William “Billy” Franklin Graham Jr.
Billy Graham, the most famous minister of his era, died Wednesday February 21, 2018 at his home in Montreat, North Carolina. In his 99 years, Graham changed the face of evangelical Christianity in America.
He preached to millions of people in 185 countries, counseled presidents and led mass religious rallies that featured professional musicians and huge choirs, in venues ranging from a circus tent in Los Angeles to Yankee Stadium in New York.
His influence as a moral and spiritual leader in 20th century America was such that one historian said Billy Graham could confer “acceptability on wars, shame on racial prejudice, desirability on decency, dishonor on indecency, and prestige on civic events.”
Graham’s fame and popularity, however, derived first from his passionate preaching style, which was partly a product of his upbringing.
He grew up milking cows and pitching hay on his family farm just outside Charlotte, N.C.. His parents were pious Presbyterians who led their children in prayer before every meal and insisted that they learn a new Bible verse each day. As a boy, Billy did not rebel against that religious discipline, but he was soon attracted to a more raucous form of worship. After attending a few outdoor revival meetings, he decided his Christian calling was to be a Bible-waving preacher like the ones who came through Charlotte in pursuit of lost souls. He subsequently left Presbyterianism to affiliate with the Southern Baptist denomination.
In his determination to replicate the evangelical style, Graham read the sermons of notable preachers and then practiced delivering them himself. According to his biographer, William Martin, Graham regularly closed himself in a tool shed and “preached to oil cans and lawnmowers. Or he paddled a canoe to a lonely spot on the river and called on snakes and alligators and tree stumps to repent of their sins and accept Jesus.”
After graduating from Wheaton College in Illinois, where he met his future wife Ruth, Graham led a Baptist congregation in a Chicago suburb, but he didn’t stay there long. Congregational work was not for him. He wanted to reach a bigger audience, and he had the preaching talent to do so.
His big break came in 1949, when Graham led what he called “a tent campaign” of revival meetings in Los Angeles. Roaming the stage, chopping the air with his hands, and speaking alternately fast and slow, he electrified his audiences. “The Lord Jesus Christ can be received, your sins forgiven, your burdens lifted, your problems solved, by turning your life over to him,” Graham shouted, before leading the crowd in prayer. Originally scheduled for three weeks, the Los Angeles meetings were so popular that the organizers extended them to eight weeks. More than 350,000 people are said to have attended the services, in part because of favorable press coverage that came on the orders of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. After hearing Graham preach, Hearst sent a two-word instruction to his editors: “Puff Graham.”
Before long, he was famous around the country. His wife thought he was too loud and too theatrical, but in midcentury America it was a style that worked. As a handsome, blue-eyed young preacher, he projected wholesomeness and charisma. He could command the stage, and his delivery proved perfect for radio and television.
The evangelists who preceded Graham had a mainly regional appeal, whether in the South or the North, but Graham was known as “America’s pastor.” During a 4-month-long “crusade” in New York City, more than 2 million people came to hear him in various venues, including Madison Square Garden. Each service ended with Graham urging people to come forward, stand before him and dedicate their lives to Christ as a 1000-voice choir sang, “Just As I Am, Without One Plea,” the hymn that served as his anthem.
Throughout his career, Graham made a determined effort to stay on message. Though conservative in his theology and pious in his personal life, he was reluctant to pass judgment on others. “He did not think it was his job to criticize other traditions within Christianity, or outside Christianity for that matter,” Wacker said. “He insisted that his sole job was to proclaim the Gospel.”
He was a man who maintained absolute marital fidelity and moral and financial integrity. He was an evangelist who lived the way he preached.”