by Derek Tidball
A small town farm boy, Billy Graham grew up in a godly Presbyterian home. At 17 he was converted through the preaching of Mordicai Ham in Charlotte. It was a decision that changed his life. In 1938, while walking on a golf course near the Florida Bible Institute where he was studying he dedicated his life to preaching the gospel.
Little could he have dreamed where such a dedication would take him. He went on to study at Wheaton College where he met his wife Ruth and then to serve briefly as the pastor of a Baptist church in Western Springs, Illinois. But it was soon apparent that he could never be confined to one local church. By the time he was 26 he was preaching on the radio, signing up George Beverly Shea as his soloist. Torry Johnson heard his radio ministry and appointed him to be a field preacher for YFC. In that capacity he came to Britain in 1946 for a three week tour. He returned later that year at his own expense, this time teaming up with Cliff Barrows and preaching in 27 cities.
A crusade in Los Angeles in 1949 marked the beginning of his ministry as a major mass evangelist. Initially 6,000 attended the canvas cathedral nightly for a crusade that was planned to last three weeks. But remarkable conversion stories like that of the wire tapper Jimmy Vaus and gangster Mickey Cohen and the puff given to him by the newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, met the numbers grew and the crusade was extended. A few weeks later, 40,000 gathered to hear him preach on Boston Common and his city-wide evangelistic ministry was truly launched. At 31, he was a phenomenon.
The Greater London Crusade of 1954, when Billy Graham preached for several months at the Harringay Arena, began his international crusade ministry. In spite of suspicion to begin with, Billy Graham established himself as a force to be reckoned with. A meeting with Sir Winston Churchill and with the journalist Cassandra in a pub called The Baptists Head put Graham unmistakably on the map. The final rally at Wembley Stadium with Archbishop Fisher of Canterbury on the platform was attended by 122,000 people. That and his return visit in 1955, which included the All- Scotland Crusade at which 52,000 made a decision for Christ, were, as Gilbert Kirby once told me, the nearest thing that Britain had know in the 20th century to revival.
Since then Billy Graham has preached to over 2 billion, more people than anyone else in history. Historic visits were made to Iron Curtain countries before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A visit to a religious leaders conference in Russia in 1982 was followed by a full-scale Crusade in Moscow in 1992. China, the country of Ruth Graham’s birth, opened its doors to him in 1988 as, astonishingly, so did North Korea in 1992.
Wherever Billy Graham went, his message was the same. He preached Jesus and invited people to follow him. His messages were striking for their simplicity. The illustrations could be well-worn, even hackneyed, but there was always an urgency about his preaching. Remarkable, too, was his confidence in the words of the Bible. ‘The Bible says…’ came to be his signature tune and in any one sermon he would quote the Bible between 25 and 100 times. He said that he had learned that modern man will surrender to the impact of the Word of God. When he tried to be someone else, as when he preached more intellectual sermons on the opening nights of the Cambridge University Mission in 1955, he failed. He communicated when he was himself.
Standing in the tradition of D.L. Moody, Billy Graham had, for his day, a unique anointing of the Holy Spirit. No other preacher could compare with him. As an evangelist he could provoke people to decision. It was often said that he only had to stand and make an appeal for people to follow Christ and they would have flocked forward! His ilk can’t be trained in a college or groomed by inheritance. God sovereignly chooses a person and uses them as he will. He chose Billy Graham.
Controversies have surrounded Billy Graham but no dirt has ever stuck because he has been marked by an exceptional integrity. He was accused of being a mindless fundamentalist. Yet he did more than anyone in America to lead Evangelicalism out of the fundamentalist ghetto of the early 20th century. He was accused of being manipulative. But when the critics said he used the singing of Just as I am to seduce the crowd into a response, he scrapped the music and they still came.
He was accused of being an agent of American Presidents and a tool of American imperialism. Truth to tell, he made some unwise judgements in his early days in his eagerness to get the gospel to the White House as well as the Log Cabin. But he humbly confessed at the Lausanne Congress that he had on occasions confused American culture with the Gospel. He grew into a respected elder Christian statesman, free from the ideologies that now drive the Christian Right in America. He walked at ease with world leaders and equally was the chosen voice to give expression to the grief of the people in many a national tragedy.
Billy Graham was much more than an evangelist. His strategic thinking led to the revival of evangelicalism in the United States in the second half of the 20th Century. He grasped the importance of using modern communication technology for the gospel. From his early days he was a radio evangelist. At Harringay he experimented with land line relays with the message being passed down the telephone wires to churches and halls across the country.
After that, he was always at the cutting edge of communication through The Hour of Decision broadcasts, films, telecasts and satellite transmissions. He also recognised the importance of communicating an evangelical voice within the church. In 1953 he had the idea of a magazine called Christianity Today that would provide evangelical pastors with spiritual and intellectual confidence, countering the more liberal Christian Century. The first issue was published in 1956 with Carl Henry, a weighty theologian, serving as editor.
Though he would never have claimed to be an intellectual himself, Graham was anything but anti-intellectual. In his early days he was briefly the President of Northwestern Schools, which flourished during his four-year office. But he put more sustained energies into Fuller Theological Seminary and was instrumental in the founding of the influential Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Wenham, Mass. as well as continuing to support his alma mater by building the Billy Graham Centre at Wheaton.
The greatest global gathering of evangelical leaders took place in Lausanne in 1974 under his inspirational leadership. In 1966 he had invited an international group of evangelists together for a training conference in Berlin. Berlin was followed by regional conferences that fed into Lausanne. Though unmistakably about the task of world evangelism, The Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization turned out to be much more than a transient refuelling stop for practitioners. Genuine engagement with issues took place, in spite of there being 4,000 participants from 151 countries. The organising committee heeded what was said and adapted to the Radical Discipleship stream that unexpectedly emerged.
The Lausanne Covenant is one of the finest statements of evangelical mission-oriented doctrine in history. And it is what its title claims – not a statement but a covenant to which those of us present were invited to commit ourselves for life. The whole process was under Billy Graham’s wise direction and benefited from his exhilarating addresses.
Although Billy Graham preached a simple gospel he modelled the wholeness of it in his actions. He identified with the Civil Rights movement and, long before it was fashionable, refused to preach to segregated meetings. He personally took down the ropes which had been erected to keep black and whivte apart in his 1952 Crusade in Jackson, Mississippi. When preaching in Durban, South Africa in 1972 he declared apartheid doomed. He worked for peace and channelled massive resources into relief work where there was poverty and disaster. Always motivated by the Bible, he believed that all people were equal in God’s sight, and he could not escape the more than a thousand verses that commanded people to help their neighbours in their time of need. It is no accident that his son, Franklin, heads up Samaritan’s Purse and World Medical Missions. As well as learning to preach at his father’s side, he learned too to minister compassion.
His beloved Ruth, the college sweetheart he married in 1943, had been at his side throughout his ministry, sometimes at great personal cost to her and their family, until her death in 2007. The daughter of missionary parents, Ruth told the Lord that ‘if I could spend the rest of my life serving Him with Bill, I would consider it the greatest privilege imaginable.’ Together they have faithfully served and raised six children, two of whom, Anne Graham Lotz and Franklin, have themselves become internationally-known preachers in their own right and with their own distinctive approaches.
In old age, Billy Graham suffered from Parkinson’s Disease but his prayer was still that he might be faithful. He was to the last. The world is unlikely to see his like again too soon.
He humbly summed up his own view of his ministry when he wrote:
I realise that my ministry would someday come to an end. I am only one in a glorious chain of men and women God has raised up through the centuries to build Christ’s church and to take the Gospel everywhere.