Billy Graham, Billy Sunday, and Me
Childhood tent revivals and evangelists
I’m thinking of Billy Graham today as our political leaders plan to honor him as a national hero, to afford him the singular distinction of lying in state in the US Capitol.
I’m remembering that he preached that queer relationships are a “sinister form of perversion.”
Those were his chosen words. He never apologized for them.
In 1973, he preached this. “Let me say this loud and clear! We traffic in homosexuality at the peril of our spiritual welfare.”
Traffic in homosexuality.
Those are ugly, hateful words. There’s no getting around that. There’s no getting around the fact that calling us sinister and perverse invited and even incited violence against us.
Billy Graham may well have been America’s pastor, but he only pastored straight Americans. For those of us with minority sexual orientations, he had no pastoral words. He had instead the raw and hate-filled language of exclusion and stigmatization.
He could only call us perverse and sinister.
But I’m not writing about Billy Graham today. Not really. I’ll return to him in conclusion. I want to write instead about his friend, mentor, and teacher, Hyman Appleman, a figure of my childhood memory.
To me at first, when I was very small, Uncle Hyman was just a nice old man who was extra nice to my mom, and a great friend to my dad.
I sat in his lap a couple of times, gobbling mints from his vest pocket. His rumpled suit was always brown pinstripe in my memory. He smelled of stale coffee, Old Spice, and rye bread.
I remember him walking into the kitchen and presenting my mother, a girl still in her twenties, with a package of folded white paper napkin.
He bowed formally, head all yellow bald and waxy, his voice rheumy. “With my compliments, madame. A treat for the darling wife of my wonderful friend.”
He was handing her leftover rye toast from breakfast out with my dad. An elderly gentleman’s harmless flirting.
Dad was enamoured of Uncle Hyman. He’d sit and listen to the old man tell stories for hours.
I sat at their feet and listened in. Hyman spoke of his childhood in “White Russia,” of his beloved borscht soup and of endless fields of rye and wheat.
He spoke of his early days in Chicago, a child lost in seas of unfamiliar languages and sterile structures.
He spoke of mastering English, overcoming anti-Semitism, gaining a first-class education, and becoming a practicing lawyer.
Mostly, he enraptured Dad with his tale of conversion, with feeling profoundly lost and suicidal until one day on a business trip, he encountered a Gideon Bible in a hotel room.
Hyman Appleman spent the rest of his life crisscrossing the United States, preaching at evangelical tent revivals and churches.
He toured for a while with Billy Sunday, one of the founders of the American evangelical movement.
My eyes would light up at this point because Sunday had also been a famous Major League baseball star.
In the 1880s!
Even as a small, baseball-loving boy, I was awed to think I was personally connecting with something out of what felt like ancient history.
Uncle Hyman would laugh gently at me. “Remember, Jamie. Mr. Sunday was an old, old man when I knew him. Like I’m such an old man now to you. Yes? And baseball? What is a base, exactly? You will show me one day?”
He told of being a Jew in Eastern Europe during the time of the shtetls. Of never stopping feeling like a Jew even though he became not just a Christian, but a very famous Christian.
He spoke of his love of the American Evangelical movement even before he became a Christian.
“You love us, you Christians of America,” he would say. “My mother was so surprised. In White Russia? No! The Land of Magog despises the Jew.”
And then he’d start to preach from the Book of Revelation. Eschatology. End of the world.
I’d shiver in fear, skin crawling.
He’d lock his soft, watery eyes on me. “Never mind, Jamie. This is not for small boys. Baseball is for small boys, yes? What is base? Will you tell me one day?
“Remember only this, I ask you. The Jew is special to God’s heart. You must always remember that.”
Uncle Hyman stayed with us for a week or so a couple times a year.
My mother would eat rye toast.
We’d all eat borsht.
We’d set up a giant tent behind the church and for a week, we’d step into a time machine, transported back to the days of the early twentieth century when travelling preachers were celebrities in the United States as the Evangelical movement was being born.
I got to help park cars.
We roasted peanuts.
We made tub after tub of hand-cranked ice cream.
But in the back of the tent, I’d listen to Uncle Hyman preach of the imminent return of Christ, and I’d shake in fear.
How could I doubt him?
My dad’s hero.
Friend and companion to Billy Sunday and Billy Graham both.
I’d cry quietly, knowing that I was damned.
I feel very dissonant writing this piece. Hyman Appleman was a warm and lovely man. He was kindness incarnate. Busy and revered, he made time to make a young boy feel special and included — not because there was anything in it for him, simply because that’s who he was.
Hyman Appleman, like Billy Graham, spoke out against racism in the American evangelical movement. He preached inclusion during a time when mainstream Christian theology in the United States demanded separation of the races.
Sadly, movements need enemies.
With the dying of racism as a major motivation in the American evangelical movement, something had to take its place.
We queers and faggots became the new targets, the new unifying devils who could unite evangelicals in righteous anger.
Billy Graham is widely acknowledged for bringing together the disparate evangelical movements that had taken root with Billy Sunday and his generation, but whose branches had grown apart.
Hyman Appleman linked the beginnings of the movement with what evangelicalism has become today.
If you aren’t queer, you can safely ignore the fact that the American evangelical movement today is filled with hatred and even violence against their new, chosen scapegoat.
If I explained to you in vivid detail the queer conversion therapy for adolescents that’s promoted today — right this very minute — by the Billy Graham Association, you’d feel sick to your stomach.
Violence is the right word.
Hatred is the right word.
If you’re not queer, I guess you don’t have to care.
You can go ahead and forget about Graham’s cries of perversion, his demonizing of an entire class of inherently harmless, innocent people.
I wonder what Hyman Appleman thought as he preached hellfire against us sodomites, as he condemned us as the enemies of decency and morality.
I wonder if he saw the irony in condemning an entire biological minority of people, given how his own parents had fled with him to escape pogroms rooted in the dark human instinct to villify the Other?
I wonder what Billy Graham thought as he preached Christian love toward people of color, while condemning us queer people as perverse out of the same mouth?
Maybe Appleman and Graham had an excuse.
They were just ignorant, eh?
I can accept that. Human knowledge increases. Understanding increases. We strive to do better.
We must not overlook, however, that the movement birthed by Sunday, nurtured by Appleman, and brought back together by Graham has no such excuse.
The data is in and available to anyone with even a remote interest in knowledge and morality.
We queer people are ordinary, minority variants of human beings.
That’s not in dispute by anyone who knows how to read and knows how to think.
While Graham lies in state in the Capitol, the evangelical movement he so carefully breathed life into will be knowingly demonizing and persecuting innocent people.
So, I guess I am writing about Billy Graham. I’m also writing about Hyman Appleman.
I’m asking their followers to stop the hate. Stop the persecution. Stop the name calling. Stop the torture of queer children.
Remember that Graham and Appleman were kind men who called for an end to the persecution of one kind of minority.
Why not follow their example and stop hating and persecuting us queer people too?
Isn’t it about time you dropped your knives and torches?