Billy Graham’s death on 21 February brought to a close one of the most remarkable Christian lives of the 20th Century.
In 1983, when US President Ronald Reagan presented the evangelist with the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in America, he said, ‘His contribution to the wellbeing of the human race is literally immeasurable. The world is a better place because of Billy Graham’.
While not everyone would agree with that assessment, in 2006, a year after his last crusade, Graham made it into Gallup’s annual list of the top ten most admired men in the world for the 50th time.1 Mr Graham was only the fourth private citizen in history to lie ‘in honour’ in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington DC. Then President Trump and Vice President Pence attended his funeral.
This unique man and his enormous influence are now a matter of history. His life began almost 100 years ago on a farm in North Carolina. His enormous, global influence began following a citywide evangelistic tent mission in Los Angeles in 1949.
Birth, Family & Conversion
Billy was born William Franklin Graham, Jr, in Charlotte, North Carolina on 7 November, 1918, four days before the armistice was signed that ended WWI. His father was a dairy farmer. Both of Billy’s grandfathers fought in the Civil War, on the Confederate side.
Billy’s parents, Frank and Morrow, were members of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church of Charlotte and professed a regenerate faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. They kept the ‘family altar’ (family devotions) and also required all the children to memorize the Shorter Catechism by the time they were ten.
Billy didn’t take to farming too well. He was an average student, but a boy of boundless energy and irresistible charm. People said he just seemed to love everybody. From very early on, Billy learned that people could be won over by acts of kindness, especially when coupled with his natural charm and friendliness.
When evangelist, Mordecai Ham, came to Charlotte in August 1934, Billy reluctantly went to the meetings. One night, Billy and his friend Grady Wilson responded to the invitation and went forward, as the congregation sang ‘Almost Persuaded’.
Interestingly, on the decision card Billy ticked ‘Recommitment’.2 Billy went home, telling his parents that he was a ‘changed boy’. He prayed that night, ‘Oh God, I don’t understand all of this. I don’t know what’s happening to me. But, as best as I can figure it, I have given myself to you’.3
Early Christian Life & Marriage
The changes in Billy were not dramatic. He became even nicer, gave more attention to the Scriptures and began to show a deep concern for winning others to Christ. After graduation from high school, Billy went off to Bob Jones College (BJC) in Tennessee. He didn’t settle there. He found the strict, regimented and restricted lifestyle off-putting.
A friend and he started talking about going to Florida Bible Institute (FBI). ‘Dr Bob’ Jones questioned them about it. After predicting failure if Billy left BJC, Dr Bob changed his tone and appealed to Billy, ‘You have a voice that pulls. Some voices repel. You have a voice that appeals. God can use that voice of yours. He can use it mightily’.4
Maybe those words of Dr Bob fed a desire that people began to see in Billy. W.T. Watson, the founder and president of FBI said, Billy always wanted to do something big. Yet, he struggled for a time as to God’s call.
Around midnight one evening in 1938, he knelt down on a golf course and yielded his life for the preaching ministry that he believed God was calling him to. He told God he would be what God wanted him to be and go where God wanted him to go.
He graduated from FBI in June 1940. In September he enrolled in Wheaton, a Christian liberal arts college in Illinois, where he met a young woman, Ruth Bell. She was the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries in China. The first thing that impressed Ruth was the way Billy prayed. She said she sensed that he knew God in a very unusual way.
There was also a mutual attraction. But her plans to go to Tibet as a missionary and Billy’s plans for an evangelistic ministry in the States seemed to preclude any hope for a future together. Also, Billy’s somewhat authoritarian ways were a bit off-putting for Ruth.
Billy even questioned her father’s spirituality, because he was a Presbyterian!5 That almost ended the relationship. But, when Billy proposed in June of 1941, she eventually said yes. They were married on August 13, 1943 in Montreat, North Carolina.
Eventually, they would have three daughters and two sons in what virtually everyone saw as a very happy marriage. But one biographer thought the family, including Billy, paid a high price due to the prolonged absences that crusade evangelism demanded.6
One time his daughter, Gigi, had been naughty and Billy ran up to her room and gave her a tongue-lashing. But, his eyes filled with tears when she turned to him and said, ‘Some Dad you are! You go away and leave us all the time!’7
Ruth was probably Billy’s chief counsellor and, as someone remarked, his greatest teacher. Her contribution is hard to overestimate. Billy wrote, near the end of his autobiography, Just as I Am, ‘She has been vital to my life and an integral part of our ministry’.
Early Ministry up to Los Angeles, 1949
The year that Billy married Ruth (1943) he took his first and only pastorate at Western Springs Baptist Church (WSBC) in suburban Chicago, a church with about 35 members.
The following year Billy was offered and accepted a Sunday night radio ministry, Songs in the Night. He got George Beverley Shea, a popular Gospel singer as a regular on the broadcast. Not too long after that, Cliff Barrows joined him as song leader in future crusades. That began a partnership for the trio that lasted over 60 years.
Billy left WSBC and became an evangelist with Youth for Christ International. He travelled more than 200,000 miles his first year, missing the birth of his first child.
A few years later, William Bell Riley, the president of Northwestern Schools in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and pastor of the First Baptist Church in Minneapolis, asked Billy to succeed him as president.
Billy was uncomfortable with the idea. He did not feel qualified. But, under pressure from the old Fundamentalist patriarch he agreed to take over on an interim basis. But, in what must be one of the most unusual fleeces ever, he said he would only do so if Riley died before July 1948!
Riley fulfilled his end of the bargain when the Lord took him home on December 6, 1947. So Billy became, at 29, the youngest and, in his eyes, the least qualified college president in America.
After the first two of many trips to Britain and after holding seven crusades, the Graham team accepted an invitation from about one quarter of Los Angeles’ churches, Fundamentalist Churches, to preach at the Christ for Greater Los Angeles tent meetings in September 1949.
At one point during the mission, a well known newspaper publisher, William Randolph Hearst, who liked Graham, decided to give him publicity. Large numbers of reporters started showing up.
The meetings came to an end on 20 November, after eight weeks, 350,000 in attendance and 3,000 enquirers. A number of Hollywood celebrities had visited the meetings, with some notable professions of faith.
After Los Angeles, Graham had a national profile. His ministry and influence grew in ways no one could have anticipated. Billy Graham’s life would never be the same again.8
A further article written by Dennis Hill examining the rest of Billy Graham’s life, including the controversies and criticisms of his ministry, will be published in due course.
1 David Aikman, Billy Graham: His Life and Influence, Thomas Nelson, 2007, p2
2 Grant Wacker, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation, Belknap Press, Harvard University, 2014, p42
3 William Martin, A Prophet With Honour: The Billy Graham Story, William Morrow, 1991, p64
4 Martin, p70
5 Patricia Daniels Cornwell, A Time for Remembering: The Ruth Bell Graham Story, Harper & Row, 1983, p73
6 Aikman, p290
7 Martin, p243
8 Martin, p117