“Communism has decided against God, against Christ, against the Bible, and against all religion. … Communism is a religion that is inspired, directed and motivated by the Devil himself who has declared war against Almighty God.”
– Billy Graham
“For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.”
Proverbs 2:6 | NIV
“Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.”
Psalm 119:105 | NIV
Billy Graham’s Simple Message
Billy Graham is America’s most famous Evangelist. He preached a positive, personal relationship with God. His message transcended all class and ethnic divisions.
Graham’s mission is a simple message of profound spirituality and social compassion. He is free of the dark scandals, financial or sexual, that cast a shadow on the reputation of so many other preachers. His sincerity is transparent and convincing, and cannot be denied. Graham is an icon essential to a country that is founded on faith.
I remember as a young boy listening to Billy Graham. I wanted to get “right with God”- a phrase I didn’t always understand, but tried to live up to by being a good person. I wanted to learn more about Billy Graham, so I wrote about him.
Graham grew up with an All- American dream to play baseball. Instead, he became the most celebrated religious figure of the 20th century. Confident to presidents and prime ministers, and friends to royalty and Hollywood stars. A voice of truth to millions who heard and received his message. A comforting voice to a nation in its most painful hours. A man who accredits others with his achievements and God with his success. He will likely have no equal in our lifetime. He is Billy Graham.
In 1918, the world was still fighting what was to be declared, “The war to end all wars.” In Russia, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born and in a tiny village in South Africa, Nelson Mandela. In America, just four days before the armistice that ended World War I, a country boy was born on a dairy farm just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. His name was William Franklin Graham.
Life in 1920’s America was simple in comparison to today. Truth, morality, hard work, strong families, respect for God and love of country were respected and honored virtues. Billy Graham grew up dreaming of one-day playing major league baseball. He fantasized over the Tarzan novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. His everyday life mirrored the idyllic images of Norman Rockwell’s America.
God and religion in America had become cultural icons and were given the highest respect. The Ten Commandments were posted in many school classrooms. Few embraced the idea of a personal relationship with God. The ember of faith was stirring across the continent and in Billy’s hometown of Charlotte fire was about to strike.
One afternoon in the fall of 1934, a group of men gathered at the Graham farm to pray for spiritual awakening. They prayed that God might raise up someone in Charlotte that would go out and preach the Gospel unto the ends of the earth.
They had no idea that someone they were praying for was right there that day. A series of revival meetings brought the evangelist Mordecai Ham to Charlotte that fall. Graham went to a Revival meeting. He saw a simple preacher with nothing more than an open Bible and the man began to explain scripture by scripture. Graham had never heard such preaching. He returned night after night.
In the first week, Graham felt a stirring in his heart to make a commitment to Christ. It was a simple declaration to bring Christ into his heart. With a sense of purpose that in some way his life was supposed to be devoted to Christ. Graham became determined to get an education for the task. To help pay for college, he and his friends became salesmen for Fuller Brushes the summer after high school.
After a short stint at Bob Jones University, Graham transferred to the Florida Bible Institute. He was there only a year when he fell in love and proposed to a young woman. A few months later she broke it off. The girl told Billy she was going to marry someone who would do something important in their life. Graham was devastated, but it deepened his spiritual commitment.
One clear night in the spring of 1938 Billy Graham took a long walk alone. When he returned, he told God, he would be what God wanted him to be, and he would go where God told him to go. Billy now felt the call to be an Evangelist. He also felt unprepared for the task. His first attempts at preaching were less than memorable.
Graham would often retreat to the swamps outside of the campus, practicing his sermons to the Cypress stumps as though they were a vast congregation. In 1940 he enrolled at Wheaton College outside of Chicago, where he would meet the girl who would become Ruth Graham, his wife. Billy and Ruth were married on August 13, 1943. Seven days later they took up residence as the pastors of a tiny church in the small town of Western Springs near Chicago, IL.
Through a friendship with a minister named Torrey Johnson, Graham was invited to take over a weekly radio program called “Songs in the Night.” The resulting attention brought the young Graham before a wider public, and offers to speak across the country began to grow.
By now America and the world were deeply embroiled in World War II. Graham accepted a U.S. Army commission as a 2nd Lieutenant. Graham was preparing to leave for Chaplaincy training when he was struck with a case of the mumps. It left him severely ill and convinced the army that despite his eventual recovery, he should be allowed to resign his commission.
The young preacher was again free to do what he felt called to do. Graham joined forces with several other young men of similar vision, and he helped to organize “Youth for Christ.”
They organized Evangelistic rallies across America. Graham went to Los Angeles with a new sense of conviction about himself and his message. The meetings began innocently enough under a couple of circus tents put up near downtown Los Angeles. For the first couple of weeks, they drew no special attention.
Then one night the arriving Graham was faced with a cadre of reporters. One of the reporters told Graham that he had been chosen by William Randolph Hearst, a rich man who owned newspapers across the United States, for favorable press.
The next day in every one of the newspapers Hearst owned carried a frontline story about Graham and his evangelic message that was happening in Los Angeles. The three weeks Los Angeles meetings extended to eight weeks. By the time they were over some 350,000 people had heard Billy Graham’s fiery message from sin.
Suddenly, across America old-time religion was front-page news. Graham had gone to Los Angeles as a little-known evangelist from the Midwest and left as a national sensation. Life and Time magazines carried stories about him and his tale of redemption and religion. Graham was an overnight phenomenon.
When Graham first started out there was a somewhat soft, accommodating theology that characterized a lot of Protestant churches in America. Graham came along with a very strong and Bible-based message, an old-fashioned gospel of come to Jesus, change your life, and get right with God. It had an electric effect at the time right after World War II.
Graham doesn’t discuss issues of sociology, politics or how to keep healthy. His proclamation is the Word of God. Graham believes that God’s word is powerful. Using a simple outline of four or five points and by quoting scripture under each of those points, that the scripture itself did the job. Graham understood the Word of God to be alive.
Graham didn’t see the Bible as a mere book of history or stories, but an actual living gospel that dives into the hearts of the people listening to him, regardless of his congregation. Whether he was speaking to a tribe in Africa or a large crowd in the middle of America, the Word of God has its own built-in power to move the crowd. Over the several decades of his career, his message never changed because the message of the gospel never changed.
“There is a special genius of Billy Graham when he preaches. Maybe it’s an act of the Holy Spirit that takes what he is saying and sends out vibrations, so people respond,” said conservative leader William F. Buckley.
Graham was able to communicate a simple, uncomplicated message to the masses. He used the media to do it. He used it brilliantly throughout his entire career and reached millions and millions of people.
Graham knew that evangelism had been given a bad name earlier in the century. He was determined not to dishonor himself or the gospel message that he was so fervently preaching. Graham drew him around him a group of men he felt he could entrust this mission.
That would become known as the Billy Graham Team. Some of them he had known since childhood. Their mutual commitment to each other and their spiritual mission would forge loyalty that would keep these men together for the rest of their lives.
But Billy sensed that friendship was not enough. So, one Sunday afternoon in Modesto, California, he asked each of them to go to their rooms and make a list of all the pitfalls they knew had befallen ministers in the past. They would then compare the lists and pray to escape the same temptations.
“This was thoroughness. This was professionalism of the highest order, not to risk what he was attempting to achieve in any way,” said journalist David Frost.
Throughout the 50’s and 60’s Billy Graham was impacting American religious culture in profound ways, not the least of which was the breaking down of long-held walls separating and fracturing much of the Christian world. Graham was bringing together disparate parts of the Christian community and uniting them for the purpose of evangelism. Even the historically sacrosanct wall of Protestants and Catholics was being crossed.
“At each step, he understood the importance of positioning himself in a certain way so that he could reach the greatest of people,” says Randall Balmer of Columbia University.
“One of the things that Graham represents is the notion of spiritual revivalism as a positive sort of affirming force, as opposed to a dark, negative force. That’s one of the things that American revivalism is all about,” says Walter Issacson, CNN Chairman
“It can be, and I think probably should be, said Billy Graham, that he stands with a handful of American religious leaders from the Great Awakening forward who helped define the country. He did that in a particularly tumultuous time in our history- the last of half of the 20th century,” said Dan Rather of CBS News.
American was facing a social upheaval. The pain of racial discord and turmoil that engulfed the ‘60s was tearing at the fabric of the nation. Many activists wondered, where was Billy Graham?
The social-action-type Christians were severely disappointed, and still are, that he was not more active in endorsing and helping the Martin Luther King movement,” said Richard Ostling, journalist of the Associated Press.
“It was very early in my ministry that I was segregation was wrong,” says Graham. “I always felt it was wrong to start with, but I mean wrong in public meetings. I went down and pulled down the ropes separating blacks and whites,” recalls Graham.
From the beginning, Billy Graham had felt his call was not just to America but to the world. In 1954, that result would face its first test in London. By the end of three months in England, he had converted thousands. By the end of his time in England, he spent the next six months touring Europe. By the end of the century, Billy Graham would take his message to the far corners of the earth.
The same message he had preached to the cypress stumps as a Bible student in Florida he would take to the nations of the world. Graham’s growing influence and prestige brought him to the attention of the famous and influential, from Hollywood celebrities, to corporate moguls, and significantly, to those who occupied the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. Over the years Graham’s friendship with eleven American presidents earned him the title of Pastor to the Presidents.
Billy Graham at the apex of his international stature faced the closing years of the century. His sense of calling remained the same. His sense of where that calling was taking him was new. In the late 1980’s, Responding to fledging opportunities to hold meetings in Eastern Europe, and later in the Soviet Union, Billy Graham withstood criticism from many, who accused him of compromising his faith for political expediency.
Those first meetings may have only been a crack in the wall holding back freedom behind the Iron Curtain. But it would allow the first gleams of light to energize the efforts of others. Within a decade, the Soviet wall would collapse.
Over the years, Graham has certainly had his critics. Yet the consistency of his character and integrity of his life have turned more than one enemy into a lifelong friend. Graham has preached his message of good news of faith in Jesus Christ to more people in live audiences than anyone else in history- over 210 million people in more than 185 countries and territories have heard him face-to-face.
Millions more have been touched by his voice on radio and television motion pictures. He had authored 23 books, many of them best sellers. The list of honors and awards is endless.