Many millions of people have heard the gospel message from him through his city-wide crusades and his weekly ‘Hour of Decision’ radio programme broadcast around the world. Later millions more were reached through TV, video, film and webcasts.
He was born on 7 November 1918, just as WWI was coming to an end in Charlotte North Carolina to a well-off church-going family. His father had a 400-acre dairy farm and he grew up during the Depression having to work long hours helping to keep the family business going. It was in the Autumn of 1934 that Billy Graham, aged 15, was asked to drive a group to hear the ‘fire and brimstone’ evangelist Mordecai Ham. He challenged people to recognise their sinfulness and to cry out to the Lord Jesus to save them from hell. During one of these nightly meetings the young Billy Graham turned to Christ.
From 1937 he studied at Florida Bible Institute and then during the early years of WWII at Wheaton College in Illinois where he met and later married Ruth McCue Bell, daughter of a missionary surgeon in China. Immediately after the honeymoon Billy took up the pastorate of a Southern Baptist church, in Western Springs near Chicago. But it became obvious that he was meant for a wider ministry. Often away preaching, an influential deacon, Robert Van Kampen, defended Billy to the church saying that their pastor was destined to be the next D. L. Moody.
He joined Youth For Christ, an organisation founded to reach young men and women and especially those who had been involved in the armed services, preaching throughout the US and Europe in the immediate post-war era.
The Los Angeles crusade of 1949 led to Billy Graham making the US national headlines. The tent meetings far overflowed the facilities, and scheduled to last three weeks it lasted two months. There Billy preached, ‘I don’t believe any man can solve his problems of life without Jesus Christ.’ The singing cowboy Stuart Hamblen came to faith, as did former Olympian and war veteran Louis Zamperini (the subject of the film Unbroken, released in 2014). This led newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst to send a telegram to all his editors with the message ‘Puff Graham’ – in other words give him full coverage. Billy Graham became a national figure.
In September 1951 a letter came from Ralph Mitchell of the Pocket Testament League in Philadelphia to the Evangelical Alliance in London. It suggested they ask Billy Graham to come to Britain. This led to the Greater London Crusade at Harringay in 1954 attended by 1.75 million people. Here Billy Graham got to know John Stott among others, but his ecumenical stance and his habit of calling people to ‘get up out of your seat’ and come to the front as a sign of coming to Christ caused controversy. Writing of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones Iain Murray has written that the doctor ‘had meant what he had written in the British Weekly that evangelicals “should not separate on the question of Calvinism and Arminianism.” Graham held Arminian belief, but his message of sin and reconciliation with God through Christ’s shed blood was one which ML-J believed and liberals did not. He publicly prayed for the Crusade, attended one meeting incognito and personally befriended Graham whom he regarded as an “utterly honest, sincere and genuine man.”’
There followed many evangelistic visits of Billy Graham to this country.
The Evangelistic Organisation
In 1950 Billy brought together a group of directors, including his song leaders Cliff Barrows and his wife and formed The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA). It’s aims were ‘to spread the gospel by any and all means.’ To his great credit, unlike many other crusade and TV evangelists Graham has managed to stay clean and has avoided all financial or sexual scandal.
The statistics say that Graham has participated in over 400 Crusades in 185 different countries. With the fall of Communism there was even a crusade in Moscow in 1992.
The friendship between Billy Graham and John Stott led to a further partnership in The Lausanne Movement, of which Graham was founder. It built on Graham’s 1966 World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin.
During the struggles of the civil rights movement, he supported integrated seating for his crusades. In 1957 he invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to preach jointly at his meetings in New York City. Graham bailed King out of jail in the 1960s when he was arrested in demonstrations.
He has been the confidant of a number of US Presidents including Eisenhower and Nixon. Graham has repeatedly been on Gallup’s list of most admired people. His involvement with those in high office has had both positive and negative edges. One commentator says, ‘By the middle 1960s, he had become the “Great Legitimator.” His presence conferred sanctity on events, authority on presidents, acceptability on wars, desirability on decency and shame on indecency. By the middle 1970s, many deemed him “America’s pastor.”’