America’s pastor – and perhaps the most well-known evangelist in the world – Reverend Billy Graham passed away Wednesday, February 21. Born November 7, 1918, William Franklin Graham, Jr. was the first of four children raised on a North Carolina dairy farm. He was called to preach as a young man and dedicated nearly three-quarters of a century to spreading God’s word before retiring in 2005. Now, he has answered the Lord’s call once again; he has gone home.
At 16, Billy Graham was touched by evangelist Mordecai Ham’s sermons on sin. After high school, he moved to Tennessee and enrolled at Bob Jones College – a conservative Christian school. Graham didn’t connect with the school’s rigid doctrine though, and soon transferred to the Florida Bible Institute. He joined a Southern Baptist Convention church there and was ordained in 1939.
But it was in 1937 that Billy Graham delivered his first sermon. In 2014, Tommy Underwood shared a story he heard from his father about the young Billy Graham’s first experience behind the pulpit. Easter weekend of 1937, Billy Graham accompanied his college dean, Rev. John Minder, on a trip to Palatka, Florida. There, they were greeted by Tommy Underwood’s father, Cecil, who asked Rev. Minder to preach the upcoming weekend at Bostwick Baptist Church. Minder declined and volunteered the 18-year-old Graham instead:
With knees knocking and four borrowed sermons to fall back on, Billy Graham delivered one after another in front of the 40 or so parishioners.
He concluded his first career sermon eight minutes later.
“After the service was over with, one of the men at the church came up to Billy and told him, ‘Boy you better go back to school and get a lot more education because you’re not gonna make it,’” Tommy Underwood recalled his father saying.
Of course, Billy Graham did go back to school; he later graduated from the Florida Bible Institute with a bachelor’s in theology. And, as we all know, he made it.
Billy’s Big Break
Graham’s big break came in 1948 when Christ for Greater Los Angeles invited him to preach at their revival. As a guest on Stuart Hamblen’s radio show, Graham spread the word about the event, gaining it enough publicity to fill the tents and extend the show for an additional five weeks. Thanks to the attention of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, papers across the nation covered Graham’s revivals.
Along with his colleagues, Billy Graham created the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA). They broadcast his sermons over the radio during the Christian show Songs in the Night and on television once a week during his own program, The Hour of Decision on ABC.
A Simple Message
Billy Graham didn’t build a megachurch or try to convert his fame into a political career; he just preached the Gospel. He didn’t try to push any one denomination over another or get bogged down in doctrinal differences. Rather, he spread a simple message: God loves us all, and he gave his only son to pay for our sins so that we don’t have to. Forgiveness is there for any and all who accept it.
A Titan’s Legacy
Billy Graham’s worldwide crusades led him to preach to more people in live audiences than any evangelist before. The BGEA estimates his lifetime audience at around 215 million people in 185 countries. Thanks to his radio and television broadcasts, we can add to that millions more.
Graham rejected Communism, saying that it could not coexist with Christianity. In the 1960s, he opposed segregation and refused to speak to segregated crowds. He consulted and prayed with every U.S. President from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama. He attended the graveside services of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
Graham and his wife received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1966. He delivered an inspiring message after the September 11 attack from the Washington National Cathedral.
Billy Graham’s life and career have not been without scandal. He has received criticism for his political views, and alternatively, for his refusal to be more politically active. In 2002, he faced heavy opposition for some particularly anti-Semitic comments made to President Nixon in 1972. However, the lack of more serious accusations, such as fraud or corruption, is telling. No one is perfect, but Billy Graham came closer than some of his fellow big-name evangelists.
As Christians, we don’t believe that death is true end of life. As the man himself said: “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”