Billy Graham, America’s Pastor – Dead at age 99
One of the world’s most well-known evangelists, Billy Graham died today at the age of 99. He was so prominent and well known as an evangelist and servant of Christ Jesus that it seems superfluous to try to describe his notoriety by listing his accomplishments or citing facts about his life. Perhaps the best way to illustrate who Billy Graham is and just what his life has been about is an oft-told joke:
Billy Graham was returning to Charlotte after a speaking engagement. When his plane arrived there was a limousine there to transport him to his home in Montreat. As he prepared to get into the limo, he stopped and spoke to the driver.
“You know” he said, “I am 87 years old, and I have never driven a limousine. Would you mind if I drove it for a while?”
The driver said, “No problem. Have at it.”
So Rev. Graham gets into the driver’s seat and they head off down the highway. A short distance away sat a rookie State Trooper operating his first speed trap. The long black limo speeds past him doing 70 in a 55 mph zone. The trooper turns on his siren and sets off after the limo. After pulling it over, he walks to the driver’s door to begin the procedure. However, when the tinted glass is rolled down, he is shocked to see who is a the wheel. The young trooper immediately excuses himself and returns to his patrol car to radio his supervisor.
“I know we are supposed to enforce the law,” he tells his supervisor, “but I also know that important people are sometimes given certain courtesies. I need to know what I should do because I have stopped a very important person.”
“Is it the governor?” the supervisor asks.
“No, he’s more important than that,” The trooper says.
“Oh, so it’s the president?” the supervisor says.
“No, he’s even more important than that.”
The supervisor finally asks, “Well, then, who is it?”
“I think it’s Jesus,” the trooper says, “because he’s got Billy Graham for a chauffeur!”
Insert the name of another widely recognized preacher like Joel Osteen, Rick Warren or Joseph Prince, and the joke might lose some of its effectiveness. Some people might not even get it.
The punch line of the joke makes sense and draws a laugh because of what people know about Billy Graham; he’s not a preacher, he’s the preacher. During his career, Graham has influenced millions of people throughout America and the wider world. He is the most distinguished preacher America has ever seen. That’s why, if one wants to send him a letter, he need only address it to, “Billy Graham, America.” With Graham’s death there is a vacuum in American evangelicalism that will likely be filled with some combination of politically-minded ecumenism, numbers-focused decisionism, and sound biblical evangelism.
EARLY LIFE: BORN AND BORN AGAIN IN NORTH CAROLINA
Billy Graham was born to a Presbyterian family on November 7, 1918, in a rural area adjacent to Charlotte, North Carolina. Ironically the most famed Southern Baptist preacher in the denomination’s history and the most influential evangelist of the 20th century was infant-“baptized” into a Presbyterian church as a child. While his denominational choice and evangelical zeal might seem surprising, given his origins, his virtuous lifestyle does not. In his autobiography, “Just as I Am,” Billy Graham presents himself the benefactor of a salt of the earth upbringing. His parents lived very conservative lives, taught him the importance of hard work, and stressed dependence on God. Perhaps the most memorable lesson taught to Graham by his parents was the most unorthodox. When Graham was 15, his father, a prohibition-era teetotaler, brought home a substantial amount of beer and forced Billy and his sister, Catherine, to drink all of it. The beer made the teenage Graham so sick that he developed a lifelong distaste for drinking alcohol. Unlike his grandfather, William Crook Graham, Billy Graham would not grow up to be a “hard drinking” alcoholic. He would instead become America’s most famous preacher.
Graham’s first public-speaking experience was not in a church pulpit but a school program in which the 12-year old portrayed Uncle Sam. The school’s principal, Mrs. Boylston, recognized his oratory gift, but Graham did not enjoy the experience and promised himself he would never become a public speaker. At that time, Graham had not yet made the decision to become a Christian (although he was active in a church). Four years later, at a revival meeting led by a Baptist evangelist named Mordecai Ham, Graham made that decision — the same decision many thousands of attendees of his own revivals have made over the years. From that time on, Graham’s interest and dedication to his faith grew.
Still, even as he became more interested in and dedicated to his faith, Graham did not yet feel called to preach. In fact, when called on to speak about his faith publically for the first time, his nervously-presented testimony fell on the seemingly deaf ears of a group of North Carolina prison inmates. Graham was convinced that he’d never become a preacher. However, his conviction did not stop him from noting in his senior class yearbook that his “goal was to become a minister of the gospel.” After completing high school, Graham took a step toward a career in ministry by choosing to attend Bob Jones College, a notable Christian institution of higher education.
Principal Boylston would not be the only educator who recognized Billy Graham’s gift for public speaking. Bob Jones Sr., the namesake, and founder of Bob Jones College told Graham, “You have a voice that pulls. God can use that voice of yours. He can use it mightily.” Graham, however, was considering leaving the school because of its strict code of behavior and stifling theological environment. In reference to that consideration, Jones was less supportive. “At best,” he told the academically embattled student, “all you could amount to would be a poor country Baptist preacher somewhere out in the sticks.” Graham did leave Bob Jones University, but he did not give up on a theological education. He transferred to Florida Bible Institute, where he would receive a Diploma in Biblical studies. He would go on to receive a B.A. in Anthropology from the Wheaton College. With his academic credentials in the study of God’s word and the study of God’s sixth-day creation (humans), Graham began a career in the ministry.
CAREER: SETTING RELIGION BACK
Bob Jones Sr. predicted Billy Graham would amount to nothing more than an ignominious rural preacher; he was wrong about that. During the course of his ministry, Graham has presented his gospel message to millions of people throughout the world. According to one newspaper, Graham “has preached the gospel to more people around the globe than anyone in history, and has been a friend and confidante to the pope, the queen, prime ministers and every U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower.” According to Billy Graham’s staff, “as of 1993 more than 2.5 million people had stepped forward at his crusades to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior” So Jones, to his credit, was at least dead-on in his observation about the “pull” of Graham’s voice; that voice is one of the most widely recognized voices in the United States, and it has performed God’s work with historic might pulled.
In fact, it was by his voice that Graham first became widely known outside of a local congregation. He launched a radio program called “Songs in the Night” with the support of one of his earlier congregations. From there, Graham moved on to become the president of Northwestern College. Graham served at the college until he was 34 years old; he applied for the commission as an armed forces chaplain but was sidelined by the mumps. After recuperating from the illness Graham took a job with Youth for Christ International, as a traveling evangelist. The job of traveling evangelist seemed to be the best fit for Graham. He is, after all, most famous for evangelistic crusades that have filled stadiums all over the world.
It was during one of Graham’s earliest crusades that publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst took note of the pastor. Both Graham and Hearst were virulent anti-communists. Although the two had never met, Hearst took a liking to Graham and ordered that Hearst-owned newspapers “puff Graham”. Puff him they did. By the end of 1954, Graham’s crusades had become an overwhelming success and Graham himself had been placed on the cover of Time magazine. Attempting to denigrate Graham, a fellow evangelist accused him of “setting religion back a hundred years.” To which Graham responded, “I did indeed want to set religion back, not just 100 years but 1,900 years, to the Book of Acts, when first-century followers of Christ were accused of turning the Roman Empire upside down.” For the next half-century, Graham tried to do just that. He even preached his gospel message behind the iron curtain of communism, where scores of crusade attendees came forward night after night to make a decision for Christ. Graham’s evangelistic influence was so widespread and long-lasting that President Bill Clinton stated in 1996, “I hardly ever go anywhere as President that Billy Graham hasn’t been there first ‑ preaching.”
INFLUENCE: EDGED OUT BY GOD
History is clear that Billy Graham has made a significant impact on people from all walks of life throughout America and the world. Graham himself takes no credit for this impact. In his 1997 autobiography he wrote, “Most of all, if anything has been accomplished through my life, it has been solely God’s doing, not mine, and He ‑ not I ‑ must get the credit.” Graham’s statement seems to agree with the results of a 1978 poll conducted by Ladies Home Journal that declared God the winner of the category “Achievements in Religion” … Graham came in second. A similar magazine, Good Housekeeping, named Graham “the most Admired Man in America” three years in a row. It was not just housewives who Graham impressed. The 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush, referred to Graham as “America’s Pastor.”
George W. Bush is not unique in being a president inspired or influenced by Graham. As of April 25, 2010, when he met with Barack Obama, he has been a spiritual adviser to twelve United States presidents going back to Harry S. Truman. Not all of his meetings with presidents have been meaningful or even amicable. Harry Truman was a notable critic of Graham, holding the opinion that Graham was out for attention for himself by meeting with a president. Graham’s most recent meeting presidential meeting, with Barak Obama, was a brief “private prayer.” While it’s clear that many of his presidential associations have been cursory, it’s important to note that others have been significant. The cover of the book “Billy Graham, a Tribute from Friends” lists the names of four U.S. presidents who contributed to the publication. The book also lists the names of several high-profile religious leaders.
A roll of Graham’s high-profile friends and associates or an exhaustive list of the awards and accolades he has collected does not really measure his influence on the world. While it’s accurate that “no Christian minister has been more influential in global politics, economics, and faith during the twentieth century,” Graham’s true influence is the immeasurable impact made upon the world by each individual to whom Graham has preached the gospel of Jesus Christ over the years. It’s certainly fair to assume that a sizeable portion of the people who have come forward at his events to make a decision for Christ has abandoned any further lifestyle change after leaving the emotional atmosphere created by Graham and his ministry staff; however, it’s just as fair to assume that thousands of others have dedicated their lives to living a Christian lifestyle. After his own conversion experience at an evangelistic revival, Graham described having undergone a change in attitude that included a desire to be deliberately kind and courteous to those around him. A similar change in attitude for thousands of everyday citizens who, inspired by Graham’s preaching, underwent a conversion experience arguably changed the world in a more profound way than did Graham’s influence world leaders and magazine reporters. To an evangelist such as Graham, success is not measured by awards and associations; it is measured by influencing the destination of souls in this age and in the “age to come”  spoken of in the book of Matthew.
Positive criticisms of Billy Graham’s life and career are too numerous to mention, and, as is the case with many high-profile individuals, negative criticisms are numerous as well. Perhaps the most notable of these criticisms surround Graham’s seemingly anti-Semitic remarks that he made to then-President Richard M. Nixon while the two conversed at the White House. After stating that Jews had a “stranglehold” on the American media Graham went on to state (to an agreeable Nixon), “A lot of Jews are great friends of mine. They swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I am friendly to Israel and so forth, but they don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country, and I have no power and no way to handle them.” When asked about his taped comments some thirty years later, Graham provided an apology that would seem less than believable coming from another man. Graham claimed that his “apparent” comments (which were recorded on tape) did not reflect his views. Publically, Graham has always seemed to favor ecumenism, and even encouraged and convinced Nixon to include rabbis among the clergy that were invited to the president’s inauguration ceremony.
Graham cited the lack of an ecumenical viewpoint at Bob Jones College as one of the reasons he left the school to study at the Florida Bible Institute. He was an outspoken admirer of Pope John Paul II. It could be argued that his ecumenical outlook has led to more criticism of Graham than any of his anti-Semitic comments or his close association with a disgraced president such as Richard Nixon. Reports of Jewish and Catholic individuals coming forward to accept Christ at a Billy Graham event only to be referred back to local Jewish and Catholic clergy for religious council have brought Graham staunch criticisms from other evangelicals.
Even more disturbing to these evangelicals are comments Graham made in a 1997 interview concerning universal salvation. Graham stated:
“Well, Christianity and being a true believer, you know, I think there’s the body of Christ which comes from all the Christian groups around the world, or outside the Christian groups. I think that everybody that loves Christ or knows Christ, whether they’re conscious of it or not, they’re members of the body of Christ. And I don’t think that we’re going to see a great sweeping revival that will turn the whole world to Christ at any time. What God is doing today is calling people out of the world for His name. Whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world, or the non-believing world, they are members of the body of Christ because they’ve been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus, but they know in their hearts they need something that they don’t have and they turn to the only light they have, and I think they’re saved and they’re going to be with us in heaven.”
Graham was criticized for similar comments he made on the “Larry King Live” television show. Graham has also caught flack for stating in Time magazine that he doesn’t believe that Hell is a place of literal fire. “The only thing I could say for sure is that hell means separation from God,” he said. “We are separated from his light, from his fellowship. That is going to be hell. When it comes to a literal fire, I don’t preach it because I’m not sure about it. When the Scripture uses fire concerning hell, that is possibly an illustration of how terrible it’s going to be ‑ not fire but something worse, a thirst for God that cannot be quenched.”
Comments such as these seem to be made in direct contradiction to those made by Graham from his pulpit many times over his long career. It can be argued that this pattern suggests Graham has become less fundamental with age. Evangelical critics might compare Graham to King Solomon, the great and wise king of the Old Testament who fell away from sound religious practice in old age. Other critics could label Graham a “religious politician,” someone whose methods and message change with the times; presenting himself as a fundamental bible-thumper in the mid-twentieth century when such an image was laudable and presenting himself as a middle-of-the-road inclusivist as time passed and society’s attitude toward fire-and-brimstone, one-road-to-heaven preaching changed. With so many contradicting public statements and positions over the years, one can only be left to wonder which side of the fence that separates fundamentally sound evangelical Christian doctrine and wide ecumenical acceptance Graham truly sits.
Although Billy Graham has been inactive for years due to illness and old age, his gospel machine soldiers on. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) — founded by Graham and currently led by his son, Franklin— spreads the gospel message throughout the world via radio, television, printed publications and events. Franklin’s son Will, the third generation of the Graham family to dedicate his career to evangelism, is also a BGEA evangelist. The BEGA recently marked the 60th anniversary of its “Hour of Decision” Radio program. Longtime Billy Graham associate Cliff Barrows was still the host as of 2010.
As noted previously, many people have criticized Graham for his theological stances or political involvement. However, criticism of his personal character regarding fidelity to his wife of sixty-four years (Ruth, deceased since 2007) or the handling of money donated to his evangelistic association has been virtually non-existent. This is no accident. Graham and his associates took great pains never to appear to act in an inappropriate manner, even adopting a formal policy called the “Modesto Manifesto” that was designed to avoid certain pitfalls that were common problems for evangelists. Graham’s life, however, shouldn’t be looked at as the product of some calculated manifesto, but just the opposite. Billy Graham has lived a life of personal piety and morality … and it shows. Graham will likely go down in history as one of the greatest religious leaders of his time.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said of defenders of England during the Battle of Britain, “… if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’ ” Similarly, some hundreds of years from now, a seminary professor might say to his class, “The kingdom of God will last forever, and Billy Graham will go down as one of its finest members.” That, or he could tell the joke about Graham being Jesus’ limo driver. The message is the same.
[Contributed by Seth Dunn]
*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.
Aikman, David. Great Souls: Six Who Changed a Century. 2003.
Baker, Peter. “Obama Visits the Rev. Billy Graham.” The New York Times. April 25 25, 2010. http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/25/obama-visits-the-rev-billy-graham/. (accessed November 13, 2010).
BBC. Graham Regrets Jewish Slur. March 2, 2002. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1850077.stm (accessed 2010 14, November).
“Billy Graham.” Wikipedia. Novmber 13, 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Billy_Graham&oldid=396527504 (accessed November 13, 2010).
Billy Graham as Chauffeur. http://www.danggoodjokes.com/chauffeur/ (accessed October 30th Saturday, 2010).
BILLY GRAHAM Soft Water Down Answer . http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bx29MRL4L6c (accessed November 10, 2010).
Bruns, Roger. Billy Graham: a biography. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004.
Burns, Cathy. Agenda?, Billy Graham and His Friends: A Hidden. Sharing, 2001.
Drummond, Lewis A. The Evangelist: The Worldwide Impact of Billy Graham. Thomas Nelson, 2001.
Graham, Billy. Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham. HarperOne, 2007.
Hand, Gary. Billy Graham. http://www.ondoctrine.com/10grahab.htm (accessed November 15, 2010).
Hortsman, Barry M. “”BILLY GRAHAM: A MAN WITH A MISSION IMPOSSIBLE.” Cincinnati Post, June 27, 2002.
Jordan, Larry. Midwest Today: A Conversation with Billy Graham. January 1997. http://www.midtod.com/9612/billygraham.phtml (accessed November 15, 2010).
King, Randall E. “When worlds collide: politics, religion, and media at the 1970 East Tennessee Billy Graham Crusade. (appearance by President Richard M. Nixon).” Journal of Church and State, March 22, 1997.
Long, Michael G. The Legacy of Billy Graham: Critical Reflections on America’s Greatest Evangelist. Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press, 2008.
Matthew 12:32 – Passage Lookup – New International Version – BibleGateway.com:. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew%2012&version=NIV (accessed November 14, 2010).
news, BGEA. Hour of Decision Turns 60. November 10, 2010. http://www.billygraham.org/articlepage.asp?articleid=7494 (accessed November 15, 2010).
Ostling, Richar N. & Billy Graham. Of Angels, Devils and Messages From God. November 15, 1993. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,979587,00.html (accessed November 15, 2010).
The 2010 TIME 100 – Billy Graham. June 14 14, 1999. http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1972075_1972078_1972196,00.html (accessed November 13, 2010).
Wacker, Grant A. “The Billy Pulpitt: Graham’s Career in the Mainline.” The Christian Century, 2003 15, November.
Wikiquote. Winston Churchill. November 15, 2010. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Winston_Churchill (accessed November 15, 2010).
 (Billy Graham as Chauffeur n.d.)
 (Wacker November)
 (Graham 2007)
 (Bruns 2004)
 (Wacker November)
 (Hortsman 2002)
 (Wacker November)
 (King 1997)
 (Drummond 2001)
 (Jordan 1997)
 (Graham 2007)
 (Aikman 2003)
 (Aikman 2003)
 (Billy Graham 2010)
 (Baker 2010)
 (Long 2008)
 (Graham 2007)
 (Matthew 12:32 – Passage Lookup – New International Version – BibleGateway.com: n.d.)
 (BBC 2002)
 (Hand n.d.)
 (BILLY GRAHAM Soft Water Down Answer n.d.)
 (Ostling 1993)
 (Graham 2007)
 (Wikiquote 2010)
Member of the Evangelical Theological Society
Certified Public Accountant
Latest posts by Seth Dunn (see all)
- Pastor Greg Locke: “Adulterer in God’s Eyes” Marries Church Secretary - August 7, 2018
- More Georgia Baptist Incompetence: The Nomination of Thomas Hammond - August 5, 2018
- An Open Letter to Taisha Cowan of Global Vision Bible Church - August 4, 2018