Dr Billy Graham is the best known Christian minister of the past century. Born in November 1918, he was in his 100th year when he died at home with his family on 21st February 2018.
Dr Graham is also the most well known Christian evangelist of our age, having preached the ‘gospel’ (good news) in over 185 countries, reaching 215 million people during a ministry lasting over 60 years. This same era has also been characterised by the growth of TV and radio. When we include these audiences, the numbers reach an astronomical 2.2 billion people. This means that Billy Graham has preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to more people than anyone else in history. He has probably also been the instrument in bringing more people to Christ than any other individual.
William Franklin Graham Jr. was born on November 7, 1918. He was the eldest of four children.
As a child, Billy loved to read boy’s novels, his favourite being Edgar Rice Burroughs ‘Tarzan.’ Inspired by his hero, he would hang on the trees and give the Tarzan call (or scream!), scaring anyone who went past. According to his father, that shouting had led him to become an evangelist.
In 1934 at the age of 16, Billy Graham became a Christian during a series of evangelistic meetings led by the influential Dr Mordecai Ham. After finishing High School, he was educated at Bob Jones University (an independent Christian university), the Florida Institute, and Wheaton College, Illinois. He graduated with a degree in Anthropology in 1943 and married his sweetheart Ruth Bell that same year. When Ruth died in 2007 they had been married almost 64 years.
It was during his time at Wheaton that Graham decided to accept the Bible as the infallible word of God. After struggling with being certain that everything in the Bible was true, he simply made the decision that he was going to trust God and the Bible, and that was that! Billy said that a power from God came over him and accompanied him from that time on. His choice to believe opened a door for the Holy Spirit to come into his life.
Billy served briefly as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Western Springs, Illinois from 1943-44. It was during this time that he first took on a regular radio broadcast. His friend Torrey Johnson told Billy that his radio program, Songs in the Night, was about to be canceled due to lack of funding. Consulting with the members of his church, they decided to take over the programme. The radio ministry continued for many years, but Billy moved on in 1945.
In 1947, at the age of 30, he became president of Northwestern Bible College in Minneapolis where he stayed until 1952. Initially, Billy intended to become a military chaplain, but a bout of mumps halted his progress. It was during convalescence in Florida following this illness that Youth For Christ asked him to become their first full-time evangelist, launching Dr Billy Graham into the ministry for which he is now known the world over.
The roots of The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) go back to 1950. Billy always had a heart for evangelism more than anything else. The BGEA has been the basis for his evangelistic crusades throughout his long and successful ministry. The ‘Hour of Decision’ weekly radio program was broadcast around the world for over 50 years to millions of listeners, and the BGEA also produced over 130 films.
In April 2013, the BGEA started ‘My Hope’, the largest outreach in its history. The initiative encouraged church members to spread the gospel in small group meetings after showing a video message by Dr Graham.
“The idea is for Christians to follow the example of the disciple Matthew in the New Testament and spread the gospel in their own homes.”
The video, called ‘The Cross’, is the main program in the My Hope series. A close follower of world events and Bible prophecy, Billy subsequently wrote that “we are close to the end of the age”.
During a 1953 rally in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Dr Graham tore down the ropes erected by organisers which separated the audience into racial sections. He wrote in his memoirs that he told two ushers to leave the barriers down or to proceed without him. He warned a predominantly white audience,
“We have been proud and thought we were better than any other race, any other people. Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to stumble into hell because of our pride.”
In 1957, Dr Graham’s stance in favour of integration became more publicly shown when he allowed black ministers Thomas Kilgore and Gardner Taylor to serve as members of his New York Crusade’s executive committee. He also invited Martin Luther King to join him in the pulpit at his 16-week Crusade in New York. 2.3 million people gathered at Madison Square Gardens and Times Square to hear the gospel message.
On 15th October, 1989 Dr Graham received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He is the only minister functioning in that capacity to have received one. On 22nd September, 1991 Billy held his largest event in North America in New York’s Central Park. City officials estimated that more than 250,000 attended. In 1992, he went to speak in North Korea, which is normally closed to all foreign ‘religious’ input.
On 14th September, 2001, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Dr Graham was invited to lead a service at Washington National Cathedral. President George W Bush along with many past and present leaders were there to hear the gospel message preached by its best known adherent. Then, in March 2006, Billy Graham held the ‘Festival of Hope’ in hurricane struck New Orleans with the help of his son Franklin.
Billy prepared one final sermon, ‘My Hope America’ which was released on DVD and distributed around the USA together with some countries outside of America in November 2013. It was to commemorate his 95th Birthday and Billy hoped it would help to start off a revival for the nation he so loved. Such was the esteem of this great Christian leader that many TV networks including Fox News aired the sermon.
Billy and Ruth had five children together who have all continued in the faith of their parents. Virginia is an inspirational speaker and author; Anne runs AnGeL ministries; Ruth leads conferences throughout the U.S. and Canada; Franklin is the president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association; and Nelson is a pastor who also runs an organisation distributing Christian literature in China. Billy and Ruth had 19 grandchildren.
The fact that Billy and Ruth Graham have avoided the relational and financial scandals of so many high profile Christian speakers is a credit to them. But the way all of their five children have gone into Christian ministry deserves special merit. Too often the children of famous parents go off the rails. The Grahams are a very special family.
Queen Elizabeth II
Dr Graham had a friendly relationship with Queen Elizabeth. The Queen never missed an opportunity to remind her subjects around the world that Jesus Christ is the Saviour of all who will put their trust in him. She made this especially clear each year in her annual address on Christmas Day. Their common faith and high profile cemented a lifelong friendship and Dr Graham was frequently invited to special events by the Royal Family.
Dr Graham suffered from Parkinson’s Disease from 1992 which began to restrict his activities considerably after a while. He decided to begin planning his retirement early, but it is admirable that he managed to achieve a great deal in his last 25 years in spite of his failing health.
In August 2005, Billy appeared at the groundbreaking for his library in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was 86 and used a walking frame during the ceremony. Then, on July 9, 2006, Billy spoke at the Metro Maryland Franklin Graham Festival in Baltimore. Public appearances after that were very few.
Loss of a Soul Mate
Ruth Bell Graham died in 2007. She had been in declining health since suffering from life-threatening spinal meningitis twelve years earlier. Alongside supporting Billy and bringing up their children, Ruth had her own success as an author. After writing ‘Our Christmas Story’, a popular children’s book in 1959, she wrote a total of fourteen inspirational books.
The day before Ruth died, Billy released a statement through their Evangelistic Association where he stated,
“Ruth is my soul mate and best friend, and I cannot imagine living a single day without her by my side. I am more and more in love with her today than when we first met over 65 years ago as students at Wheaton College.”
Ruth’s death was a severe blow.
Significance of Billy’s Death
Billy died on 21st February, 2018 at the ripe old age of 99. His daughter, Ann Graham-Lotz was amazed to discover that the date of Billy’s death actually held great significance and has a prophetic meaning in itself. 21st February is the day that the Jews focus on the Scripture reading that deals with the death of Moses.
“Moses was the great liberator,” She said. “He brought millions of people out of bondage, slavery, got them to the edge of the promised land, and God took him to heaven.”
After the death of Moses, God raised up Joshua to lead the Israelites into the promised land. Here is part two of the story,
“My father was also a great liberator. He brought millions of people out of bondage to sin, and gets us to the edge of heaven, the edge of the promised land, and God has called him home. And could it be that God is going to bring Joshua into the promised land, lead us into heaven?”
In the New Testament, “Joshua” is translated as “Jesus.”
“I believe this is a shot across the bow of heaven, and I believe God is saying, ‘Wake up, church! Wake up, world! Wake up, Anne! Jesus is coming. Jesus is coming! Jesus said that when the gospel is preached to the whole world … as it is through churches, missionaries, ministries, Jesus said in Matthew 24:14, ‘When the gospel is preached, then the end will come.‘”
Ann is not the only major Christian leader to put a significance on Billy’s home-calling. Other major leaders have seen something similar. A prophetic gathering in the early 2000’s predicted that revival would break out after the death’s of Oral Roberts (who died in 2009) and Billy Graham. In 2012, Benny Hinn predicted that a new revival would break out in the developed world where God would use ordinary people rather than Christian celebrities, and the sign of the beginning of the revival would be Billy Graham’s death. Time will show us how accurate these predictions are.
Billy Graham was undoubtedly an exceptional example of an ambassador for Jesus Christ. Surviving his wife by a little over a decade, the amazing Dr Billy Graham died from natural causes on 21st February 2018, at his home in Montreat, North Carolina. He was 99 years old.
Paul the Apostle wrote to the Corinthian church: “So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, ‘Come back to God!’”
If you asked for my vote for the best ambassador for the Christian faith in the past century, then I would give Dr Billy Graham the title without question! He was truly a remarkable and inspirational man who led countless people from darkness to light.
Story by Ralph Burden