March 2, 2022
As the nation focuses on inflation crises and the ongoing turmoil in Ukraine, perhaps it would do us good to pause and reflect on the life of Billy Graham, whose heavenly homegoing happened four years ago on February 21, 2018.
As a young boy, I remember well watching some of his last crusades on TV with my grandparents. For 76 years, God used a country boy from Charlotte, North Carolina to change the world. During his ministry, Billy Graham preached the gospel to nearly 215 million people in 185 countries. He met with every U.S. president from Harry Truman to Donald Trump as well as countless world leaders. Wherever he went and with whomever he met, his message was simple: We are all sinners in need of a Savior, and Jesus died so we might have eternal life. Even after his death, Billy Graham’s legacy continues to live on.
Born on November 7, 1918, just four days before the end of World War I, Billy Graham was raised on a dairy farm just outside Charlotte, North Carolina. His parents instilled in him the value of hard work as well as a love for God. When he was 12, Graham gave his first speech in a school pageant. The speech made him so nervous that he vowed to never become a public speaker. A few years later when he was 16, Graham attended a tent revival where Rev. Mordecai Ham was preaching. Although Graham had been raised in a Christian home and attended church, he suddenly became aware of his need to accept Christ as his personal Savior. From then on, Graham marked this time in his life as the moment when he trusted Christ as his Lord and Savior.
After graduating from high school, Graham attended Florida Bible Institute near Tampa. Though he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life preaching, he often found himself preaching in trailer parks, street corners, and jails, with many people responding to his sermons by turning to Christ. One night while on the golf course, Graham fully surrendered to God’s call on his life to preach the gospel. Over the next two years, Graham received many requests to preach at churches, missions, and camp meetings, further confirming God’s call on his life. In 1940, he graduated from the institute.
Upon hearing him preach, one of Graham’s friends offered to send him to Wheaton College in Illinois for a year. In 1941, while still taking classes, Graham became pastor of United Gospel Tabernacle. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Graham attempted to become a military chaplain but was turned down by the War Department because he lacked a college degree and the necessary seminary courses. But God had other plans. Graham soon met Ruth Bell, a missionary daughter from China, whom he would eventually marry.
Sensing God’s Call
In January 1943, Graham became pastor of Western Springs Baptist Church near Wheaton. In June, he and Ruth graduated and were married in August. At first, it was difficult for them to manage Graham’s already busy schedule, especially for Ruth as he was away much of the time. But they quickly adapted, no doubt through the grace of God. Soon thereafter, a minister named Torrey Johnson asked Graham to take over his 45-minute Sunday night radio program. Graham soon convinced a well-known voice named George Beverly Shea to begin singing on his new radio program.
As Graham became more and more popular, he grew increasingly restless and sensed God calling him into evangelistic ministry. Around this time, Torrey Johnson asked Graham to take over a new initiative called Chicagoland Youth for Christ, where Graham would preach at Christian rallies for soldiers and young people who poured into Chicago every weekend. On May 27, 1944, Graham preached to nearly 3,000 people at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall; 40 people gave their lives to Christ. Johnson eventually started Youth for Christ rallies in other cities, and Graham preached at those as well.
Although Graham received many offers to pastor churches, he never felt God was calling him in that direction. As World War II continued, he was finally accepted into the army chaplaincy program but was forced to withdraw due to illness, yet another sign God was leading him toward a specific type of ministry.
In 1945, Graham began working again with Torrey Johnson, as he renamed his ministry Youth for Christ (YFC) International and expanded his rallies across the United States, Canada, and Europe. Realizing that Ruth would be alone while Billy traveled, the couple moved to Montreat, North Carolina to be near Ruth’s parents as she was expecting their first child. In 1946, Graham spent several months holding rallies in war-ravaged Europe and found desperate young people very receptive to the gospel. In 1947, Graham preached YFC rallies across the United States and continued to believe God wanted him to be an evangelist.
An Unparalleled Crusade Ministry
Graham was catapulted to national fame in 1949 when he preached his first crusade at the “Canvas Cathedral” in Los Angeles, an event organized by 200 churches calling themselves Christ for Greater Los Angeles. Although the initial results were disappointing, Graham’s crusades quickly gained more traction after Stuart Hamblen, the most popular radio host on the West Coast, was saved at one of the rallies and talked about it on air, urging others to attend. The renowned publisher William Randolph Hearst also encouraged his Los Angeles editors to give Graham good press. After the publicity, some 350,000 people attended this crusade. In the final week of his Los Angeles crusade, Olympic runner and WWII POW survivor Louis Zamperini was saved.
In 1950, Graham formed the non-profit Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and began his weekly Hour of Decision radio program. As the civil rights movement heated up, Graham declared that seating at his crusades would not be segregated, even inviting the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to offer a prayer at one of his crusades.
In 1954, Billy and Ruth traveled to England for a 12-week crusade. By the end, over two million people had heard the gospel. Before leaving to vacation in Scotland, Graham was invited to 10 Downing Street to meet with Prime Minister Winston Churchill. There, Graham was able to pray with Churchill and offer him the hope found only in Jesus Christ. It was the first of many meetings Graham would have with prominent political figures. Graham returned to Europe the following two years and even preached in the same Berlin stadium where Adolf Hitler had delivered his maniacal speeches just two decades prior. Queen Elizabeth even invited Graham to preach at Windsor Castle. This was the first of a dozen friendly meetings between the monarch and the minister.
After the success of his 1955 London crusade, Graham began preaching all over the world—ultimately in 185 countries. He became acquainted with many world leaders and at times even hand delivered letters from U.S. presidents to them. In 1956, Graham preached crusades in southeast Asia, where he spoke hope into the hearts of many people weighed down by unjust caste systems. He spoke about Jesus, “a Man who was born right here in your part of the world… where Asia and Africa and Europe meet. He had skin that was darker than mine, and He came to show us that God loves all people.” While here, he also met with several heads of state and returned to southeast Asia many times during his decades of ministry.
In 1959 and 1960, Graham conducted crusades in Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and the Middle East. By the end of this tour, over three million people had heard the gospel. In 1967, Graham preached in Yugoslavia, his first visit to a communist country. In 1973, Graham preached to one million people in Seoul, the largest live audience of his entire ministry.
In 1972, Graham visited Belfast, Northern Ireland, where a bitter war was occurring between Protestants and Catholics. Though he couldn’t hold a crusade for security reasons, he did preach at one church. He even visited the Catholic area of the city and ministered to anyone who would listen. He even risked his life as a bomb went off close to where he was. Rather than fleeing, he ministered to the injured and to those who had lost loved ones. During this time, a Catholic woman told Graham that he was the first Protestant minister she had ever met.
In the late 1970s, Graham began preaching behind the Iron Curtain in eastern Europe, speaking in Czechoslovakia, Germany, Poland, and Russia. Many credit Graham’s ministry as one of the many factors that brought about the fall of the Soviet Union. When Graham returned to Moscow in 1992, crowds of 45,000 gathered each day to hear him, with a quarter of them being saved.
In 1980, Ruth’s long-desired wish to return to the country of her birth—China—was fulfilled. She and Billy had prayed that he would one day be able to hold a crusade there. That prayer was answered in April 1988 when Graham preached in five cities and ministered in many house churches as well. Graham was even able to preach to students and government leaders in North Korea in 1992 and 1994 as well.
“More Alive Than Ever Before”
During his decades of ministry, Billy Graham met with every U.S. president from Harry Truman to Donald Trump. Dwight Eisenhower twice called for a meeting with Graham to ask him his beliefs on the afterlife, once while he was president and just a few months prior to his death while he lay in a bed at Walter Reed Hospital. Lyndon Johnson asked Graham to preach his funeral, which he did. Richard Nixon invited Graham to speak at a number of services held at the White House. Ronald and Nancy Reagan shared a warm friendship with the Grahams. Reagan invited the Grahams to several state dinners during his presidency. The Grahams were also close to George H.W. and Barbara Bush. The Bushes invited them to the White House for prayer the day before launching Operation Desert Storm. The Bushes also invited Billy to host Bible studies with their extended family at their vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine. Graham also had a warm relationship with Bill Clinton, stretching back to Clinton’s time as governor of Arkansas (Clinton first heard Graham speaks as a young boy at a Little Rock crusade). George W. Bush recalls meeting Graham as a young man at a family gathering when Bush was struggling with a drinking problem. Graham offered to send Bush a Bible, and this marked a turning point in the future president’s life.
Billy Graham’s one regret was the amount of time he spent away from home during his ministry and the toll it took on his wife and children, especially his two boys. Near the end of his life, he warned Christians who were just starting their careers to learn from his mistakes. Fortunately, all five of the Graham children turned out well and serve in his ministry. The best known of these is Franklin who runs Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Graham’s health began declining in the early 2000s. Franklin took over the BGEA in 2002, and Billy preached his last crusade in New York City in July 2005. Just two years later, Graham grieved deeply when his wife of 64 years was called home to Heaven.
On February 21, 2018, God called his servant home as he passed peacefully in his sleep at his log cabin in Montreat, North Carolina. His casket, a simple wooden box made by prisoners at Angola Prison, lay in repose in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. I had the privilege of paying my respects in-person and was impressed by how several members of the Graham family personally greeted every person in line. I’ve also had the privilege to visit the grounds of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte where the evangelist was laid to rest next to his dear wife Ruth. At his funeral, Billy’s son Franklin gave a gospel message, inviting those in attendance to repent of their sins and turn in faith to Christ. Graham chose the Scripture reference John 14:6 to be engraved on his tombstone. The passage, which reads, “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,’” embodied the message he preached for decades.
Of death, Billy Graham, paraphrasing D.L. Moody, often said, “One day you’ll hear that Billy Graham has died. Don’t you believe it. On that day, I’ll be more alive than ever before! I’ve just changed addresses.” Graham spent his entire adult life proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Although he was born from humble roots, he rose to fame and prominence; but he never let that get to his head. No matter who he met, his message was the same. He saw all men, women, and children as sinners like himself in desperate need of a Savior. That is the same message we must proclaim today. Amidst all the turmoil in our world, Jesus is the only answer.