, downplaying free-will offerings at the crusades.

There is much more that could be said there and, Graham told me long ago, there's no way to talk about those tough subjects without giving credit to Barrows.

So read the whole piece and, if you see other fine work on Barrows, please let us know about it in our comments pages. Let me also recommend this lengthy video interview with Barrows, which is part of the Archive of American Television.




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