My one purpose in life is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which, I believe, comes through knowing Christ.
In his lifetime, Billy Graham has preached in person to nearly 215 million people in over 185 countries and territories – more than any other person who has ever lived. Hundreds of millions more were reached through television, video, film, literature, and webcasts. In his 417 crusades more than 3.2 million have come forward in response to his altar calls. This is not counting the millions of others who responded to his books, television broadcasts, or other media he used to spread the Gospel. In 1996, the Billy Graham Evangelical Association sponsored a rebroadcast of one of Billy’s sermons to an estimated audience of 1.5 billion in forty-eight languages and 160 countries, a remarkable feat as it represented a truly global simulcast. Billy’s legacy will live on through his organizations and sons, with his place secured as one of the greatest evangelists of all time.
William Franklin Graham, Jr. was born on a dairy farm outside of Charlotte, North Carolina where his grandfather had first built a log cabin after the Civil War. It was four days before the armistice of World War I and a year after the Communist Revolution in Russia. Billy was born to William Franklin and Morrow Coffey Graham. Billy grew to adolescents in the midst of the depression.
His parents were devout in many ways. They had established an altar in their home the first day of their marriage and dedicated themselves to daily Bible reading. His father, raised a Methodist, had been a strong supporter of prohibition. The day it was repealed in 1933, he brought home some beer and took Billy and his sister into the kitchen. There he made them drink it, all of it, until they were ready to vomit. “From now on,” he said, “whenever any of your friends try to get you to drink alcohol, just tell them you’ve already tasted it and you don’t like it. That’s all the reason you need to give.” 1 Billy was a teetotaler his entire life.
“I Like a Fighter”
When Dr. Mordecai Ham held a revival in Charlotte when Billy was fifteen, he had no desire to go and turned down all invitations for the first month of meetings. However that would change after Dr. Ham made some accusations about a house of immorality near Central High School in Charlotte. He claimed that it was being frequented by some of the students every day during their lunch hour. Stating he had affidavits to prove his claims, the story made the Charlotte News. Offended by the accusations, a group of students from the school pledged to march on his next meeting and protest in front of the podium. Some had even threatened to pull him from the podium and teach him a lesson.
That day, a friend of Billy’s asked, “Why don’t you come out and hear our fighting preacher?”
“Is he a fighter?” Billy responded. “I like a fighter.” 2 So he agreed to go.
That night Billy found himself awestruck, not so much by what Dr. Ham said, but by the power behind it. As he put it in his autobiography, “I was hearing another voice, as was often said of Dwight L. Moody when he preached: the voice of the Holy Spirit.” 3
From that night on, Billy was at every meeting of Dr. Ham’s that he could attend. Then, one night shortly after Billy’s sixteenth birthday, Dr. Ham gave an invitation at the end of his sermon quoting Romans 5:8, “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” On the last verse of the second song they sang waiting for people to come forward, Billy responded to the invitation and walked to the front of the stage with some three hundred or so others. As Billy described that night to biographer William Martin in A Prophet with Honor,
I didn’t have any tears, I didn’t have any emotion, I didn’t hear any thunder, there was no lightning. . . . But right there, I made my decision for Christ. It was simple as that, and as conclusive. 4
College and Ruth
In May of 1940, Billy graduated from Florida Bible Institute after a short stint at Bob Jones College. It was traditional that just before commencement one of the class members be asked to read a “prophecy” at the Class Night they had prayed over and composed. That year the reading came very close to being a prophecy indeed as the woman chosen read:
Each time God had a chosen human instrument to shine forth His light in the darkness. Men like Luther, John and Charles Wesley, Moody, and others were ordinary men, but men who heard the voice of God. Their surrounding conditions were as black as night, but they had God. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). It has been said that Luther revolutionized the world. It was not he, but Christ working through him. The time is ripe for another Luther, Wesley, Moody, _______. There is room for another name in this list. There is a challenge facing us. 5
During his last year at Florida Bible Institute (which was not an accredited college), a lawyer from Chicago named Paul Fischer heard Billy preach and offered to pay his first year at Wheaton College in the Chicago area if he would enroll. After a little hemming and hawing, Billy applied and was accepted.
Then, in December of 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and America entered World War II. Billy’s first instinct was to volunteer for service, but as a minister, his next was to sign on to be a chaplain. In pursuing this course, he needed to finish his degree, which kept him at Wheaton.
Because he decided to stay, he met Ruth Bell. Her parents had been missionaries in China, where she was born, and she had spent the majority of the first seventeen years of her life in Asia. Billy was immediately taken with her hazel-eyes and attractive figure. Despite the fact that she wanted to be a missionary to Tibet, Billy started dating her. In a few months Billy proposed.
Billy and Ruth agreed to wait until after they graduated to marry, which they did, graduating the same year and getting married later that summer on Friday, August 13, 1943. Soon after getting married, Billy took over the pastorate of the Village Church in Western Springs, Illinois, which had fewer than a hundred members and averaged only about fifty a service. By the turn of 1944, however, church attendance had doubled to over one hundred each week. Billy was still hoping on a chaplaincy, but with the war winding down, opportunities would take him in a different direction.
Radio Ministry Starts
One of the local ministers who was regularly on the radio called Billy one day and offered him a radio show he had planned, but no longer had the time to record. Billy approached his congregation with it, who at first thought it would be too much money, but when a way was provided to pay for it, they agreed. It would prove another turning point for Billy’s ministry – that booming voice of his played well over the radio. As the program grew in popularity, Billy got more calls to do evangelistic outreaches in other areas. In a short time this began putting strain on his congregation who felt they were paying full-time for a half-time pastor. It wasn’t long before he would step down and become a full-time evangelist.
When a bout of mumps and the end of the war finished Billy’s application to be a chaplain once and for all, he was offered to be the first employee and organizer of a budding ministry – Youth for Christ International. The organization grew rapidly and Billy’s enthusiasm for the Gospel caught wherever he went.
Billy earned the nickname, “God’s machine gun,” because of his rapid-fire delivery and seemingly boundless energy. Others, not so fond of such antics, called the Youth for Christ rallies “Christian vaudeville” as their events would put on stage anything from bands to quiz shows to performing animals and emcees with light-up bowties. Regardless, the meetings grew in popularity as a million kids a week might be attending such meetings across the nation.
“You’ve Spoken of Something I Don’t Have”
In the spring of 1946, Billy and the Youth for Christ team traveled to Europe. Billy enjoyed the life of an evangelist, and his sincerity and energy continued to serve him well despite cultural differences.
In October of 1946, Billy heard a minister by the name of Stephen Olford when he ministered at Hildenborough Hall in Kent. Olford’s text was Ephesians 5:18: “Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.” At the end of the service, Billy approached Olford and asked, “Mr. Olford, I just wanted to ask you one question: Why didn’t you give an invitation? I would have been the first one to come forward. You’ve spoken of something I don’t have. I want the fullness of the Holy Spirit in my life too.” 6
Billy and Olford agreed to meet in Wales a short time later near where Billy was scheduled to preach. They spent a day studying the Scriptures together until Billy prayed, “Lord, I don’t want to go on without knowing this anointing You’ve given my brother.” 7 The next day the two men met again, and Olford began teaching about being filled with the Holy Spirit. He told Billy how one had to be broken as Paul was when he proclaimed himself “crucified with Christ” before receiving this infilling. He taught him that “where the Spirit is truly Lord over the life, there is liberty, there is release – the sublime freedom of complete submission of oneself in a continuous state of surrender to the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit.” Billy’s response was “Stephen, I see it. That’s what I want.”
The two men knelt together to pray about mid afternoon. As they prayed, Olford described what happened: “All heaven broke loose in that dreary little room. It was like Jacob laying hold of God and crying, ‘Lord, I will not let Thee go except Thou bless me.’” Billy described how he felt after the prayer, exclaiming, “My heart is so flooded with the Holy Spirit! . . . I have it! I’m filled. I’m filled. This is the turning point of my life. This will revolutionize my ministry.” 8
The effects were immediate. According to Olford, “That night Billy was to speak at a large Baptist church nearby. When he rose to preach, he was a man absolutely anointed. . . . The Welsh listeners jammed the aisles. There was chaos. Practically the entire audience rushed forward.” Olford told his father that evening, “Dad, something has happened to Billy Graham. The world is going to hear from this man. He is going to make his mark in history.” 9
A College Presidency
The following year, 1947, Billy returned to touring in the United States, and began focusing his “campaigns” – as he called them then as D. L. Moody had – on specific cities. That year these would be in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Charlotte, North Carolina. In 1948, Billy’s campaigns would be in Augusta, Georgia and Modesto, California.
Sometime in 1947, Billy was also asked to speak at Northwestern Schools in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the president of the schools, Dr. W. B. Riley, took him aside to tell him he felt Billy was to be the next president of the college. Billy was shocked, of course, only being in his late-twenties, but he thought perhaps this might be something that was for the distant years ahead.
However, Dr. Riley was eighty-six years old and in poor health. On December 5, 1947, Dr. Riley breathed his last, and despite the fact that Billy had no more than an undergraduate degree and was only four years from having graduated himself, the board of directors respected Dr. Riley’s wishes and offered him the presidency of Northwestern Schools. Despite misgivings, Billy accepted for the interim, hoping it would be a short one. When he did finally resign the post in 1952, the school was greatly improved by his tenure.
Billy’s Crusades Begin
In 1949, Billy had four campaigns scheduled in Miami, Florida; Baltimore, Maryland; Altoona, Pennsylvania; and Los Angeles, California. It would be this last one in Los Angeles in which Billy would first grab the attention of the entire nation, if not the world.
An organization called “Christ for Greater Los Angeles” invited Billy to speak at their next revival that would begin the last week in September and run for three weeks. In the course of this, Billy was invited to speak to a group of Hollywood celebrities in Beverly Hills, where he met Stuart Hamlin, who had a popular local radio program. He told Billy he might invite him on his show, and that if he did, he could fill his tent. Billy thought he was joking, but expressed his gratitude for the thought.
A team was set up to bathe the event in prayer. While everyone involved prayed when they could, there were forty or fifty that would get together to pray before the event each evening and then attend the service. Once the meetings had started, Stuart Hamlin proved good to his word and invited Billy onto his radio show. Billy knew some on the committee would be upset with his appearance on the show because of its connection with Hollywood, but Billy also felt that if he was going to get sinners to come to his tent, then he had to find a way to invite them directly. Stuart’s enthusiasm bubbled over the radio as he told his audience to “go down to Billy Graham’s tent and hear the preaching.”10 Billy was even more surprised when Stuart announced he would attend himself. Stuart did attend, but the effect upon him was not merely the entertainment he had expected. He found himself angrily walking out on the meetings repeatedly as his heart struggled with what Billy was saying. But he kept coming back.
At 4:30 in the morning shortly following this, Stuart called Billy telling him he was in the lobby and needed to see him right away. Billy woke Ruth, who went to pray in the next room with Grady and Wilma Wilson. Billy dressed and went down and talked with Stuart for a time, then they prayed together as Stuart gave his heart to the Lord. At the service the next evening, he came forward in response to the altar call. From this, Billy and the committee saw that the work of the campaign was not yet finished, so they decided to extend it.
The first week of the extension, Stuart gave his testimony over the radio, and interest began to build. Billy and his team determined to extend the campaign again, and the next night the tent was crawling with reporters and photographers. When Billy asked one of reporters why they were suddenly there, he was told, “You’ve just been kissed by William Randolph Hearst.” Somehow Hearst, the newspaper mogul known for his cantankerousness and use of his press power to make things happen, had heard of Graham as a red, white, and blue patriot calling for spiritual renewal and decided he had a message the nation needed to hear. So he sent a simple, two-word telegram to his editors: “Puff Graham.” It would change Billy’s outreach forever.
The next day’s headline stories in the Los Angeles Examinerand Los Angeles Herald Express, which were both Hearst papers, were about the campaign. The story spread to New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Detroit, and then competitor’s papers. The committee had another confirmation that the campaign should continue, and the larger tent Billy had asked for was soon filled to overflowing.
In the course of the eight weeks of this crusade, hundreds of thousands had come to hear and thousands had answered the altar calls – eighty-two percent of whom had never been church members before. Thousands of others came forward to recommit their lives to Christ. Billy Graham was now a celebrity and recognized the nation over.
A Pastor to Presidents
On July 14, 1950, Billy made his first visit to the White House to meet with Harry Truman. Billy became a confidant of every president for the next five and a half decades. He met with each of them, Eisenhower through George W. Bush – eleven presidents in all – and because of this, George H. W. Bush called him, “America’s pastor.”
Gerald Ford said of Billy, “Billy came to the White House to give me the kind of reassurance that was important in decisions and challenges at home and abroad. . . . Whenever you were with Billy, you have a special feeling that he was there to give you help and guidance in meeting your problems.”11 Bill Clinton recently said of him, “When he prays with you in the Oval Office or upstairs at the White House, you feel he is praying for you. Not for the President.” At the same event honoring Billy in May of 2007, Jimmy Carter said, “I’m just one of tens of millions of people whose spiritual life has been shaped by Billy Graham.”12 Carter had actually worked at one of Billy’s crusades in Georgia as a younger man.
When U.S. presidents wanted to pray, it was usually Billy they called. On the evening the Gulf War started in 1991, Billy spent the night in the White House beside President Bush and his wife Barbara. Again, critics thought this gave his endorsement of the war, but Billy said he was merely there to support the Bushes in a time of difficulty. This made sense, as Billy was a faithful friend of the Bushes. In 1985 he took a long walk on the beach with the President’s son, George W., that set the forty-year-old oilman on the path to salvation. On the eve of his eighty-ninth birthday in October 2007, Billy was again a guest for lunch at the White House with George W., just a short time after Ruth Graham’s death on June 14 of that year. The President just wanted to offer his encouragement to the man whose personal church – more than any other building – might well have been the White House.
Six Decades Spreading the Name of Jesus
As I write these words, Billy is semi-retired from ministry, eighty-nine years old, and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, the same disease that removed his “good friend” Ronald Reagan, from public appearances. Billy still gave a remarkably lucid interview for The Preacher and the Presidents which released in August 2007. Though not involved in the day-to-day affairs, he is still consulted from time to time by his son, Franklin, who has taken over the reigns of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. His wife of sixty-three years, Ruth, died on June 14, 2007 at the age of eighty-seven. Ruth is buried alongside the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, where Billy will one day be laid beside her. He now lives in Montreat, North Carolina in the house his wife had built as a retreat from the public, not far from where he was born.
- Billy Graham, Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 17.
- Ibid., 26.
- Ibid., 24.
- William Martin, A Prophet with Honor: the Billy Graham Story (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991), 64.
- Graham, Just As I Am, 59-60.
- Sherwood Eliot Wirt, Billy: A Personal Look Billy Graham, the World’s Best-Loved Evangelist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1997), 28.
- Wirt, Billy, 29.
- Letter from Stephen Olford, May 9, 1996, in Wirt, Billy, 29-30.
- Graham, Just As I Am, 147.
- Nancy Gibbs and Richard N. Ostling, “God’s Billy Pulpit,” Time,November 15, 1993, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,979573,00.html.
- Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, “Billy Graham: ‘A Spiritual Gift to All,’” Time, May 31, 2007, http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1627139,00.html.