Billy Graham (November 7, 1918 - February 21, 2018) was an American Southern Baptist evangelist who preached the message of Christianity around the world, reaching live audiences of over 200 million people in 185 countries. He led hundreds of thousands of people to make personal decisions to "accept Jesus Christ into their lives," this being the main thrust of his ministry. Many of his sermons centered on the topic "Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation." Sometimes referred to as "the Protestant Pope," Graham often advised U.S. presidents and continued to be listed for decades as one of the "Ten Most Admired Men in the World" in many polls.
Billy Graham was born on November 7, 1918, on a dairy farm near Charlotte, North Carolina. His parents were strict Scottish Presbyterians, although Dr. Graham remembers his father as being renowned for a good sense of humor and a source for good jokes. Billy was the first of four children and sometimes teased his siblings and farm animals. One night he locked up a cat and dog together in a dog house. They fought at first, but by morning they had become friends. Dr. Graham says that perhaps this is where he got some of his ecumenical attitudes. His father hired a black man as foreman and paid him well, which some other farmers did not like. One of Billy’s uncles married a full blooded Cherokee woman. Dr. Graham has been known for his positive attitude towards other races.
Despite strict obedience to the standards he had been taught, as a young teenager, Billy did not have much joy in his religion. About the time of his sixteenth birthday, however, he attended evangelistic meetings by Dr. Mordecai Ham and committed his life personally to Christ. Soon thereafter, he became involved in prison visitation, although he was initially reticent about public speaking.
After high school, he attended Bob Jones College, in Cleveland, Tennessee, for a semester, then transferred to Florida Bible Institute, near Tampa, Florida. Although he preached often by invitation, it was still with a struggle that he accepted God’s call to spend his life in the ministry. Also, while studying in Florida, he decided that having been sprinkled as an infant was not sufficient, so he was baptized by immersion. Then, to make it more comfortable for Baptist churches to accept him into their pulpits, he was baptized a third time and then ordained as a Southern Baptist minister. He graduated from Florida Bible Institute in 1940 and then went to Wheaton College, west of Chicago, Illinois.
Marriage and pastorate
There at Wheaton College, he met Ruth Bell, who grew up in China as the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries. They graduated together in June, 1943 and were married in August. Ruth died at the age of 87.He accepted a call to pastor a nearby church called Western Springs Baptist Church. At his recommendation they changed the name to the Village Church, because the community was largely non-Baptist. While there, he was given a radio ministry on WCFL. He also continued to accept numerous evangelistic appointments elsewhere (some of them Youth for Christ rallies), so much so that some of the Village Church congregation was unhappy with the arrangement. Graham was also restless because he wanted to be in evangelism even more.
Graham came down very sick with mumps and went to Florida to recuperate. While there, his friend Torrey Johnson told him that he wanted to create Youth for Christ International (YFC) and wanted Graham to take a leading role. The Village Church accepted his resignation. He began preaching extensively, apparently mostly in the eastern half of the United States. While on a trip to Mobile, Alabama, with his wife home at Montreat, No. Carolina, their first daughter, Virginia (“Gigi”) was born on September 21, 1945. He became briefly acquainted with Gigi when he arrived back home. Then, it was back on the road again.
In the Spring of 1946, Torrey took a group of six men, including Graham, to Great Britain and Europe to establish YFC over there. They enjoyed a reasonable amount of success with people so lately haven come out of war. After several weeks they returned, but Graham hadn’t been back in the U.S. for long before he received an invitation to return to Great Britain. This time, he took his wife with him. He persuaded Cliff Barrows to come, who also brought his wife. Ruth Graham left early to go back to her child, but the rest stayed a couple of months more.
After he had been a YFC evangelist for about a year, Dr. W. B. Riley asked him to speak at Northwestern Schools in Minneapolis. But when he was able to talk with Graham face to face, the aged and frail Riley asked him to become president of Northwestern Schools. Graham did not want to do this; he did not feel it to be his calling. However, he eventually agreed to take it on an interim basis, while they looked for someone better. Riley probably meant the change for after he died, since Graham kept up an evangelism schedule. However, soon, Dr. Riley died and was in Graham’s hands.
Right away, someone came to him with their tales of woe of small salaries. He thought she had a point and wrote a note for the treasurer to increase her pay. Many other people also felt underpaid and were given compensation. However, there wasn’t sufficient money in the treasury for increased salaries. He learned from his mistake and went on a little wiser. As time went on, funds were raised and salaries rose as well. But, here again there was tension between his vocation as an evangelist, and the demands of the presidency.
Early in his career, Graham had conducted evangelistic campaigns in connection with a single congregation. Then his YFC rallies were citywide, but conducted primarily for the youth.
First citywide campaigns
In Charlotte, No. Carolina, in 1947, was his first citywide campaign that targeted everybody. The next year, in Augusta, Georgia, he established some new principles to be followed. A couple of these were that the campaign was sponsored by the ministerial association of the city, to involve as many churches as possible and they organized special prayer for the meetings well in advance.
In the fall of 1949, his campaign in Los Angeles was noteworthy in several aspects. The entertainer, Stuart Hamblen and the criminal, Jim Vaus were converted. William Randolph Hearst decided that the meetings were noteworthy and they went from having almost no coverage to being major news all around the country. The meetings were extended (more weeks added) again and again, as it was seen that there were new people responding. By the time they were finished, hundreds of thousands had heard the message and thousands had responded. In Portland, Oregon, in 1950, his messages were translated into sign language for the deaf for the first time.
India: Christianity is not a western religion
In 1956, he turned his attention to non-Christian audiences. However, Jack Dain, who had been a lay missionary in India, suggested six cities in India that would be the best ones, based on their already having an established Christian presence for preparations and follow-up. They were Bombay (now Mumbai), Madras, Kottayam, Palamcottah, New Delhi, and Calcutta. When they arrived in Mumbai, there was so much political rioting that they had to cancel the meetings. In Madras, he preached to crowds of 40,000, pointing out to the audiences that Jesus was an Asian. In Palamcottah, many Hindus revered him, trying to get in his shadow. Overall, he had a very positive response.
Marathon crusade in New York City
The mammoth crusade in New York City's Madison Square Gardens in 1957 began in mid-May and was supposed to last only 6 weeks. However, so much interest was shown that it was extended again and again, finally ending on September 1. The television audience was estimated at 96 million people. Graham lost 20 pounds and remarked in later years that his health was never the same after this event.
All over the world
After this, his crusades took him to every inhabited continent, in cities too numerous to mention. He often met with heads of state, sometimes carrying messages to and from the White House. One place he would not go to was South Africa under apartheid. He made friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. on his travels and didn’t mind being seen in his presence even by politicians from the American South during the days of segregation.
Graham preaches only at end of crusades
With so many venues requesting him, a new format was developed. When they went to a certain part of the world, his assistant evangelists would preach every day except the last. Then Graham would preach the final night. Of course, the crusade schedules were staggered so that he had time to get from one place to the next. He faced dangerous situations both from political unrest on the ground and trouble in the air, as he flew from place to place.
In 1950, Graham began the “My Answer” newspaper column. In 1953, his first book, Peace with God, was published. That same year, he envisioned the magazine, Christianity Today. On October 10, 1956, the first issue was printed. Decision magazine began publication in November, 1960.
Movies and national radio
In Portland, his crusade was filmed for the first time. The next year, in Fort Worth, Texas, they created a dramatic story in connection with the crusade there. At the time Dr. Graham wrote his autobiography, “Just as I Am,” he said they had made about 200 films. About the same time, they began the radio broadcast, “Hour of Decision,” on ABC radio in the United States. In order to have a proper organization to handle the money coming in for “Hour of Decision,” they created the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA). Graham was still president of Northwestern Schools and the BGEA was headquartered in Minneapolis.
In later years, the BGEA produced such well-known movies as Joni (the story of Joni Eareckson Tada) and The Hiding Place (the story of Corrie Ten Boom)
Confidant to presidents
Graham entered into friendship with one president after another, sometimes carrying messages between the White House and foreign countries. Feeling as he did that religion should be a part of such events as inaugurations, but that no religion should have preference, he liked to have Jewish rabbis participate.
It is a mark of Dr. Graham’s humility that in the introduction to his autobiography, Just As I Am, he tells how badly he handled his first invitation to the White House, telling more than he should have of what happened. However, the press was more at fault than he was, since they pestered him for details regarding the visit. This was in 1950, with President Harry Truman. Later, Graham apologized to Truman, who apologized in turn for not having properly briefed Graham.
Billy Graham was so impressed with General Dwight Eisenhower that he urged him to run for president and declared he would stand behind him regardless of which party he went with. The two men entered into correspondence, then Graham traveled to Europe to meet with the general. As they spoke, Graham brought up the question of Eisenhower’s spiritual life and Eisenhower said he would like to go back to church, but wouldn’t do so until after the election. For the inauguration, Eisenhower wrote and spoke his own prayer, although the press jumped to the conclusion that Graham wrote it. Once he was president, Eisenhower consulted with Graham on various issues. They both agreed on the need to end racial discrimination. During Eisenhower’s administration, Graham helped start the Presidential Prayer Breakfast, later to be called the National Prayer Breakfast.
In 1960, John Kennedy very badly wanted Graham to say he could vote for a Catholic as President. Graham had nothing against the concept, but felt like it would be too much like an endorsement, which he would not do. He was tempted to endorse his friend, Richard Nixon, and even wrote an article talking about Nixon in general terms, but without endorsing him. But, just before publication, he pulled the article, because he felt it wouldn’t be the right thing to do.
Soon after Kennedy won, Graham was invited to meet with him and they became friends. As with other presidents, he became a confidant and counselor. When Kennedy asked Graham if there was anything he could do for him, Graham said that he had never been granted permission to hold meetings in Colombia, South America. Kennedy took care of that.
When Kennedy was killed and Lyndon Johnson became President, Graham stayed in the same role. Although Johnson was a profane man, he also believed in prayer and numerous times, he knelt in prayer with Graham, even if Johnson had already gotten into pajamas. Graham knew that Johnson was genuinely concerned for the poor and tried to enact legislation on their behalf. He also heard Johnson castigate his speech writers for making him sound like a liberal, which he hotly declared he was not. When Johnson decided not to run for re-election, he told Graham it was because he felt his health might not be up to it.
Graham was a close friend of Nixon, long before he became president. At a point when Nixon was very discouraged over losing an election and was going to return to private life, Graham encouraged him to try again. Graham was appalled at what came to light regarding the Watergate scandal. During this period, Nixon cut off all contact with Graham. Graham feels he did so to keep Graham from having his reputation damaged.
When Ford became President, Graham lobbied hard to have Nixon pardoned. He felt it would be good for the nation. But, he also did it because Nixon was gravely ill and probably unfit to stand trial.
Graham first met Carter when there was to be a showing of a BGEA film in Americus, Georgia and Graham was insisting on an integrated audience. Carter, a local farmer at the time, was the one who found him a venue, when no preachers would. Regarding religion, Carter was more like Graham than former Presidents, but he kept a professional distance from Graham. Graham felt that this was probably to keep it from seeming like he had an undue influence on public policy.
Into scenes of conflict
Graham strove to be a healer of divisions around the world, whether in the United States or elsewhere.
Civil rights in the United States
Graham’s father had a black man as foreman on his farm. He had authority to instruct and correct young Billy and Billy highly esteemed him. As an evangelist, Graham insisted on integrating the races, long before it was popular to do so. In his crusade in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, in 1953, he removed the ropes that had been put in place to separate blacks from whites. During the civil rights struggles, Graham spoke with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. regarding how he should participate. King told him that he should not join in marches or protests, because he would likely lose his influence with those who most needed it. However, soon after the violence in Alabama in 1965, President Johnson asked Graham to tour the state, which he did, including a visit to Tuskegee Institute, a historically Black college. That same year, Graham also toured the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, with a black minister, Dr. E. V. Hill, soon after the riots.
Catholics vs. Protestants in Ireland
In 1972, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Graham and some friends walked along roads that separated the warring factions. As they did so, they heard a bomb explode just ahead of them. They came upon the gruesome sight of bodies torn to pieces. However, they later met with both sides to discuss issues.
In 1973, arrangements were finally made for multi-racial gatherings in South Africa. At first Graham was only supposed to speak at a “South African Congress on Mission and Evangelism” with 700 delegates. Surprisingly arrangements were made for integrated crusades in Durban and then Johannesburg, with tens of thousands in attendance. Graham spoke plainly about the equality of all mankind. But, although he felt that apartheid was wrong and was doomed, he also realized that it would not disappear overnight.
In Communist and other dictatorships
Graham was, for a time, the target of criticism for not speaking out publicly against the abuses of dictatorial regimes while preaching in their countries, whether Paraguay under Stroessner or in the former USSR. He has felt that this was not his job. He was there to preach the Gospel and castigating the host governments would likely have restricted his ability to do so. However, he has sometimes petitioned officials in private concerning individual cases. He also tried to meet with persecuted Jews.
Beliefs and teachings
In his crusades, Graham stuck to his central theme of salvation and conversion and his consistent approach was to involve as many churches as possible. These churches were then to counsel and disciple those who had just become converted, recovered from backsliding or who sought a greater consecration to Christ. Despite the doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants, his preaching was generally acceptable to both. He even invited minority denominations, such as Seventh-day Adventists, to participate in counseling. It was likely understood that people with these backgrounds would be connected with these counselors.
In most regards, Graham was a conservative, traditional Evangelical. In interviews, he expressed some uncertainties with regard to the nature of the punishment of the lost and did not seem to want to declare positively that everyone who has never had a chance to hear the Gospel would be lost. Nevertheless, he believed that the lost would be punished and that the Gospel was instrumental in bringing people to salvation in Christ.
World Emergency Fund
Over the years, the BGEA has contributed offerings for disaster relief. These generally go through such agencies as the Red Cross and the Samaritan’s Purse (currently under the direction of his son, Franklin Graham).
- Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham, by Billy Graham (Harper Collins, 1997)