William Franklin Graham Jr. KBE was an American evangelical Christian evangelist and an ordained Southern Baptist minister who became well known internationally after 1949. He has been looked upon as one of the most influential preachers of the 20th century. He held large indoor and outdoor rallies with sermons that were broadcast on radio and television, some still being re-broadcast into the 21st century.
In his six decades of television, Graham hosted annual Billy Graham Crusades, which ran from 1947 until his retirement in 2005. He also hosted the popular radio show Hour of Decision from 1950 to 1954. He repudiated segregation. In addition to his religious aims, he helped shape the worldview of a huge number of people who came from different backgrounds, leading them to find a relationship between the Bible and contemporary secular viewpoints. Graham preached to live audiences of nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories through various meetings, including BMS World Mission and Global Mission. He also reached hundreds of millions more through television, video, film, and webcasts.
Graham was a spiritual adviser to American presidents and provided spiritual counsel for every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. He was particularly close to Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson (one of Graham’s closest friends), and Richard Nixon. He insisted on racial integration for his revivals and crusades in 1953 and invited Martin Luther King Jr. to preach jointly at a revival in New York City in 1957. Graham bailed King out of jail in the 1960s when King was arrested during demonstrations. He was also lifelong friends with another televangelist, the founding pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, Robert H. Schuller, whom Graham talked into starting his own television ministry.
Graham operated a variety of media and publishing outlets. According to his staff, more than 3.2 million people have responded to the invitation at Billy Graham Crusades to “accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior”. As of 2008, Graham’s estimated lifetime audience, including radio and television broadcasts, topped 2.2 billion. Because of his crusades, Graham preached the gospel to more people in person than anyone in the history of Christianity. Graham was repeatedly on Gallup’s list of most admired men and women. He appeared on the list 60 times since 1955, more than any other individual in the world. Grant Wacker reports that by the mid-1960s, he had become the “Great Legitimator”.
William Franklin Graham Jr. was born on November 7, 1918, in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was was of Scots-Irish descent and was the eldest of four children born to Morrow (née Coffey) and William Franklin Graham Sr. Graham was raised on a family dairy farm with his two younger sisters and younger brother. When he was eight years old in 1927, the family moved about 75 yards (69 m) from their white frame house to a newly built red brick home. He was raised by his parents in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Graham attended the Sharon Grammar School. He started to read books from an early age and loved to read novels for boys, especially Tarzan. Like Tarzan, he would hang on the trees and gave the popular Tarzan yell, scaring both horses and drivers. According to his father, that yelling had led him to become a minister. When he was fourteen in 1933, Prohibition ended in December, and Graham’s father forced him and his sister, Katherine, to drink beer until they got sick. This created such an aversion to booze that Graham and his sister avoided alcohol and drugs for the rest of their lives.
Graham had been turned down for membership in a local youth group for being “too worldly” when Albert McMakin, who worked on the Graham farm, persuaded him to go and see the evangelist Mordecai Ham. According to his autobiography, Graham was converted in 1934, at age 16 during a series of revival meetings in Charlotte led by Ham.
After graduating from Sharon High School in May 1936, Graham attended Bob Jones College, then located in Cleveland, Tennessee. After one semester, he found it too legalistic in both coursework and rules. At this time he was influenced and inspired by Pastor Charley Young from Eastport Bible Church. He was almost expelled, but Bob Jones Sr. warned him not to throw his life away: “At best, all you could amount to would be a poor country Baptist preacher somewhere out in the sticks … You have a voice that pulls. God can use that voice of yours. He can use it mightily.”
In 1937 Graham transferred to the Florida Bible Institute in Temple Terrace, Florida, near Tampa. He preached his first sermon that year at Bostwick Baptist Church near Palatka, Florida, while still a student. In his autobiography, Graham wrote of receiving his “calling on the 18th green of the Temple Terrace Golf and Country Club”, which was adjacent to the Institute campus. Reverend Billy Graham Memorial Park was later established on the Hillsborough River directly east of the 18th green and across from where Graham often paddled a canoe to a small island in the river, where he would preach to the birds, alligators, and cypress stumps. In 1939, Graham was ordained by a group of Southern Baptist clergymen at Peniel Baptist Church in Palatka, Florida. In 1943, Graham graduated from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, with a degree in anthropology.
During his time at Wheaton, Graham decided to accept the Bible as the infallible word of God. Henrietta Mears of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood (Hollywood, California) was instrumental in helping Graham wrestle with the issue. He settled it at Forest Home Christian Camp (now called Forest Home Ministries) southeast of the Big Bear area in Southern California. A memorial there marks the site of Graham’s decision.
On August 13, 1943, Graham married Wheaton classmate Ruth Bell, whose parents were Presbyterian missionaries in China. Her father, L. Nelson Bell, was a general surgeon. Ruth Graham died on June 14, 2007, at the age of 87. The Grahams were married for almost 64 years.
Graham and his wife had five children together: Virginia Leftwich (Gigi) Graham (b. 1945), an inspirational speaker and author; Anne Graham Lotz (b. 1948), runs AnGeL ministries); Ruth Graham (b. 1950), founder and president of Ruth Graham & Friends, leads conferences throughout the U.S. and Canada; Franklin Graham (b. 1952), serves as president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and as president and CEO of international relief organization, Samaritan’s Purse; and Nelson Edman Graham (b. 1958), a pastor who runs East Gates Ministries International, which distributes Christian literature in China.
Graham had 19 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren. His grandson Tullian Tchividjian, son of Gigi, was the senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida until he was defrocked in June 2015 after admitting to an extra-marital affair. Tchividjian later filed for divorce from his wife, Kim. Grandson Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian, a former child abuse chief prosecutor and professor at Liberty University School of Law, is the founder and executive director of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing and responding to abuse in Christian organizations.
His influence was fueled by an organization that carefully planned his religious campaigns, putting on international conferences and training seminars for evangelical leaders, Martin said.
Graham’s mastery of the media was ground-breaking. In addition to radio and publishing, he used telephone lines, television and satellites to deliver his message to homes, churches and theaters around the world.
Some 77 million saw him preach in person while nearly 215 million more watched his crusades on television or through satellite link-ups, a Graham spokeswoman said.
Graham started meeting with presidents during the tenure of Harry Truman. He played golf with Gerald Ford, skinny-dipped in the White House pool with Lyndon Johnson, vacationed with George H.W. Bush and spent the night in the White House on Nixon’s first day in office.
George W. Bush gave Graham credit for helping him rediscover his faith and in 2010, when it was difficult for Graham to travel, Barack Obama made the trip to the preacher’s log cabin home in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
Graham’s ties to the White House were mutually beneficial. His reputation was enhanced as preacher to the presidents, while the politicians boosted their standing with religiously inclined voters.
“Their personal lives – some of them – were difficult,” Graham, a registered Democrat, told Time magazine in 2007 of his political acquaintances. “But I loved them all. I admired them all. I knew that they had burdens beyond anything I could ever know or understand.”
Graham’s reputation took a hit because of Nixon after the release of 1972 White House tapes in which the two were heard making anti-Semitic comments. Graham later said he did not remember the conversation and apologized.
In the early half of his career, Graham often spoke his mind on social and political issues of the day, including his strong anti-communist sentiments. He dismissed Vietnam War protesters as attention-seekers and, while he eventually refused to hold segregated revival meetings, he did not take an active role in the 1960s civil rights movement.
But Graham’s politics were not as overt as those of some religious leaders who came after him, such as Pat Robertson, who ran for president in 1988, and Jerry Falwell, co-founder of the Moral Majority, an organization whose purpose was to promote Christian-oriented politics.
As he grew older, Graham said he felt he had become too involved in some issues and shifted to a middle-of-the-road position in order to reach more people. He did, however, dive into the gay marriage issue in 2012 when he came out in support of a state amendment to ban same-sex marriages in North Carolina. He also met with Republican Mitt Romney in October 2012 and told him he supported Romney’s run for the presidency.
Later Life and Death
Graham suffered from hydrocephalus since 1992.
Graham said that his planned retirement was because of his failing health. In August 2005, Graham appeared at the groundbreaking for his library in Charlotte, North Carolina. Then 86, he used a walker during the ceremony. On July 9, 2006, he spoke at the Metro Maryland Franklin Graham Festival, held in Baltimore, Maryland, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
In April 2010, Graham, at 91 and with substantial vision and hearing loss, made a rare public appearance at the re-dedication of the renovated Billy Graham Library.
There had been controversy over Graham’s proposed burial place; he announced in June 2007 that he and his wife would be buried alongside each other at the Billy Graham Library in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. Graham’s younger son Ned had argued with older son Franklin about whether burial at a library would be appropriate. Ruth Graham had said that she wanted to be buried not in Charlotte but in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, where she had lived for many years; Ned supported his mother’s choice. Novelist Patricia Cornwell, a family friend, also opposed burial at the library, calling it a tourist attraction. Franklin wanted his parents to be buried at the library site. At the time of Ruth Graham’s death, it was announced that they would be buried at the library site.
Graham died of natural causes on February 21, 2018, at his home in Montreat, North Carolina, at the age of 99.
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In his long career as a religious evangelist, the Rev. Billy Graham has spoken to millions around the world and served as advisor to US presidents.