He preached to more people than anyone else in history, reaching hundreds of millions in person through his gospel crusades, on television and film, and later through the Internet. As we observe the life of Billy Graham on the 100th anniversary of his birth, we celebrate the impact he made on the church, and on the world.
Born on November 7, 1918, in Charlotte, North Carolina, to parents William and Morrow Graham, he was the first of four children raised on the family’s dairy farm. At the age of 16, Graham attended a series of revival meetings run by evangelist Mordecai Ham. Though he was a well-behaved teen, Ham’s sermons on sin spoke to young Graham and he committed his life to the service of Christ.
After high school, Graham attended the Florida Bible Institute, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in theology. While in Florida, Graham joined a Southern Baptist Convention church, where he was ordained in 1939.
Soon Billy moved to Illinois and enrolled at Wheaton College for further spiritual training. Here he met his future wife, Ruth McCue Bell, the daughter of a missionary who had lived with her family in China until she turned 17. Graham and Bell were married on August 13, 1943. They would eventually raise five children together.
Graham briefly pastored the First Baptist Church in Western Springs, Illinois, before leaving to join Youth for Christ. In 1947, Billy Graham became president of Northwestern Schools in Minnesota, and in 1948, he resigned from Youth for Christ to focus on Northwestern Schools.
But his first love was preaching the Gospel message of salvation through the cross of Christ. Soon people were drawn to Billy Graham’s charismatic and heartfelt gospel sermons and he was invited to speak across the country. In 1949, a group called “Christ for Greater Los Angeles” invited Graham to preach at their L.A. revival. When radio personality Stuart Hamblen interviewed Graham on his radio show, word of the revival spread.
In his autobiography, “Just as I Am,” Graham recalled a key moment in his early ministry when, during the Los Angeles crusade, a two-word directive from publisher William Randolph Hearst to “puff Graham” made him an instant celebrity nationwide.
After three weeks of little notice for the L.A. meetings, Hearst newspapers across the country suddenly flashed stories of Graham’s crusade on front pages. Other newspapers and news magazines quickly matched this, which launched a media circus that descended on his rallies under the big tent.
The publicity made Graham a superstar and he began broadcasting his sermons globally through radio, and soon on television. With Graham’s success, he launched the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA). Soon the BGEA opened numerous international offices and started publishing periodicals, records, tapes, films, and books.
Rev. Graham accepted invitations from religious figures around the world to hold evangelical “crusades.” At the end of these events, audience members would be invited to commit to Christ and meet with volunteer counselors. These new believers would receive workbooks for at-home Bible study and referrals to local pastors. BGEA eventually began to air footage of these crusades on national television, building an even bigger audience.
In time, Billy Graham preached around the world, from remote African villages to the heart of New York City. Those to whom he has ministered have ranged from heads of state to the simple bushmen of Australia and the wandering tribes of Africa and the Middle East. Beginning in 1977, Mr. Graham was given the opportunity to conduct preaching missions in virtually every country of the former Eastern bloc, including the former Soviet Union.
It is estimated that Rev. Graham preached the Gospel to nearly 215 million people in person in more than 185 countries and territories. Hundreds of millions more have been reached through TV, video, film, and webcasts.
Admired by many Hollywood figures, Graham opened his own Burbank movie studio, World Wide Pictures, in 1951 to make religious dramas that ended with Graham on screen inviting audiences to commit to Christ.
Graham’s integrity encouraged millions to heed his spiritual guidance, and celebrities he influenced included Martin Luther King, Jr., Bono, Muhammad Ali, and many others. Known as the “adviser to presidents,” Graham was a spiritual sounding board and confidant beginning with President Eisenhower and continuing through the presidency of George W. Bush. He was rated by the Gallup organization as “One of the Ten Most Admired Men in the World” an amazing 51 times.
Rev. Graham wrote 33 books in his lifetime, many becoming best sellers. His autobiography “Just As I Am,” published in 1997, achieved a “triple crown,” appearing simultaneously on the three top best-seller lists in one week.
Graham has been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation Freedom Award, the Big Brother Award, the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, and the Speaker of the Year Award. Additionally Graham was recognized by the National Conference of Christians and Jews for promoting understanding between faiths, and bestowed with the Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. One Time reporter dubbed him “the Pope of Protestant America.”
Billy Graham retired in 2005, but his life and ministry continues to touch people around the world. With his death in early 2018, the mantle of evangelism has fallen to a new generation.
Anne Graham Lotz stirred the congregation at his funeral when she declared, “I pledge to you, Daddy, that in view of His appearing, and in front of all these witnesses, I will preach the Word! I will do the work of an evangelist and I will share the Gospel and I will run my race and live my life so that five minutes before I see Jesus I have no regrets. I will live my life to glorify and exalt the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
There are many who are lining up around the world to take the same pledge – to honor the life of Graham, and more importantly to be obedient to the call of Christ on their lives, just as Billy was in his.
Reflections from Billy Graham’s Funeral
Dr. Craig von Buseck is Digital Editor of Inspiration.org.