Billy Graham, 1918–2018
The evangelist who ministered to millions worldwide
The Rev. Billy Graham was a relatively unknown traveling evangelist when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1949 to bring the Gospel to what he called “a city of wickedness and sin.” Organizers feared they’d never fill the 6,000-seat tent that had been erected for Graham’s three-week revival, but they needn’t have worried. Boosted by support from press baron William Randolph Hearst—who admired Graham’s fiery anti-communism—the revival was extended to eight weeks and attended by more than 350,000 people. It turned the 30-year-old Southern Baptist into a national sensation. A talented showman with a down-to-earth theology, the movie star–handsome pastor electrified audiences with his call to repent and be born again. “Say yes to the Savior tonight,” Graham exhorted, “and in a moment you will know such comfort as you have never known.” Over the next five decades, he’d preach in person before an estimated 215 million people in more than 185 countries; his staff estimated some 3 million audience members answered his appeal to “accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior.” Countless others were reached through his pioneering use of mass media. “I’m selling the greatest product in the world,” Graham said in 1954. “Why shouldn’t it be promoted as well as soap?”
Growing up on his family’s dairy farm near Charlotte, N.C., Graham showed more interest in baseball than in his parents’ Presbyterian faith. His “path began taking shape at age 16,” said the Associated Press, when he committed himself to Christ at a tent revival. “I did not feel any special emotion,” he said of being born again. “I simply felt at peace.” After high school, Graham sold brushes as a door-to-door salesman before enrolling at Florida Bible Institute near Tampa, where “he practiced his sermons by preaching to the alligators and birds in the swamp.” Graham traveled the country during the 1940s as a barnstorming preacher, wearing “bright gabardine suits with loud, wide ties and argyle socks to show that Christianity wasn’t dreary,” said the Los Angeles Times. Within months of the Los Angeles revival, Life, Time, and Newsweek all ran features declaring him “the new Billy Sunday”—a popular early-20th-century evangelist. A 12-week London “crusade” in 1954 brought him international attention. All the while, his Billy Graham Evangelistic Association “grew into a powerful worldwide conglomerate that included a radio program, a film production unit, a newspaper column, magazines, and television programs.”
Graham’s influence extended to Washington, “where he counseled presidents for half a century, beginning with Dwight Eisenhower,” said The Wall Street Journal. Nicknamed “America’s pastor,” he prayed at Ronald Reagan’s bedside after the president was wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt, spent the night at the White House with George H.W. Bush on the eve of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and led prayers at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration. George W. Bush credited Graham with turning him away from alcoholism. But he was closest to Richard Nixon, said Reuters.com. “It turned out to be a painful relationship for Graham,” who defended Nixon deep into the Watergate scandal. He issued an apology in 2002 after audio tapes from the Nixon White House were released in which Graham was heard agreeing with Nixon that Jews in the media were sending the U.S. “down the drain.” Graham’s relationships with those in the White House helped him spread his message around the world: He delivered sermons to a racially integrated audience in apartheid South Africa and twice visited the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
Despite failing health, Graham continued to serve as a de facto national chaplain into the mid-2000s, said The Washington Post. Racked by Parkinson’s disease, “his strength seemed to return the moment he grasped the pulpit.” He led prayers at Washington’s National Cathedral in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and traveled to New Orleans in 2006 to preach after Hurricane Katrina. “I’ll be glad when the moment comes when the Lord calls me to heaven,” he said. “I get tired down here sometimes.” ■