Graham, Jr., William Franklin “Billy”
Graham, Jr., William Franklin “Billy”
- Grant Wacker
Graham, Jr., William Franklin “Billy” (07 Nov. 1918–21 Feb. 2018), protestant evangelist, was born on a farm near Charlotte, North Carolina, the eldest of four children of William Franklin Graham and Morrow Coffey Graham.
Graham grew up in comfortable circumstances. His father, a successful dairyman near Charlotte, enjoyed comparative prosperity, while his mother, a musician, taught piano at home. As an adult Graham remembered how much he had disliked farm life. He also remembered how much he had liked girls, baseball, and fast cars. School did not play much of a role, and neither did religion.
Though the family faithfully attended the Chalmers Memorial Associate Reformed Presbyterian Meeting House, associated with a conservative Calvinist sect with Scottish roots, the young Graham found it dry and straitlaced. Just before his sixteenth birthday, however, he experienced a dry-eyed but life-transforming conversion at an old-fashioned revival service.
A portent of things to come unfolded the summer after Graham graduated from Sharon High School in 1936. He crisscrossed the state of South Carolina selling Fuller brushes door-to-door. Finding himself the top salesman in the state, he learned a lesson that he deployed the rest of his life: If you have the best product, then market it with all the skill and gusto you possess.
Graham’s formal education after high school started with a rocky semester at Bob Jones College, then in Tennessee, five semesters at Florida Bible Institute near Tampa, and three years at Wheaton College, outside Chicago. At Bob Jones he learned the perils of fundamentalist separatism; This notion—proclaimed by Bob Jones, Sr., the school’s founder—argued that true Christians must separate themselves not only from the temptations of secular society but also from “so-called” Christians—especially “modernist” Protestants and Catholics—who compromised the fundamental doctrines of historic Christianity. At Florida Bible Institute, Graham found his calling as an evangelist and honed his skills as a preacher. At Wheaton—often called the Harvard of evangelical colleges—he gained a sense of the global relevance of the gospel, although he majored in anthropology. As Wheaton framed that discipline, the gospel was not a product of culture but rather the opposite: a message that transcended culture because humans had the same spiritual needs always and everywhere.
Graduating from Wheaton in 1943, Graham married classmate Ruth McCue Bell, daughter of Presbyterian medical missionaries to China. Ruth Graham was witty, astute, and the author or co-author of nine books of poetry and reflections on everyday Christian life. A force of nature, she played a large role in shaping her husband’s writing, preaching, and theological outlook, even as she avoided the spotlight. Ruth’s death in 2007 closed a marriage of nearly sixty-four years that the press perennially portrayed, with debatable accuracy, as story-book perfect.
Billy and Ruth spent most of their adult lives in Montreat, North Carolina, a quiet village nestled in the Southern Appalachians. Their children included Virginia (1945); Anne (1948); Ruth (1950); Franklin (1952); and Ned (1958). Anne Graham Lotz would win wide notice as a popular inspirational speaker and founder of AnGel Ministries. Franklin Graham would become an outspoken political conservative and president of the humanitarian relief organization, Samaritan’s Purse.
After graduating from Wheaton, Graham briefly served a small Baptist church near Chicago, shouldered the presidency of a fundamentalist college in Minneapolis, and became the first full-time representative for Youth for Christ (YFC). This burgeoning evangelistic organization sought to persuade unsettled adolescents and returned servicemen and servicewomen to accept the gospel.
In the middle 1940s Graham entered close lifelong associations with three individuals highly skilled in their own right: George Beverly Shea, a beloved bass-baritone soloist; Cliff Barrows, choirmaster and director of Graham’s meetings; and Leighton Ford, a dynamic Canadian preacher who took the pulpit when Graham could not. Though Graham led, the four men together constituted the ministry’s public face around the world.
Graham captured national attention with his eight-week revival (he later called revivals “crusades”) in a circus tent pitched in downtown Los Angeles in the fall of 1949. The press featured his Hollywood handsome face, rapid fire “trumpet-lunged” preaching skills, and ability to exploit the growing fear of international communism. For personal, national, and world perils, he declared, Christ offered the only answer. Journalists judged that an aggregate crowd of more than 350,000 souls jammed the tent.
In Los Angeles Graham received a major boost from local newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. Knowing a good story when he saw one, Hearst urged his reporters to pay Graham special attention. Though the men never met, Graham always acknowledged the role of the mainstream media in general, and Hearst in particular, for fostering his ministry.
Graham’s spectacular success in Los Angeles not only propelled him into the front ranks of American evangelists but also into a league of his own. Celebrity preachers before him—Dwight L. Moody in the 1880s and 1890s, Aimee Semple McPherson in the 1910s and 1920s, and Billy Sunday in the 1920s and 1930s—won followers numbering in the millions, but Graham occupied a sphere unique to himself. Time, Life, Newsweek, and the New York Times touted his status.
Between 1950 and 1952 Graham made three decisions that bore powerful long-term results. First, he established in Minneapolis a tax-exempt organization, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), which regularized his increasingly complex and far-flung ministries. Second, he launched a nationally syndicated radio broadcast, Hour of Decision, which carried Graham’s resonant voice into millions of homes every week. Finally, he placed himself and his top associates on a reasonable salary, open to public audit, rather than “free will love offerings,” which were not.
Invitations to speak flooded the BGEA’s mailbox, one year eight thousand of them. And soon, not just in the United States. Though Graham had toured England and the Continent in 1946 and 1947, in the raw spring of 1954 he held a twelve-week crusade of unprecedented length and size in London’s famed Harringay Arena. He held another one, lasting six weeks but of greater size and results, in Glasgow the following year. Days later he spoke in private chapel for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.
The biggest and most famous crusade of Graham’s career took place in Madison Square Garden in New York City in the summer of 1957. Over sixteen consecutive weeks he preached to 2 million attenders in the Garden (and another 400,000 elsewhere), with 60,000 decision cards—or professions of faith in Christ—turned in.
In New York Graham’s signature preaching style took mature form. He presented a crisply articulated message drawn from the broad essentials of evangelical Protestant theology rather than points of contention. The sermon invariably concluded with an invitation to accept Christ, signaled by standing up and walking to the front. Graham sought effectiveness, not eloquence. In 2014 singer Bob Dylan compared the size and excitement of a Graham meeting, which Dylan said he had attended “two or three” times in the 1950s or 1960s, with a Mick Jagger or a Bruce Springsteen rock-and-roll concert.
The 1957 New York meetings stand out in Graham’s biography for two additional reasons. First, his determined ecumenism. Though a lifelong Southern Baptist, he tried to transcend denominational lines by carving a channel between mainline Protestants on the center/left and fundamentalist Protestants on the right. He tried especially to connect with Catholics, many of whom returned the favor. He said he would work with anyone, if they did not ask him to change his message. The loose but powerful coalition that heeded him, initially called New Evangelicals—later, just evangelicals—emphasized repentance for personal sin, Christ’s forgiveness, the Bible’s authority, moral living, mission to others, and anticipation of Christ’s Second Coming. Graham sought to present those beliefs in a way that appealed to the times.
Winsomeness had its limits, however. Graham’s effort to navigate the treacherous waters in the middle earned the criticism of mainline theologian Reinhold Niebuhr on one side and the wrath of fundamentalist theologian Bob Jones on the other. Niebuhr trumpeted his fear of the superficiality of Graham’s preaching and scant attention to social justice. Jones in turn trumpeted his fear of Graham’s capitulation to Catholics and to the spirit of the age to gain personal fame. Graham responded politely to both, but marched forward, undeterred.
The second landmark feature of the New York crusade was Graham’s attempt to widen his appeal from its traditional base among working and middle-class white people to Black people and other minorities. Toward this end, he invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to offer a prayer on 18 July. Though King’s prayer seemed more pro forma than enthusiastic, and Graham’s response the same, Graham’s move helped challenge white evangelicals’ historic racism. Adding Black pastor Howard Jones to his platform associates the following year put teeth in the challenge.
Yet Graham’s attempt to reach new audiences also had its limits. His alliance with King proved unsteady. In 1963 he urged King to “put the brakes on a little bit” (New York Times, 18 Apr. 1963, 21). Four years later he scolded King for opposing the Vietnam War. At the same time Graham backed away from racial justice concerns in the face of Black Power and urban uprisings. Even so, Black evangelical leaders such as E. V. Hill continued publicly to support Graham, and so did thousands of minority Christians who flocked to his meetings. Especially in the later decades of his ministry, Graham stressed that Jesus was neither white nor black but brown, and savior for all people regardless of race or ethnicity.
The Vietnam War confused Graham. During Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, his long-standing fear of communist expansion prompted him vigorously to support the conflict. But then, during Richard Nixon’s presidency, the mounting death tolls, with no end in sight, drew him to declare himself neutral. Graham’s critics assailed him for failing publicly to challenge either president. Few noticed that he had also supported, though less vocally, Johnson’s Great Society war on poverty.
The Nixon years exposed Graham’s weakness for the glamor of visibly associating himself with powerful political figures. Graham genuinely admired Nixon’s international statesmanship, which he compared with Winston Churchill’s. But Nixon’s anti-Semitism, uttered in scurrilous remarks about Jews and the media in a (supposedly) private Oval Office conversation in 1972, found Graham not challenging but echoing the president. When that conversation surfaced in 2002, Graham was mortified. His defenders said that he was referring not to Jews in general but to those in the media who underwrote pornography. Graham himself offered no such defense. He apologized repeatedly and without excuse. Yet the episode revealed not so much latent anti-Semitism—for which there was no other evidence—as obsequious loyalty to Nixon.
Watergate tested Graham’s ability to tread a non-partisan political path. Like most Southern whites of his generation, Graham was a lifelong registered Democrat, but his ill-concealed support for moderate Republican figures (as well as Democrat Lyndon Johnson) belied his professed non-partisanship. That attitude dragged him into a dogged defense of Nixon as the Watergate scandal mushroomed. Reading the transcripts of the Nixon tapes in May 1974 finally forced him to acknowledge the truth. He said he nearly vomited.
Graham’s alliance with Nixon drove home the peril of overt political partisanship. After Watergate he determined—albeit with mixed success—to proclaim a gospel that transcended the political winds of the moment. To be sure, he continued to hold close personal friendships with presidents, especially Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. That said, he rejected the Christian right’s repeated calls for his support, arguing that its message not only did not belong in the pulpit but also that it said too little about poverty, hunger, and disease.
Graham’s international ministry was an enduring part of his endeavors. From the 1960s to his death, he was the informally recognized leader of the international as well as the American evangelical movement. Nearly half of his over four hundred crusades (exact numbers are elusive) took place outside the United States and Canada. The highlight fell on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in June 1973. More than 1.2 million people—at that time almost certainly the largest Christian gathering in recorded history—crowded onto a tarmac in Seoul, South Korea to hear Graham preach his old-fashioned message. In the 1970s and 1980s he also organized and largely funded a series of landmark conferences for clergy and lay leaders of the global evangelical movement. The most notable, which met in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1974, was so influential it came to be known, among many evangelicals, simply as “Lausanne.”
One of the most controversial but later most applauded events of Graham’s life unfolded in May 1982 when he attended a nuclear disarmament conference jointly sponsored by the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. Graham strenuously denounced the arms race, stating that the two superpowers were like two little boys playing with matches in a bathtub filled with gasoline. With minor exceptions, Graham’s words provoked a scornful response at home from both the secular and the evangelical media. They considered him naïve about the communist threat. Yet years later most observers, including hostile contemporaries, would see his Moscow words as the most morally courageous of his career.
Graham informally retired in 2005, at the conclusion of his third major New York City crusade, which was marked by remarkably multiracial, multiethnic audiences. The crusade’s counselors represented more than twenty language groups, including Arabic, Armenian, Korean, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Tamil, and Mandarin. This shift in Graham’s constituency had developed conspicuously in the final years of his ministry.
The most famous evangelist in American history, Graham spoke in person to 77 million people in fifty-three countries, registered more than 3 million “decisions for Christ,” and appeared on the Gallup roster of “Most Admired Man” sixty-one times. He authored (with assistance) thirty-four books, launched two of the most widely received radio and television religious broadcasts in the nation, founded the evangelical periodical of record, Christianity Today, and oversaw Decision, the most broadly circulated Protestant periodical in the world.
This acclaim (and criticism) grew from multiple sources. Graham’s wit, manifest humility, unquestioned marital fidelity, and reputation for financial integrity were part of it. But mostly it grew from the public’s sense that his message of redemption in Christ offered the possibility of a second chance. The torrent of letters that perennially streamed into the BGEA office showed that during his six decades on the public stage he had touched the hearts of millions at home and abroad. He died in his home in Montreat, North Carolina.
Manuscript and primary materials are mainly housed at The Billy Graham Archive and Research Center, Billy Graham Library, Charlotte, North Carolina (opening May 2022), as well as the Billy Graham Center Archives, Special Collections, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. Graham’s memoir, Just as I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham (2007), is detailed and sometimes surprisingly self-critical. The gold standard of numerous Graham biographies is William C. Martin, A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story (2018).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat Grant Wacker, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (2014)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat frames his career in a series of interlocking thematic chapters. Ken Garfield, Billy Graham: A Life in Pictures (2013),Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat offers a rich collection of photographs. Aspects of Graham’s ministry find masterful coverage in Uta Andrea Balbier, Altar Call in Europe: Billy Graham, Mass Evangelism, and the Cold-War West (2021);Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat Andrew S. Finstuen, Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety (2009);Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat and Steven P. Miller, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South (2009).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat Anne Blue Wills traces Ruth Bell Graham’s important role in “An Odd Cross to Bear”: A Biography of Ruth Bell Graham (forthcoming 2022). An obituary appeared in the New York Times, 21 Feb. 2018.
- Hearst, William Randolph, Jr. (1908-1993), journalist and newspaper publisher
- Johnson, Lyndon Baines (27 August 1908–22 January 1973), thirty-sixth president of the United States
- Jones, Bob (1883-1968), Protestant evangelist and college founder
- King, Martin Luther, Jr. (15 January 1929–04 April 1968), Baptist minister and civil rights leader
- McPherson, Aimee Semple (1890-1944), evangelist and founder of the Church of the Foursquare Gospel
- Moody, Dwight Lyman (1837-1899), evangelist
- Niebuhr, Reinhold (1892-1971), theologian and political journalist
- Nixon, Richard Milhous (09 January 1913–22 April 1994), thirty-seventh president of the United States
- Reagan, Ronald Wilson (06 February 1911–05 June 2004), governor of California and fortieth president of the United States
- Sunday, Billy (1862-1935), evangelist and professional baseball player