7 Heroes of the Faith: Part 7 – Billy Graham

Billy Graham is the most well-known and successful evangelist of the modern era. During his lifetime he preached to an estimated 215 million people in 185 countries and led countless people to faith in Jesus. But his humble beginnings gave no indication of the extraordinary plans that God had for him.

Billy Graham was born on November 7, 1918, just four days before the Armistice ended World War 1. His family owned and operated a dairy farm in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Billy learnt the value of hard work as he grew up during the Great Depression. He was also an avid reader and would lie in the hay loft reading books whenever he could.

The story of his conversion to Christ is an interesting one. When he was 15 years old, an itinerant evangelist named Mordecai Ham conducted a crusade in Billy’s hometown of Charlotte. A large tent was erected where every evening an evangelistic meeting was held. On the first evening of the crusade, Billy and a friend were wandering through the town, throwing stones at stray cats and just ‘hanging out’ together. When they came to the tent and heard music coming from it, they decided to go in and see what was happening. They entered the tent and looked around but couldn’t find a seat because the tent was packed. They turned around and were about to walk outside when a pair of meaty hands clapped onto their shoulders and turned them around, and a voice said, “I’ve got just the seats for you two lads.” The usher marched them to the front of the tent and sat them in the front row just as Mordecai Ham stepped up to the lectern and began to preach. Feeling trapped, the boys had no choice but to stay for the rest of the meeting.

Varying sources give slightly different accounts at this point. Some say that both boys walked forward and made a commitment that night, while others say that Billy’s friend made a commitment on that first night and that Billy gave his life to Christ on the following night. Either way, Billy’s life was transformed and he was set on a path that would eventually take him all over the world.

But what is inspiring about the story of Billy’s conversion is the back story of the usher who marched the boys to the front of the tent. His name has long been forgotten, but several accounts describe him as a simple retired gentleman who had a passion to serve God but who had no particular aptitude or obvious giftedness. He had grown too old to serve God as a Sunday School teacher and, before the crusade came to town, had believed that his usefulness to God was finished. The crusade gave him one final chance to serve God, even by doing something as mundane as ushering people to their seats. He died a few years later and probably never realised that his simple act of service on that fateful night would have repercussions in impacting the eternal destinies of literally millions of people.

You never know how God might use your simple act of service for him!

As a result of his new-found faith, Billy tried to join a local Christian youth group but his membership application was rejected because he was “too worldly”.[1] By this we can surmise that Billy still had a lot of rough edges that God had to deal with!

In 1936 at the age of 17, Billy felt the call of God to train for Christian ministry. He enrolled at Bob Jones College in Cleveland, a Christian college, but almost immediately he clashed with the rigid legalism of its rules and regulations. He was almost expelled for breaking the rules and was warned by the principal, Bob Jones Snr:

“At best, all you could amount to would be a poor country Baptist preacher somewhere out in the sticks.”[2]

Billy almost gave up on pursuing Christian ministry but was encouraged to transfer to Florida Bible Institute near Tampa, a more moderate college where he spent the next four years.

Of particular note during these years of training was Billy’s commitment to improving his preaching. His lecturers saw potential in him, but pointed out that his southern drawl and his poor enunciation rendered his messages difficult to understand. Billy was determined to improve his diction and so he spent many hours practising by himself at a nearby creek. He would fill is mouth with pebbles from the creek and practice preaching clearly and slowly. We do not know who recommended this somewhat bizarre remedy to him, but it seemed to work. Gradually over the course of his training, Billy learned to speak clearly and powerfully, and although his messages were very simple compared to the other students at the college, his tutors sensed an authority and sincerity in him that spoke to people’s hearts.

After graduation, Billy became the pastor of United Gospel Tabernacle, Illinois. A year later he took over a friend’s radio program, called Songs in the Night, and appointed George Beverly Shea as his music director. The friendship that was forged between these two men would last a lifetime, with Beverley Shea serving as the music director for almost all of Billy’s later crusades.

After a mediocre ministry as a pastor, Billy became the president of North-Western Bible College in Minneapolis in 1948. After four years in that role he decided that God was calling him to concentrate on evangelism and so in 1952 he resigned. Initially he applied to become a chaplain in the armed forces but a bout of mumps intervened and his proposed chaplaincy never eventuated. Looking back, we can see how God used that sickness to close one door and ultimately open another. After he recovered, Billy was hired as the first full-time evangelist for Youth for Christ and he began travelling throughout the United States and Europe speaking at universities and colleges.

Billy’s first official crusade that was directed at a wider audience took place in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1949 and attracted a crowd of about 6,000 people. It received some press coverage and sparked interest in this new young evangelist. As a result, Billy was approached to conduct a similar crusade in Los Angeles later that same year. It was in the lead up to that crusade that the most severe testing of Billy’s faith took place: one that almost brought his whole career as a budding evangelist to an end.

The Los Angeles crusade would be the one that would launch him to international fame and influence, opening the door for him to ultimately preach the gospel to hundreds of millions of people over the course of his life. But as he prepared for the crusade, he was plagued with doubts; not concerning the existence of God or the divinity of Christ, but about the reliability of the Bible. His friend, Charles Templeton had become a liberal, and had been sowing seeds of doubt in Billy Graham’s mind for several months. He posed serious questions about the Bible’s veracity, pointing to supposed errors and contradictions that it contained.

The young Billy Graham had no answers to Templeton’s accusations and he became increasingly confused and unsure. He reached a crisis point where he felt that he could not preach if he continued to have these doubts. The Los Angeles crusade – and the rest of his future ministry – was hanging in the balance. Finally, things came to a climax when Billy went for a walk one night in the San Bernadino mountains. He fell to his knees and cried out to God for help. He confessed that he didn’t have all the answers to the intellectual questions and objections posed by Templeton. Writing about this moment in his autobiography, Billy records his prayer:

“Father, I am going to accept this Bible as Your Word, by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word.”

As he rose from his knees, Billy says that he felt overwhelmed by the presence of God, a tangible sense of the power and enveloping immediacy of God that was undeniable, and which moved him to tears. His intellectual questions were still unanswered (although they would gradually be answered over the ensuing years), but his previous doubts had been completely swept away by God’s tangible, powerful presence. He returned from that walk a changed man, convinced once more of the truth and power of God’s Word.

From the precipice of almost cancelling the Los Angeles crusade, Billy launched into the crusade with renewed vigour and with a resolute confidence in the truth and power of God’s Word – a conviction that would underpin his preaching for the rest of his life.

The Los Angeles crusade was a resounding success. It ran for eight weeks – five weeks longer than had been planned – and thousands of people walked forward to give their lives to Christ, including some high-profile celebrities. As a result, Billy Graham rocketed to national and international fame, with media outlets reporting the stunning results of his crusade. And the rest, as they say, is history!

Over the next five decades, Billy Graham would go on to preach to 125 million people in 185 countries, with an estimated 3.2 million people accepting Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour at his crusades. Billy also became an advisor to three American presidents and exerted a strong Christian influence on national policy.

But more than his achievements in evangelism, it is Billy’s character and his single-hearted devotion to God that stands out. One incident epitomises this.

In 1953, four years after the pivotal Los Angeles crusade, Billy was offered one million dollars to appear on an NBC television program with Arthur Godfrey, a well-known television personality and talk show host. Billy declined, turning down the offer because he was committed to a series of crusades. I wonder how many of today’s ‘TV evangelists’ would turn down an offer like this.

Billy’s crusades followed in the pattern of those of D. L. Moody and developed his principles further. Like Moody, Billy insisted on ecumenical support and a highly organised follow up program to assimilate converts into local churches. He also copied Moody’s partnership with the singer Ira Sankey in his lifelong partnership with George Beverly Shea who enhanced Billy’s crusades with his musical expertise.

Billy’s outstanding moral character is seen in his development of what he later called his ‘Modesto Manifesto’ – formulated with some colleagues in 1948 in a hotel room in Modesto, California. In that modest hotel room, Billy and some associates formulated a set of moral and ethical guidelines for ministers and evangelists to follow to ensure that they maintained the strictest standards. It included a code of conduct to ensure moral purity in the areas of finances, sexuality and power. Included in the code was the assertion that itinerant evangelists and ministers should never stay in a motel room by themselves. Billy remained faithful to this principle throughout his entire life, always insisting that another man share a twin room with him whenever he travelled, so that they might hold each other accountable and keep each other free from accusation and temptation. This has become known as the “Billy Graham Rule”.

There is much more to the life and ministry of Billy Graham – his civil rights activism, his founding of the Lausanne Movement with his good friend, John Stott, as well as his significant influence in both ecumenical and political arenas. But mostly, Billy should be remembered for his humble, faithful commitment to follow Christ and proclaim him to all people.

Billy’s death in 2018 at the age of 99 prompted an unprecedented response from people all over the world. He became only the fourth civilian in U.S. history to be buried in honour at the United States Capitol rotunda in Washington DC. At his funeral, the Speaker of the House described him as “America’s pastor”[3] and a fellow minister declared that he was “the greatest preacher since Jesus”.[4] Billy, however, would not have accepted any such accolades. He simply wanted to be a faithful, godly preacher of the gospel and lead ordinary people to the Saviour. His appeal to people of all backgrounds is exemplified by the fact that his pine plywood casket was handcrafted by convicted murderers at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, and topped with a wooden cross that was nailed to it by the prisoners.[5]

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[1] Gibbs, Nancy; Ostling, Richard N. (November 15, 1993). “God’s Billy Pulpit”. Time. Archived from the original on June 21, 2007. Retrieved November 7,2011.

[2] IBID

[3] “Billy Graham Honored at US Capitol Memorial Service; Trump Recalls Dad’s Love for ‘America’s Pastor'”. The Christian Post. February 28, 2018. Retrieved March 2, 2018.

[4] “Fallen PTL pastor Jim Bakker recalls prison visit from Rev. Billy Graham”. WBTV. Archived from the original on March 6, 2018. Retrieved February 27,2018.

[5] “Billy Graham”, Wikipedia.