Billy Graham rule

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Billy Graham
Billy Graham

It’s late spring as I write this, and Billy Graham has recently died and the United States is having a national reckoning with sexual abuse and exploitation. As it happens, there is a Christianese phrase that touches on both those points: the Billy Graham rule.

In a nutshell, the Billy Graham rule (or BGR for short) is a policy kept by some Christian ministers and leaders of never being alone with a woman who isn’t their wife. Billy Graham kept to such a policy and required his colleagues in his evangelistic ministry to do the same. Due to Graham’s popularity and success, many other ministers and leaders tried to emulate him, including following a rule of never being along with a woman they weren’t married to.

Over the years, the Graham rule has had its defenders and its detractors—its keepers as well its critiquers.

Marvin Olasky defended the rule in a blog post 2015 in the wake of the Tullian Tchividjian sex scandal. Another blog post from around that time, by Samuel James on Patheos, also posited arguments in favor of the rule. In 2016 Tracey Bianchi penned an insightful critique of the BGR for Christianity Today entitled “Ladies Who Lunch—with Men.”

More recently, in late March 2017, interest in the Graham rule was suddenly reinvigorated by the surfacing of a 2002 media interview in which Mike Pence (at the time a Congressional Representative) revealed that he had for many years followed a rule similar to the Graham rule in which he avoided being alone with a woman other than his wife. The ensuing media furor inspired Justin Taylor to blog about the origin of the “Billy Graham rule,” quoting extensively from Graham’s 1997 autobiography in which he explained how he and his ministry partners first came up with this rule and some others in 1948 during a revival event in Modesto, California. That same week Mollie Hemingway blogged a thoughtful and even-handed defense of the rule and its use.

Well, it’s easy enough to explain what the Graham rule is and what people have said about it in recent years. But what about the phrase itself “Billy Graham rule”? When did people start calling this rule “the Billy Graham rule”?

Graham himself, in his 1997 autobiography (see 1997 quot. below), talks about the origin of this rule, but he doesn’t give it a particular name. The earliest actual quotation I have been able to track down that employs the phrase “Billy Graham rule” is from a 1999 article in a New Jersey newspaper (see 1999 quot. below). Additional quotations since 1999 are plentiful, but any mention of the phrase “Billy Graham rule” from before 1999 has thus far eluded my extensive searches in print and online.

So, if anyone out there recalls coming across “Billy Graham rule” or “Graham rule” in a book, magazine, or newspaper prior to 1999, please let me know!

See below for the definition of Billy Graham rule.

Billy Graham rule n. Also Graham Rule. Sometimes abbreviated BGR. A policy kept by some Christian men of never being alone in a room with a woman who is not their wife. The purpose of the rule is partly to avoid occasions of sexual temptation and partly to avoid accusations of impropriety. The rule is named for Billy Graham, who kept such a policy throughout his life, starting in 1948.
[1997 Graham Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham 128 : We all knew of evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman other than my wife.] 1999The Times (Trenton, NJ) (3 Oct.) A17 : However, religious leaders—evangelical and otherwise, conservative and liberal—said they tend to go the extra mile to prevent questions of impropriety with members of the opposite sex. That includes avoiding one-on-one private meetings or taking steps to minimize that chance of inadvertently sending out a wrong signal. “It’s not a written rule, but everybody out there has heard of the ‘Billy Graham rule,’ which is ‘never alone without the door open,’” said Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelical Studies Project at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. 2001Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY) (21 Jun.) §Special Section 2 : Many male ministers follow the “Billy Graham Rule,” based on his resolution to never be alone with any woman but his wife. 2010 Warner, Warner First Things First: The Rules of Being a Warner 163 : Brenda and I began to add rules to our marriage. I remember one of the first was that I wouldn’t drive the babysitter home alone. We call it our Billy Graham rule. 2012 Mantik Not Just a Fairy Tale 69 : This is the strict female policy that evangelist Billy Graham applies to his ministry: never be alone in a room with a woman other than his wife. It is aptly known as the Billy Graham Rule. 2015 Sigrist Warrior Wife: Overcoming the Unique Struggles of a Military Marriage 000 : It’s known as the Billy Graham rule. The Reverend Billy Graham was known for always traveling with another man and never putting himself in a position that could even give the appearance of wrongdoing, like getting into an elevator with a woman alone. This may seem a bit extreme, but for someone in the position of Billy Graham, it was important to always be above reproach. 2016 Russell After 50 Years of Ministry: 7 Things I’d Do Differently and 7 Things I’d Do the Same 107 : I established some safeguards against immorality based on guidelines I had read that Billy Graham established for himself and his team. Billy Graham had a guiding principle that he would not meet, travel, or eat with another woman alone. It came to be known as the Billy Graham rule and has been widely embraced by evangelicals over the pasty sixty years to prevent infidelity or even the “appearance of evil.” 2017Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) (1 Apr.) A9 : Recently, a Washington Post article about second lady Karen Pence has brought the Billy Graham Rule back into the public eye. The article cites a 2002 interview with Vice President Mike Pence—who has called himself an “evangelical Catholic”—saying that he “never eats alone with a woman other than his wife,” and that he doesn’t attend events serving alcohol unless she is with him.
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