The Christian evangelist Billy Graham has been on the Gallup Poll’s list of the 10 Most Admired Men in the World for the past 40 years, longer than any other American. His career as a preacher and evangelist spans more than six decades as, without any formal theological training, Graham sent his message of repentance and salvation throughout the United States and the world. As Time magazine said in one article, “God’s Billy Pulpit,” “This is the man who has preached in person to more people than any human being who has ever lived.” That number was roughly calculated in 2008 as an audience of 2.2 billion people who have heard his spiritual message, both in person and on radio and television.
Sometimes setting up in circus tents in a parking lot, sometimes in New York City venues like Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium, Central Park, and Times Square, Graham, a Southern Baptist, took his crusade for Christ to all parts of the United States as well as to foreign countries, even preaching behind the Iron Curtain. U.S. presidents called him to the White House for consultation and prayer, including Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, both the Bush presidents, and President Barack Obama. Like the man in the White House, Graham is one of the few Americans who gets mail without a street address. Just “Billy Graham, America” will deliver it.
His message was simple and clear: God is in charge and fixing a broken world. Repent and be saved. Come forward and make a decision for Jesus Christ as your personal savior. Conducting his revival meetings, or “crusades” as he called them, across the country and the world, Graham would preach the Gospel and invite listeners to come forward to accept Christ. At these revivals, sometimes nearly a quarter of the audience would accept the invitation.
Other preachers and theologians said that Graham’s message simplified things too much, that salvation and Christianity were much more complicated. His was an evangelical doctrine of biblical infallibility, Christ’s Second Coming, and how to live a holy life. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr thought that Graham’s brand of Christianity oversimplified salvation by making it a matter of signing a decision card. Others called Graham a religious Liberace, an Elvis of the evangelicals, with an under-intellectualized and banal version of the Christianity he was marketing to the masses. Pulitzer prizeă winning author Garry Wills, a Catholic, called Graham’s version of Christianity a “golf-course spirituality.” Yet what Graham had to say resonated mightily with ordinary people. His influence on their lives is hard to calculate.
At the very least, his preaching of the Gospel introduced Christianity to many. He has been called “the world’s preacher” and “the Pope of Protestant America.” According to the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, which he founded in 1950, Graham’s crusades have drawn 220 million people in more than 200 countries. His sermons were broadcast on the radio and his weekly radio program, The Hour of Decision, was on the air for 50 years. Television specials were also broadcast. Graham wrote a newspaper column, My Answer, and founded a magazine, Christianity Today, now also with an Internet version. One of Graham’s more than 28 books, Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham, published in 1997 and updated and revised in 2007, mentions a galaxy of friends from the entertainment, political, media, and religious worlds with whom he mingled just as he did with presidents and the common folk. In 1989, he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his radio evangelism. Over the years, Billy Graham has been invited to speak at Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth as well as at Union Theological Seminary and other revered institutions. He was on the scene with comforting words during crises like the Oklahoma bombing of 1995 and conducted a prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., following the 9/11 World Trade Center attack in 2001.
For his efforts, Billy Graham was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1996 as well as numerous other honors. He was made an honorary knight by Queen Elizabeth II in 2002 and given the title Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his “huge and truly international contribution to civic and religious life over 60 years.”
It helped that Billy Graham was a person of solid integrity. As opposed to some other evangelical preachers like Jim Bakker or Jimmy Swaggart, he did not help himself to church coffers or get caught with a prostitute or try to run for president. He even made it a rule never to be alone with a woman other than his own wife, to avoid any suggestion of impropriety, turning down dinner with Hillary Clinton until it was rescheduled in a hotel dining room.
With his shock of white hair and piercing blue eyes, Graham is an arresting presence. His preaching style is forceful and confident, his voice compelling. His knowledge of the Bible spews forth in chapter and verse. Though now in his nineties and prevented by Parkinson’s disease from preaching, Graham remains a formidable figure. His five children have taken up the cause, particularly son Franklin who has stepped into his father’s role as leader and organizer of the Graham crusades.
Billy Graham’s own conversion and commitment to Christ came, he says, at 16 when he attended a revival meeting led by the Baptist evangelist Mordecai Ham in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I didn’t have any tears, I didn’t have any emotion, I didn’t hear any thunder, there was no lightning,” he wrote. “But right there, I made my decision for Christ. It was as simple as that, and as conclusive.” Graham would go on to become a fiery preacher and endorse many of the principles of fundamentalism among evangelical Christians, including the literal interpretation of the Bible, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and His imminent Second Coming.
Fundamentalism, or a return to the fundamentals as science and Darwin’s theories began to erode traditional ideas of God and creation, took hold in the 19th century at Princeton Theological Seminary and among Baptists and Presbyterians and was promulgated in the Bible colleges, particularly in the South. Its stand against Darwin’s idea of evolution resulted in the famous 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee with orator William Jennings Bryan arguing for the Biblical version and lawyer Clarence Darrow shooting holes in his argument. While teacher John Thomas Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution to his class and fined $100, his conviction was overturned on appeal. The schism among Christians over the same issue remains today, with fundamentalists still largely proclaiming the same beliefs, including biblical infallibility. The word “fundamentalist” is today treated as a pejorative, applied to “right-wingers” and Tea Party activists.
Somehow Billy Graham avoided being tarred with that brush, perhaps because his emphasis was on conversion experience rather than theology. He was first and foremost an evangelist, someone who preaches conversion to the non-Christian, following the exhortation of Jesus as in Mark 16: “Go ye then into the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature.” Lacking any formal theological education, Graham was unencumbered with doctrine. Yet his brand of Christianity appealed widely.
He did have a college degree—in anthropology—from Wheaton College and had briefly attended Bob Jones University and the Florida Bible Institute before that. He was not a student and was impatient with rules and regulations. Graham said he became aware of his calling to be a preacher when he was on the 18th hole of the golf course at Temple Terrace, Florida, across from the Bible Institute and used to practice preaching to the alligators and birds along the river there. There is now a Billy Graham Memorial Park on the site.
William Franklin “Billy” Graham Jr. was born on November 7, 1918, on a dairy farm in Charlotte, North Carolina, to William Franklin Graham and Morrow Coffey, who raised him and his sister Katherine as Presbyterians. When Prohibition ended in 1933, Graham’s father made sure his son and daughter would never be interested in alcohol by making them drink so much beer that they threw up. Apparently it worked, as Billy Graham never drank or used drugs.
At Wheaton College, he met Ruth Bell, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, and married her two months after they graduated. They had five children, Virginia, Anne, Ruth, Franklin, and Nelson (and, eventually, 19 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren). Graham was already a pastor, even in college, at the United Gospel Tabernacle and had been ordained in the Southern Baptist church in 1939. Upon graduation, he became pastor of the Village Church in Western Springs, Illinois, near the college. He went on to launch a successful radio program and ministry, then took a position as president of Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota, for four years, the youngest to ever lead the college.
Billy Graham would rise to national prominence when he took a job as a full-time evangelist for the Youth for Christ International organization and began staging revival meetings in the United States and Europe. His revivals in Los Angeles, most of them under circus tents in parking lots, attracted the attention and admiration of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper publisher, who gave him plenty of press for his patriotism and his work with young people. Perhaps because of this media attention and Graham’s success with revivals in Los Angeles, Henry Luce, publisher of Time, put him on the cover of his magazine in 1954. Now only 10 years out of college, Billy Graham was already famous as a preacher and evangelist and had established the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to consolidate his ministry and outreach efforts.
He held week-long revivals, now called crusades, in London and in New York City, and invited Martin Luther King Jr. to join him in 1957 in the New York crusade to denounce segregation and racism, at one point later putting up bail to release King from jail. His evangelism spread to the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Asia. He began large-scale programs to train others to become Christian evangelists. In the United States, Graham was frequently on call at the White House where presidents asked for his advice and prayers. Though Graham was nominally a Democrat, he did not let politics interfere with the Lord’s work and became friends both with Lyndon Johnson and with Republican Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush. While Nixon did not like it when Billy Graham chastised him for his role in Watergate, it was Graham who officiated at Nixon’s funeral. Graham also gave the benediction at the inauguration of George H. W. Bush and prayed with him the night before the first Gulf War began.
His crusades in New York City in 2005 and in New Orleans in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina drew enormous crowds. But Graham, already suffering from Parkinson’s, was beginning to plan for retirement. He had broken ground for the Billy Graham Library in his birthplace, Charlotte, North Carolina, and dedicated it in 2007. He and his wife Ruth moved to a house in Montreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. His wife died in the summer of 2007 and is buried in a plot on the library grounds where her husband will also be interred. Their son, Franklin Graham, carries on his father’s crusades and his work as head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Virginia Graham Tchividjian, the eldest child, is an author. Anne Graham Lotz and sister Ruth Graham run ministries to spread the Christian word, and Nelson Graham is a pastor for a group that distributes Christian materials in China.
Billy Graham turned down many tempting opportunities that would have lured him away from his evangelistic mission. NBC offered him a 5-year, $5 million contract to do a television show, and President Nixon offered him an ambassadorship to Israel, both of which he refused. His commitment and his influence as a Christian evangelist speak instead of a different view of life, one where teaching people to live by faith in an uncertain world was an unswerving priority.
Gibbs, Nancy and Richard N. Ostling. “God’s Billy Pulpit.” Time magazine, November 15, 1993. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,979573,00.html .
Graham, Billy. Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham. New York: Harper Collins, 1997.
Long, Michael G., ed. The Legacy of Billy Graham: Critical Reflections on America’s Greatest Evangelist. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008.