While he may have entered this life nearly 100 years ago, Billy Graham’s story really didn’t begin until he was a teenager.
The oldest son of Morrow and William Franklin Graham, Billy was born in North Carolina in 1918, and grew up on the family dairy farm with his siblings. An avid reader, Graham enjoyed novels for boys — Tarzan, in particular — and in 1934, he was converted to Christianity at age 16 while attending a revival meeting led by evangelist Mordecai Ham.
It is here where Graham’s true story begins — the first chapter in the story of a Southern Baptist preacher, who lived his earthly life out following the convictions of his faith, his obedience to God, and who left an incalculable legacy for generations untold.
Growing up, I can remember watching Billy Graham Crusades on television with my parents, sometimes on our old rabbit-eared television in the living room and sometimes, on my old small black-and-white set in my bedroom.
Graham’s message never wavered, and it was a message which, over the course of his evangelical ministry, would deliver to audiences in more than 180 countries over the course of more than 400 crusades: God loves you, and He can make a difference in your life if you let Him. His crusades would always follow the Dwight L. Moody-inspired practice of what would be known as an “alter call,” giving those in attendance the opportunity to come forward and speak one-on-one with someone who would pray with them.
To say it was a spectacle might be unfair, but there was something undeniably powerful about watching God work through this Southern Baptist preacher over the course of his — and our — life. Listening to Graham preach God’s word felt both grand and deeply personal at the same time.
He preached the Gospel to perhaps the largest audiences — both in person and on his radio and television broadcasts — than any apostle in modern or even Biblical history, preaching love.
During his 60-plus years of evangelizing, Graham came to be known as “America’s pastor,” praying with numerous sitting presidents, from Harry S. Truman through Barack Obama, his counsel transcending politics, personalities, and egos. He was even known to have a friendly relationship with Queen Elizabeth II, and was often invited by the Royal Family to special events.
While there were those who took issue with some of Graham’s opinions, Graham himself would admit he was far from perfect and would re-iterate God’s message of love and acceptance throughout his career, humbly acknowledging his own shortcomings, but his obedience to follow God’s call nonetheless.
In a 2005 interview, Larry King asked Graham if he ever wondered why he was chosen.
Graham’s answer: “Yes. And I'll ask the Lord the first thing when I get to heaven. Why me? Why was I allowed to go all over the world and preach the gospel? I didn't have any talents nor abilities. I was a farm boy. All I had was a college degree, and I didn't go any further. I wish I had. But I wish — one of my great wishes is that I had gotten more education.”
As Graham’s health declined, he withdrew from public appearances — his son, Franklin, taking over the mantle of his father as evangelist, and on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, the farm boy from North Carolina who would preach before nations, world leaders and the common man, closed his eyes for the last time as he passed from this life into the next.
But typical of Graham, he had something to say about his passing years earlier:
“Some day you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don't you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”
Those among us who are persons of faith mourn the passing of one of our generation’s greatest evangelists —possibly, one of the greatest evangelists in history, but we also rejoice in agreement with Graham to know that his story hasn’t ended at all, but continues in the hereafter with his Holy Father.