THE LIFE OF BILLY GRAHAM
Today, at the age of 99, Billy Graham, the world’s most well known traveling preacher, went home. I wept when I heard the news. His impressive and storied life, which spanned nearly a century, is now being remembered and retold everywhere.
Regardless of how hard we may try, however, we will not easily or soon come to terms with how epic, improbable, and historic his life became, or readily comprehend how deeply it was been imprinted upon our times. Even Billy Graham himself couldn’t explain his uniquely unparalleled journey.
“DO YOU WONDER WHY YOU WERE CHOSEN?”
For instance, when he was 87, Billy Graham was interviewed by Larry King on CNN and was asked, “Do you wonder why you were chosen?” Dr. Graham responded, “Yes, and I’ll ask the Lord the first thing when I get to heaven. Why me? Why was I allowed to go all over the world and preach the gospel? I didn’t have any talents nor abilities. I was a farm boy.”
Life for history’s most famous evangelist began on a large dairy farm near Charlotte, North Carolina on November 7, 1918. But he was not destined to be a dairy farmer for long.
When Billy Graham was a teenager, the evangelist, Mordecai Ham, well known for a heavy handed, theatrical preaching style, was conducting a “tent revival” near Graham’s home. The tent revival had been organized by a group of local business men. The men had regularly met for prayer on Frank Graham’s dairy farm, and they became convinced an area wide revival was needed for the good of the community.
Ham was nothing like the ministers in the area. He was a sensationalist who condemned local pastors, preached fiery sermons against alcohol, and accused local high school students of rampant sexual misconduct. The more outrageous his accusations became, and the more people talked about it, the more people went to hear his sermons; which were comprised of an odd mix of old style Christian fundamentalism, partisan politics, and ugly, unfortunate, unnecessary rants against Catholics and Jews. Young Billy Graham, raised attending the small and proper Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, thought it was all “hogwash” and refused to attend.
When one of Graham’s friends, who had been attending the Ham tent revival, became concerned Graham was not a true Christian, he convinced “Billy Frank” (as he was known then), to attend the meetings by allowing the teenager to drive the friend’s truck to the tent. The opportunity to drive was too powerful an invitation to pass up for the farm-raised, sheltered 15 year old boy. Once there, Billy Graham was, by his own admission, “spellbound” and returned night after night with a growing sense of spiritual conviction about his own sins and the death of Christ on the cross as payment for those sins. Finally, one night, he could refuse Christ no longer. Billy Graham responded to the invitation to walk down the sawdust covered aisle and gave his young life to Christ.
Within a few years from that night, Billy Graham had also become an evangelist. He took a much different approach than Mordecai Ham, however, who had seemed to revel in condemning local ministers, the congregations, and other religious groups. Instead, Billy Graham developed a much more inclusive approach when working with Christians outside his own fundamentalist background. His intentional strategy of uniting multiple denominations around the common cause of evangelism led, in part, to the formation and success of the sweeping evangelical movement of the second half of the twentieth century. But one thing from the tent revivals of his youth never changed-he continued to offer people the same unapologetic, public invitation to receive Christ.
Billy Graham’s ministry would not be confined to revival tents and “sawdust floors” in the rural south. His preaching, instead, would eventually pack the largest auditoriums, stadiums, and venues in the world. Billy Graham would go on to speak face to face with approximately 215 million people in 185 countries and territories. Beyond the live Crusades, Dr. Graham’s ministry and outreach included radio, television, movies, best selling books, magazines, and the internet. According to the Graham organization, more than 3 million people around the world have responded to the invitation, offered by Billy Graham, to receive Christ. Through all venues combined, he preached to more than 2 billion people, more than anyone who has ever lived.
In the early days, as his influence grew, he was befriended by powerful national leaders, including every US President since Harry Truman. It has been reported he was influential in the conversions of both Dwight D. Eisenhower and George W. Bush.
The annual Gallup Poll of the “10 Most Admired Men in the World” called Billy Graham the “dominant figure” of the poll since 1948, appearing on the list an unprecedented 60 times and 56 consecutive times by 2017, more than any other person ever.
“I FEEL ALMOST TOTALLY ALONE.
The vast size of his ministry is almost incomprehensible at times. For example, once in South Korea, he preached to a crowd of 1 million people – the largest congregation ever assembled to hear an evangelical sermon. His New York Crusade in Central Park, his largest attended event in North America, drew an estimated 250,000 people for one service. Yet, Graham himself remained surprisingly humble about the successes and achievements others so justifiably admired. Years ago, for example, when asked about the feeling of preaching to such enormous crowds, Dr. Graham responded with his typical self deprecating manner. “It’s almost as if I’m not even aware of the thousands and thousands of people out there. I’m preaching just to the six inches in front of my face. I feel almost totally alone. And even if nobody responded, if no one came, I would still preach.“ Of course, because of his sense of divine calling, like others before and after, it’s believable that he would have continued to preach regardless of the response, but people did come. They came by the millions to hear the self described “farm boy” from North Carolina. And over the decades, his message was essentially unaltered from those first days as a teenage preacher in the rural south. Eventually, Billy Graham came to possess a global presence, and a respect unmatched by nearly any other preacher in history.
An overview of his life might understandably focus exclusively on his evangelistic preaching and the Crusades, but there was much more to the story. In addition to his preaching ministry, Billy Graham, along with the evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry, was instrumental in launching Christianity Today Magazine. In addition, together with international Christian leaders like John R. W. Stott and others, the Graham ministry also conducted historic Global Conferences on Evangelism, like the Lausanne Conference in Switzerland, to train itinerant evangelists around the world and advance the mission of the church.
His influence in the United States after World War II clearly went beyond his distinctive preaching ministry. He also pioneered evangelistic outreaches through the use of multiple forms of media, including his weekly radio program, The Hour of Decision. He frequently appeared on nationally broadcast television specials, and produced movies through his World Wide Pictures. More nuanced, but equally significant, was his deliberate collaboration with evangelical theologians like Frank Gaebalien, Harold J. Ockenga, Carl Henry, J. Edwin Orr, and others, who, along with Graham, laid the groundwork for evangelicalism’s prominent role in the American experience in the late 20th century and beyond.
In 2013, in declining health, just before his 95th birthday, Dr. Graham preached a “final message” called, “The Cross” via video from his home in the North Carolina mountains. In the introduction to that last sermon, Dr. Graham, reflecting back over a lifetime said, “Of all the things I’ve seen and heard, there’s only one message that can change people’s lives and hearts. I want to tell people about the meaning of the cross!”
Billy Graham will no doubt be remembered, appropriately, as one of the greatest men who ever lived. Christian history will accurately record that only a handful of leaders ever loomed so large over their times as did Billy Graham.
Through the decades, and in spite of unprecedented changes in the world around him over the last 70 plus years, he persisted faithfully with one purpose in life- to tell the story of Jesus, especially His death for sinners on the cross. It was the message of salvation he heard more than 80 years ago in a tent revival. And it was the message he preached around the world. It’s hard to imagine that in our lifetimes we will ever see a man so gifted and accomplished, and yet so refreshingly uncomplicated again.
Today, Billy Graham died and Christians around the world are feeling the loss. He leaves behind a legacy of faithfulness and integrity that will be reviewed and remembered for as long as people study the Christian faith, and the leaders who have shaped it. He was greatly loved by the Christian community and far beyond.
Christians lost a champion today. He was, in many ways, the best among us. It will take decades, if ever, to fully appreciate what he accomplished during his phenomenal life. In a 2010 interview for AARP magazine, when asked about being remembered after death, Dr. Graham said, “I haven’t written my own epitaph, and I’m not sure I should. Whatever it is, I hope it will be simple, and that it will point people not to me, but to the One I served.”
In some ways Billy Graham’s unique life won’t ever be simple to comprehend or explain. How he leapt onto the pages of Christian history and stayed so untarnished for so long, from such unassuming beginnings, throughout the tumultuous cultural changes of the 20th century, will be studied for generations to come. But in one way it is simple- he was perpetually fulfilling the call of Christ upon his life and for that reason, his expressed hope regarding his final epitaph will be fulfilled. Billy Graham is gone now, but his memory will always draw attention to Jesus, the One he served. And that’s how we will remember Billy Graham, inviting us all to “come to Christ!”