Billy Graham’s Better Half

Faith is personal, if nothing else—for some a font of life, for others a wound that never closes, but bleeds mystery, fear and grief, and aches within them long after leaving. And some leave but then heal, grow stronger, and return with a power of mind to face down the fear, to glean it and find gold. This was Charles Bradley Templeton.

Who remembers him? We know Billy Graham, of course, who has the grudging respect even of many who scorn the Religious Right. But Graham was once half of a team—the lesser half, in fact—and who recalls his partner, who was also his best friend?

That was Templeton too.

Born October 7, 1915, in Grace Hospital, Toronto, the second of five children, he grew up to be many things: a noted journalist, radio and television star, skilled cartoonist, CTV anchor man, editor of The Toronto Star and Maclean’s magazine, writer, director, inventor, carpenter and charismatic politician—and evangelist. The beginnings were humble.

In 1936, age 19, Templeton worked as an illustrator at a Toronto newspaper, earning twelve dollars a week. Bouts of depression led to a religious experience. Entering the ministry, he blossomed and excelled, propelled by sincerity, a winning smile and a singular hunger of mind.

It brought friends and connections. One was a gangling young Will Graham, whom Templeton met at a Christian youth rally in Chicago. Bonding instantly, they co-founded Youth for Christ International (which has pretty much excised Templeton from its history—you’ll see why).

Together, “Billy and Chuck” toured the revival circuit, filling stadiums with crowds of up to 30,000, and earning a nickname, “the gold-dust twins.” As the more eloquent of the two, many expected Templeton, not Graham, to become history’s great evangelical preacher. Even critics admired him. Much later, liberal commentator Larry Zolf wrote, “I had heard great socialist orators like Woodsworth, Lewis and Frank Scott speak. But they were nothing compared to Templeton. Templeton went for your heart, plucked it out, recharged it and gave you new life and new hope where none had existed before. Templeton was one hell of a political energizer.”

“Charles Templeton was the most versatile of all of our preachers,” Dr. Torrey Johnson of Youth for Christ proclaimed in 1984. And Billy Graham said, “Chuck was the most brilliant, able man I’ve known. He was a true intellectual. He could do anything. … He was a genius, I think.”

Soon Templeton was hosting his own national religious show on CBS, “Look Up and Live.” But self-doubt punctured him, a fear he was getting by on sheer good looks and magnetism, flash and dazzle. He yearned to study the origins of his faith, examine it critically—as he said, “to get some buttressing.” Applying to Princeton Theological Seminary, he begged Graham to go with him. Graham refused—it seemed just too embarrassing. So in 1948, Templeton went alone.

By 1957, he was an agnostic.

In revivalist circles it was a seismic event, a tsunami, an earthquake, as if Graham himself had renounced Jesus. In a memoir, Farewell to God, Templeton explained his reasons: difficulties of the Creation myth, bigotry in the Bible, sexism, historical problems of Jesus, failure of prayer, the mysteries of evil, suffering and death. As compelling as his best sermon, full of ragged grief, the closing words are, “I believe.” But search the web, and you will still find rancor.

Divided from colleagues and friends (though he and Graham remained close), even losing his wife, Templeton went back to journalism. He met his second wife on the set of a CBC television drama. 13 months after they wed, he had a son. He also acquired a step-son and -daughter—one of them, Ty Templeton, today, is a world-class comics artist.

He went on to try his hand at politics (nearly becoming Premier of Ontario) before returning to radio and TV newscasting. And he wrote plays and a bestselling novel, Act of God, about an archaeologist who discovers the bones of Christ, and his lifetime friend, now a Cardinal and papal candidate, who decides to kill him to protect the Church.

Life was full if not easy. Finally, in 1982, he fell prey to Alzheimer’s disease. Retiring from public life, he fought for each inch, according to his son, stretching his memory and performing daily exercises such as spelling words backward. He kept his vocabulary almost until the end, when the disease shut down what his brain needed to live. He died on June 7th, 2001, age 85.

The Toronto Star put his picture on the front page and gave him a full-page obituary. Even Billy Graham eulogized him.

“I love Chuck to this very day,” he had said. “He’s one of the few men I have ever loved in my life. He and I had been so close. But then all of sudden, our paths were parting. He began to be a little cool to me then. I think … that Chuck felt sorry for me.”

Read Templeton’s story in his own words here.

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