Billy Graham has been the most recognized face in Christianity for decades. His voice has been heard by more people than probably anyone in history. He is a man that is determined to accomplish the Great Commission and has spent his life dedicated to it. One Time reporter has dubbed him “the Protestant Pope of America,” and by many more as “America’s Pastor.” One thing is for certain, he is the most influential evangelical Christian in the world for the past six decades. His proven integrity and conviction to God’s Word makes his life worth studying and imitated.
The Graham family lived on a 300 acre farm land in Park Road just outside Charlotte, North Carolina. The farm land was bought by the late Crook Graham, just as he got out of the Civil War. William Graham and Clyde Graham, his sons, inherited it and began a dairy business there called Graham Brothers Dairy. William met Morrow Coffey and married her in 1916. Their first son was named William Franklin Graham Jr., but his family just called him Billy Frank. He was born on November 7, 1918 in the family frame farmhouse. Billy had three siblings younger than him: Catherine, Melvin, and Jean. Billy and his siblings grew up on the farm working hard. Every morning he would help the hired workers milking the many cows and other duties. One of the Graham’s Negro workers, Reese Brown, became one of his heroes and showed Billy how to milk and herd the cattle.
Billy’s early education was nothing impressive. He went to a small country school named Sharon High School. One Biographer notes, “His report cards reflected the fact that he worked so hard- and so early- on the farm that he sometimes fell asleep in class.” Obviously, Billy had his mind elsewhere while in school. That elsewhere was baseball. He had met and shook hands with Babe Ruth, and he loved baseball after that. He looked to be a professional baseball player when he grew up. However, much to his disadvantage, he was not very good. He made the high school team but only as a substitute, but eventually was put on first base.
The Start of It All
The Graham parents were not particularly religious. Billy was quoted as saying, “They went to church, but beyond that they never talked religion. They never acted religious.” The Graham family attended the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Charlotte. Some things begin to happen when Billy was fifteen that started changing his parents’ actions toward God. Mrs. Graham joined a Bible class and became really involved. Three weeks after, Mr. Graham’s face was crushed by a stick shot out of the mechanical saw. When taken to the hospital, the surgeons saw little hope for his survival. At that time was when Mrs. Graham rallied her prayer partners. Frank survived and the family attributed it to God’s miraculous healing. Frank Graham began supporting a group called Christian Men’s Club. They had invited the evangelist Mordecai Ham to town and wanted to hold an all day prayer meeting at the Graham farm. At this prayer meeting, one man prayed “that out of Charlotte the Lord would raise up someone to preach the Gospel to the ends of the Earth.”
This story is of extreme importance because at these meetings with Mordecai Ham, Billy Graham gave his life to Christ. Billy wanted nothing to do with religion by this time in his life. He was a typical sixteen year old. He was skeptical of the revival and was not planning to go. One of his best friends, Albert McMakin talked him into going though. Billy’s first time going was moving. God did not change him just yet, but He was working on the young man. Night after night, week after week, Billy kept going. He became under deep conviction over sin, and he really became confused when he was debating with himself if he was saved or not. After many days of attending, the Lord finally got a hold of Billy and changed his life. He was led to the Lord by a man named J. D. Prevatt. Mordecai Ham said, “In Billy Graham’s thinking at that time, his hero was Babe Ruth. Our meeting changed his hero from Babe Ruth to Jesus Christ.”
After graduation, Billy attended Bob Jones College for a short time before realizing that was not where he needed to be. He saw the Florida Bible Institute advertized in the Moody Monthly. This was it; this is where he needed to be. He started there in 1937 and became good friends with the dean, John Minder. John gave Billy his first preaching opportunity. Billy had never felt much purpose in life until now. His mother said that this calling had changed his entire personality. Soon after this first opportunity, he was invited to preach a revival at East Palatka Baptist Church. This was his first time preaching at a Baptist church. There he met a great friend name Cecil Underwood, pastor of Penial Baptist Church. Both, Minder and Underwood saw concern about Billy preaching in Southern Baptist churches while not being a Southern Baptist. While not wanting to be a stumbling block, and through much prayer, Billy decided to be baptized and join Underwood’s church. There he was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister in 1939. After his graduation from FBI, he moved to Wheaton College. There he met Ruth Bell. They almost immediately fell in love. They married right after graduation from Wheaton in 1943.
The Beginning of Something Great
During the time of World War II, Graham had applied for a chaplain position in the army. While awaiting orders for training, he came down with a severe case of the mumps and was discharged because the war’s end was in sight. During that time, he accepted the pastorate of Village Baptist Church in Western Springs, Illinois. He got the small church to sponsor a radio program called “Songs in the Night.” This was a program already set up by a man named Torrey Johnson, a well-known pastor and professor there in Chicago. Billy Graham took it over and it was a huge success.
Torrey Johnson had caught a vision. He witnessed George Wilson speak on his vision to reach the world by hosting huge entertaining rallies along with the “uncompromising Christian message.” Johnson teamed up with him and the “Youth for Christ” was underway. Johnson wanted to hold a rally in Chicago and heard Billy on his radio program. Immediately, he knew that Billy was the speaker he would go with. Billy was shocked that he would be asked to speak at a rally where 3,000 people were expected to attend, because it had only been a year since he graduated. On May 27, 1944, Billy Graham preached his first youth for Christ crusade with 40 people making public confessions of faith.
From then until 1947, Billy made some incredible trips with YFC. In 1945 alone, he traveled 200,000 miles, in 47 states, and to crowds up around 20,000 with more than 7,000 coming to Christ. Billy began to be one of America’s most famous preachers. He preached with power and truth. YFC went of seas to Great Britain as well. He went for three weeks around England, Scotland, and Ireland. The post-war scene was so devastating that he wanted to go back. Billy connected with his soon-to-be life-long ministry partner, Cliff Barrows, and they set out again for Great Britain. This time it was a six month journey in 27 cities and 360 meetings.
His ministry was just beginning. Billy had two daughters so far, Gigi born in 1945 and Anne born in 1948. He had a growing family to look after but he was always away from home. He made every chance to see them worth it. One thing that added to him not seeing his family was becoming president of Northwestern schools in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This was a tough position for Billy because according to his wife, he “was called by God to be an evangelist, not an educator.” He soon made T.W. Wilson his vice president. Billy had him and the founder’s widow, Marie Riley, basically run the school for him. Billy was gone most of the time still doing crusades or at his home with his family in North Carolina. His ministry really began to pick up during this time. He felt that without a full time president, the school could not flourish like it should. He resigned his four year tenor at Northwestern in February of 1952.
The Man on Fire
During his tenor at Northwestern, Billy shot on to the national stage. A group of businessmen called “Christ for Greater Los Angeles” had contacted Billy about doing a campaign in their city. This was to only be a three week campaign, but due to overwhelming response, and after much prayer, Billy extended it. It eventually lasted eight weeks. His last sermon was on November 20, 1949 before sixteen thousand people; this was his sixty-fifth sermon there. The media were dumbfounded. No one could explain what was going on except that it was the Lord. He made it into Life magazine and hundreds of articles across the country. Billy Graham said, “Los Angeles taught us many things, among them the power of prayer, the power of the word of God, but also the power of the press to make known God’s work.”
The fire was lit. Everywhere Billy went, he and his God drew a crowd. The year 1950 was crucial for the building of Billy’s ministry. His next stop was Boston in early January. They hosted the campaigns at the 13,000-seat Boston Garden and still had to turn thousands away. Different meetings throughout New England were held in such prestigious places like MIT, Brown, Harvard, Yale, Amherst, Vassar, Wellesley, and University of Massachusetts. The next place was Columbia, South Carolina. While there, the founding editor and publisher of Time and Life magazines, Henry Luce, became a great friend of Billy’s. Time and Life from then on always published fair stories of the evangelist’s stories. Billy’s influence was increasing swiftly, and there was something that needed to be done.
While in Portland, Oregon, some amazing and life-altering things happened for Billy. First, the campaign had attracted over 500,000 in six weeks and over 9,000 had signed decision cards. Second, a film ministry was started by him and Dick Ross. That company has gone on to film more than 200 evangelistic movies. Third, a radio program was established. Billy had told some men who proposed the idea to him that if he could generate $25,000 by the end of the night that the ministry would start. At the campaign that night, Billy mentioned it to the crowd. They gave $24,000 and Billy was not convinced. He then received later that night, two checks from business men both for $500. So the radio ministry, The Hour of Decision was born. On November 5, 1950, it was aired for the first time on 150 radio stations. Fourthly, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was born. Billy and Grady Wilson realized that these campaigns needed better organization than relying on locals to do most of the financing for them. George Wilson, who was the business manager of Northwestern Schools, had come up with the paperwork for Billy to begin his own organization.
One of the most important campaigns Billy had ever done was yet to come. London had opened its door to a three month campaign from March to May in 1954. He preached in many places in London such as Harringway Arena, Hyde Park, Trafalagar Square, Wembley, and White City Stadium to over two million people. A headline of a local newspaper clipping reads, “A multitude gathers in Hyde Park. Billy Graham speaks… And fifty thousand listen.” The last day of his time in London, over 200,000 people came to see him speak at Wembley and White City. This was the largest religious gathering in Britain’s history. From there, he went on to do many more successful campaigns in the rest of Europe. At the end of his stay in Europe, he got the meet and share with Winston Churchill. Soon after his first visit, he came back the next year to Scotland. He preached a six week campaign that drew over 2.6 million people with over 52,000 commitments to Christ. On Good Friday, April 29, 1955, BBC broadcasted Billy’s campaign on both radio and television. An estimated of 30 million people were able to witness this meeting. He was invited to dinners with the Duke of Hamilton and Queen Elizabeth II.
Billy had met with some missionaries from India while in Europe and they proposed to him a set of cities to come to. He loved the idea and set out to have multiple crusades in Asia. In 1956 alone, he traveled to India, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan (Formosa at the time), Japan, and Korea. Kottayam, India, had a population of only 50,000. By the last meeting there, the crusade had seen over a third of a million people in attendance.
God’s Power in NYC
One of the most important religious meetings in the history of America happened in New York City in 1957. After leaving London in 1954 he said, “I have never had the faith to tackle New York, Chicago, or Philadelphia, but if God can accomplish this in London, he can accomplish it in other cities.” They scheduled the crusade for six weeks, yet it was extended to three months. The statistics of that meeting are staggering: 2.3 million people heard the gospel, 60,000 made decisions, and another 30,000 decisions came through mail and phone calls. One of the services was at Yankee Stadium with a record crowd of 100,000 and another 20,000 outside the stadium.
Taking Down the Iron Curtain
Out of the NYC crusade came hundreds of invitations elsewhere. In 1959, he began his international ministry in Australia and New Zealand preaching to sold out crowds. An estimated fifty percent of Australia’s population heard Billy speak whether in person or by media. In the 1960’s, he went all over South America, many places in Africa, and Israel. In the middle of going overseas, Billy had an amazing experience in Chicago in 1962. Over 750,000 people attended over the three week period, 16,500 came to know Christ, and about four hundred Satan worshippers came to end the crusade. One of the major doors that God opened was for the “Iron Curtain” of the communist countries. The first was Yugoslavia. Even though it was not fully in the “Iron Curtain,” it was still communist. The real break-through did not come until 1977 when Billy preached in Hungary. From there, he went on to Poland, East Germany and Czechoslovakia. By 1982, Billy had received an invitation from Leonid Brezhnev to come to USSR in 1984. So he did a four city, twelve day campaign there. He went on to Romania where thousands turned out and were changed. He went back to Hungary in 1985 and 1989. The meeting in 89 was the largest religious gathering in Hungary’s history. Soon the USSR’s communist party fell in 1991 and that made way for Billy to freely preach most anywhere. He held a 3 day crusade at Olympic Stadium in Moscow with over 50,000 people inside and over 20,000 outside.
Back to the Homeland
During Billy’s time in Asia, he received a long awaited invitation to China. Ruth was born in China and had longed to go back. They finally went in 1988 for a five city visit. He visited with many pastors to learn about the Chinese culture and to encourage them in the faith. They had a banquet in the Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, and he was hosted by Chinese Ambassador Zhang Wenjin. He went on to go there two more times in ‘92 and ’94. After almost every trip to China, Billy would take his crew to North Korea. His largest meetings ever were in South Korea. One crusade in 1973 drew over one million people. Though South Korea was very open to the gospel, just north was the most hostile territory to religion and white Westerners. He was invited by the Korean Christian Federation to do a seven day visit in April of 1992. He preached in a couple of churches and even in Kim Il Sung University. The most nerve racking experience Billy probably ever had was actually meeting with President Kim Il Sung. The second time he went to North Korea, it was because President Sung invited him. President Sung said, “I consider it a great honor to have a friend like [Billy Graham] in the United States.”
One last notable crusade was the Global Mission of 1995. Billy spoke in San Juan, Puerto Rico, but he was seen and heard in one hundred and eighty five countries and territories. Interpreters translated the message into forty eight languages. In South Africa alone, over one million people viewed the crusade. Later on, the tapes were broadcasted through national television networks. That extended the audience to tens of millions of people. Billy said, “It may have been the most extensive single evangelistic outreach in the history of the church.” He went on to preach many more crusades like these. He retired in 2005.
Billy Graham is still alive today and making just as much of an impact. He will be immortalized by his books, radio shows, and legacy of believers he has left behind. His Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary will continue to teach and prepare missionaries and evangelists for decades to come. He was a small farm boy, who by the obedience of the Spirit of God, grew up to become one of the most impactful and influential Christians in history. It has been estimated that he has preached face-to-face to near 100 million people, and due to media outlets and God’s grace, Billy has reached over two billion people so far. His impact can be felt everywhere in the Southern Baptist Convention and all over the globe.
“Billy Graham,” Biography.com, http://www.biography.com/people/billy-graham-9317669 (accessed Nov 06, 2012).
Busby, Russ. Billy Graham, God’s Ambassador: A Lifelong Mission of Giving Hope to the World. Alexandria, Va: Time-Life Books, 1999.
Graham, Billy. Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997.
Kilgore, James E. Billy Graham, the Preacher. New York: Exposition Press, 1968.
Pollock, John Charles. Billy Graham; the Authorized Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.
———. Crusades: 20 Years with Billy Graham. Minneapolis, MI: World Wide Publications, 1969.