Evangelist Billy Graham has died. He was 99.
For six decades, The Charlotte-born preacher proclaimed the Christian gospel to more than 200 million people in most of the world’s countries. He also influenced social movements and politics in America and beyond.
Generations of people around the world can instantly identify his voice.
“I’m going to ask you to trust him tonight,” Graham said in 1962 from Chicago. ‘I’m going to ask you to take that first baby step and say tonight, I need Christ, I need God; I want to receive him into my life as Lord and Savior.”
William Franklin Graham, Jr., was born on Nov. 7, 1918 -- four days before the end of World War I -- on the family’s dairy farm along Park Road near Charlotte.
“Billy Frank” -- as he was known in boyhood -- milked cows, played pranks, and soaked up his parents’ strict protestant values.
Graham biographer William Martin said the young Billy also got early glimpses into the lives of travelings evangelists who often stayed in the Graham home.
“Billy as a boy had a chance to ‘sit at the feet’, literally, and to listen to these evangelists tell stories of what they were up to, and that thrilled him,” Martin said.
Although immersed in religion early in life, Billy Graham later wrote that, as a boy, he was “spiritually dead.” That is, until around his 16th birthday, when evangelist Mordecai Ham came to Charlotte. Graham responded to the preacher’s gospel invitation in what Graham would recall as “the moment” in which he made his “real commitment to Jesus Christ.”
After high school and a summer selling Fuller brushes, Graham went off to college. He began at the staunchly conservative Bob Jones College. But Graham soon enrolled at Florida Bible Institute near Tampa where he also got fundamentalist training in a less rigid environment. He rubbed shoulders with visiting evangelists and, Martin says, began to hone his own preaching skills in the swamps of Central Florida.
“While he was there he would practice his sermons, he’d go out and preach to alligators and birds and go into the school bus barn and preach to the buses,” Martin said. “One of the officials at the school there said, ‘Billy wanted to do something big; he didn’t know what it was, but he wanted to do something big.’ ”
After graduating from the Bible Institute, Graham enrolled at Wheaton College, near Chicago where he majored in Anthropology. He fell in love with Ruth Bell, the daughter of missionary parents, and the couple married in 1943.
Billy and Ruth Graham had five children and the marriage endured until Ruth’s death in 2007.
Graham’s vocation continued to take shape through the 1940s. He pastored an Illinois church and served as a college and seminary president at northwestern schools in Minnesota. Graham also helped launch “Youth for Christ, International” and he began to receive more invitations to preach.
In Los Angeles in 1949 during a crusade held in a circus tent, Graham stretched his meetings there from three weeks to eight. The surrounding publicity placed Graham on the national stage for good.
“I’m glad to tell you tonight that Jesus Christ, the son of God, has an answer to every problem that you face,” Graham said at the event. “To every burden that you carry.”
A VOICE FOR RADIO
“This is the hour of decision, with Billy Graham.”
Graham’s new radio program was launched in 1950 and was soon carried by hundreds of stations nationwide. The same year, the Bill Graham Evangelistic Association was formed in Minneapolis.
Graham wasn’t the first evangelist to tap the power of radio and later television. But he was a pioneer in taking the gospel to the masses through media -- from films to broadcasts of recorded crusades shown in prime time on network television.
In 1954, Graham was featured on the cover of Time Magazine and held his first overseas crusade in London.
Graham later became the first major evangelist to penetrate communism’s iron curtain to address audiences throughout eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
WHY GRAHAM’S EVANGELISM RESONATED
The Graham evangelistic “machine” quickly became very well-oiled. But longtime associate and Graham’s brother-in-law, Leighton Ford said, there was more than organization at work.
“It was a move, a surprising move, spiritual move, that somehow met the mood of the day and the needs of people and this young man who came across the scene with this very straight, simple, powerful message,” Ford said.
Graham’s core message about sin, repentance, and salvation, never changed. But over the years his preaching style and his theological worldview evolved to become more encompassing. Graham biographer and Duke University professor Grant Wacker said the gospel required it.
“There is the legacy of Graham’s insistence that the gospel is broader than any one tradition, certainly broader than his own Southern Baptist tradition would have dictated, and that the task of the Christian evangelist is to proclaim God’s love and to leave the judgment to God,” Wacker said.
Graham’s view of the gospel also grew beyond the lines of the segregated South in which he grew up. During a Tennessee crusade in 1953, Graham personally removed the ropes that local organizers intended would separate blacks and whites in the audience. He consistently preached that Christianity knows no ethnic or racial boundaries.
“Don’t ever say it’s a white man’s religion or a black man’s religion. It’s a world religion. He belongs to the world,” said Graham.
A COUNSELOR TO PRESIDENTS
He became a fixture in American life, including the realm of politics. Graham met with every U.S. president during the course of his own public life and developed personal friendships with several key associations. At times, that left Graham vulnerable to criticism.
“Graham lent his extraordinarily personal prestige to the presidents, and herein I think he was naïve. He simply did not realize that his presence had the effect of legitimating a president or a presidential policy,” says Wacker.
Graham’s close ties to President Richard Nixon proved especially awkward. When the worst of the Watergate scandal became public, the president’s loyal friend later wrote, he found the details “almost unbearable.”
Politics aside Billy Graham offered hope to the nation in the midst of its worst traumas. In 2001 he spoke at a memorial service held in Washington's National Cathedral three days after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“Yes, our nation has been attacked – buildings destroyed, lives lost. But now we have a choice: whether to implode and disintegrate emotionally and spiritually, as a people and a nation, or, whether we choose to become stronger through all of the struggle, to rebuild on a solid foundation,” said Graham.
In 2007, three former presidents and a host of longtime associates and friends gathered in Charlotte to dedicate the Billy Graham Library. Former President George H.W. Bush delivered an emotional tribute.
“We’re gathered here today because Billy Graham the man, the preacher, the humble farmer’s son who helped change the world is a spiritual gift to all of us,” Bush said.
As similar accolades piled up, Graham's wry humor surfaced.
“I feel like I’ve been attending my own funeral,” Graham laughed.
Graham, admired by millions, seemed ever quick to deflect personal praise, as during this 1996 news conference prior to his final hometown crusade in Charlotte.
“I’m not that good. I’m not a great preacher. I’m just an ordinary proclaimer of the gospel. I would call myself an ‘exhorter’, and I have one message, and that is for people to be sure that they’re right with God and that they’re ready to go to heaven when they die,” said Graham.
Billy Graham, a man with a singular message - a message delivered with passion to all who would listen.