Graham, Billy (1918-)

views updated

Graham, Billy (1918-)

Billy Graham, one of the most prominent of America's Protestant evangelists, has preached to more than 200 million people in his many crusades throughout the world, and to countless other millions through the media of radio and television. Considered one of the most successful evangelists in the history of Christianity, he is admired even by many who do not share his religious beliefs. For five decades Americans have named him to the Gallup Poll's lists of the "Ten Most Admired Men in the World." Graham has spoken intimately with many of the most powerful figures of the twentieth century, including ten American presidents, Winston Churchill, Mikhail Gorbachev, Kim Il Sung, and Pope John Paul II. Former President George Bush has called him "America's pastor," but Graham's influence is global.

When he was born on November 7, 1918, in Charlotte, North Carolina, there was nothing to suggest that William Franklin Graham, Jr., would become a world-renowned personality. His parents were God-fearing country people who reared Billy Frank and his siblings to read the Bible, pray often, and work hard on the family's dairy farm. Graham was 16 years old when Mordecai Ham, a fire-and-brimstone evangelist, came to Charlotte. Like most adolescent males, Billy Frank was more interested in cars, baseball, and girls than in anything an evangelist had to offer. Even after his confession of faith at a Ham service, visible changes in him were slight. Graham admits in his 1997 autobiography, "Although I had been converted, I did not have much of a concept of my life coming under some kind of divine plan…. I had no inkling of what my life work would be." He was certain, however, that undertaking and preaching could be ruled out.

Nevertheless, by 1938, Graham, who by this time had dropped the "Frank," felt that God had called him to preach. From that moment his commitment was unswerving. During his years at the Florida Bible Institute, young Graham preached in small churches, in mission services, and on street corners. Later studies at Wheaton College in Illinois gave Graham a liberal arts background and reinforced his conservative biblical interpretation. Time would mellow Graham in many respects; his staccato delivery would become more conversational, his Protestantism would become more ecumenical, his social views would become less judgmental, but he would never swerve from his allegiance to what "the Bible says."

Another significant event of his Wheaton years was his encounter with Ruth Bell, daughter of medical missionaries, who had spent her first 17 years in Asia and was planning to return as a missionary to Tibet. Instead, in 1943, she became the wife of Billy Graham. The young Grahams served briefly as pastor and wife, but Graham soon resigned his church to become a charter vice-president and the first full-time evangelist of Youth for Christ International. He covered the country, conducting YFC meetings in Atlanta, Norfolk, Indianapolis, Princeton, and dozens of other cities.

It was a fortuitous moment. Post-World War II America was a nation of seekers; church membership, sales of religious books, and enrollment at religious institutions were all on the rise. Predictably, so were evangelists. Among their number were some that were no more than confidence men and others who soon fell prey to the temptations of the flesh and the world. Graham, concerned with what he referred to as the Elmer Gantry problem, called together his associates during a Modesto, California campaign. In what came to be known as the Modesto Manifesto, team members agreed that the sponsoring committee would be asked to handle funds with no contributions passing through the hands of the Graham team. They further agreed that each would avoid situations that would place him alone with a woman not his wife. These simple but effective measures protected the Graham team from the scandals that toppled many other evangelists.

A year later California was again the setting for a Graham milestone. The young evangelist had been invited to be the featured speaker at the annual Christ for Greater Los Angeles revival. The Graham team began an operation that would in its general shape become their operating policy for the next five decades: preparatory revivals, small group-prayer meetings, area-wide choir recruitment, counselor training—nine months of preparation in all coupled with thousands of dollars worth of publicity. Despite these efforts, attendance at the services was not extraordinary. Celebrity conversions resulted in a flurry of interest, but then William Randolph Hearst gave the order that became part of Graham legend: "Puff Graham," he instructed his papers. The result was media saturation that no amount of money could have purchased. Headlines in Hearst papers were followed by wire-service coverage that was followed by coverage in national newsmagazines. By the time Graham left Los Angeles, the revival had run for eight weeks, the aggregate congregation had reached into the hundreds of thousands, and Billy Graham had become a national celebrity.

A 12-week crusade in London, followed by a European tour where he preached to record crowds in Stockholm, Amsterdam, and Berlin, proved Graham's appeal was not limited to Americans. Nevertheless, his greatest triumph may have been the 1957 New York crusade where he preached to two and a half million people in services that lasted from mid-May through Labor Day. The New York Crusade was important for more than its numbers. Graham, whose critics have long faulted him for failing to use his status more aggressively for social causes, integrated his own team with the addition of Howard O. Jones, an action that led to a wave of protests from segregationists. Graham also met privately with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and invited King to be a platform guest. There can be little question that Graham was uncomfortable with confrontation, and that the concept of civil disobedience troubled the evangelist whose patriotic fervor and anti-Communist rhetoric had been part of his early appeal. But Graham was convinced of the immorality of racism, and as early as 1952 had refused to hold segregated services in Jackson, Mississippi and other Southern cities. Graham's actions may have made a stronger statement to other moderates than his critics recognize.

The New York crusade was also important because for the first time a Graham crusade was broadcast on network television. Graham had already shown himself astute in utilizing media to promulgate his message. The Hour of Power radio broadcasts reached millions, as did his syndicated newspaper column "My Answer." The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association would go on to use film, video, and the Internet to reach target audiences, but perhaps no other avenue did so much to make Graham known and admired by most Americans as did the intimate medium of television which brought his crusades into the living rooms of Americans of all creeds, classes, and colors. By the late 1990s the audience for Graham's televised crusades reached 60 million annually.

The 50 years after the New York crusade saw Graham preach in hundreds of countries across the face of the globe. He organized crusades in the former Eastern bloc nations, the People's Republic of China, and, in 1973, one in South Korea where he addressed 1.2 million people, the largest public religious gathering in history. He also served as an unofficial spiritual adviser to President Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate crisis. Thus, Graham had literally taken his message "unto all the world."

His audiences may be worldwide, but Billy Graham remains a peculiarly American figure. His rise from North Carolina farm boy to become the companion of presidents; his curious mix of religion, politics, and celebrity; his eagerness to be liked; his simple faith; his paradoxical blend of ego and humility are all elements of the American psyche. Graham has been presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and a star on Hollywood Boulevard. But Graham answers reporters' queries about how he wishes to be remembered with the single word "integrity," a word that means not only honesty but also completeness, a lack of division. At the end of his autobiography, Graham regrets lost time with his family, lost opportunities for study, and foolish slips into partisan politics. The one thing for which he has no vestige of regret is his "commitment many years ago to accept God's calling to serve Him as an evangelist of the Gospel of Christ."

—Wylene Rholetter

Further Reading:

Aikman, David. Great Souls. New York, Word, 1998.

Frady, Marshall. Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness. Boston, Little, Brown, 1979.

Graham, Billy. Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham. New York, Harper Collins, 1997.

Martin, William. A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story. New York, William Morrow, 1991.

About this article

Graham, Billy (1918-)

Updated About content Print Article