Notable Christians: Billy Graham

I had not planned to write a piece on the passing of the great evangelist Billy Graham. After all, what more could be said about the man that hasn’t already been said a million times over? But watching the very moving live streaming of his funeral was enough to prompt me to say at least a few words about him.

I will do this in two ways. First, I will offer a few snippets about the man, and then I will quote from a few of my earlier articles about him. The details about his life are pretty well known. Let me offer a very brief outline based on a piece from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website:

He was born on November 7, 1918 in North Carolina, and raised on a farm near Charlotte. At age 15 in 1934 he was converted at an evangelistic campaign. In 1939 he was ordained as a Baptist minister. He graduated from Wheaton College in Chicago in 1943. While there he met fellow student Ruth McCue Bell, the daughter of a missionary doctor. He married her in 1943 and enjoyed her company for 63 years. She died in 2007.

His first major evangelistic crusade was in Los Angeles in 1949, and his last crusade was in New York in 2005. Much of the rest is of course history. It is said he preached to some 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories, with hundreds of millions more reached through television, video, film, and webcasts.

Of course out of all these who heard the evangelist, God only knows how many were actual converts who stayed true to God, walking with Christ for the rest of their lives. Many were likely just a flash in the pan, who had an emotional reaction at one of his meetings. But many – most? – were soundly converted, and hopefully discipled through local churches.

He died on February 21st, age 99. Such was his stature that on February 28 and March 1, he became the fourth private citizen in United States history to lie in honor in the United States Capitol rotunda in Washington, D.C.

As to some of my past writings on the man, let me cite two of them. In June of 2007 I wrote “Two Men Who Shaped Nations”. It was a real study in contrasts. One man was of course Graham. The other was Playboy’s Hugh Hefner. They are now both dead, and their lives could not have been more different. As I wrote over a decade ago:

There are two elderly Americans who have both made a profound impact on not only America but the rest of the world. One is a man who renounced self and dedicated his life to his God and the welfare of others. The other, who has snubbed God altogether, has made a name for himself as one totally absorbed with himself, and his lusts.

I concluded my piece this way:

The contrast could not be much greater. Yet there is one fundamental commonality that unites the two men. Both are sinners. The only difference is, one acknowledged his sin early on, and turned to the finished work of Christ for a new life. The other still wallows in his old life of sin and selfishness. And such are the options for all of us. There are in the end only these two options. May we choose wisely.

In March of 2010 I wrote about him again, comparing him with someone who had just died; Father Paul Marx, the founder of Human Life International. In my piece I had reflected on the autobiographies of the two men:

Faithful for Life: The Autobiography of Father Paul Marx. (Human Life International, 1997.)
Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham. (HarperCollins, 1997.)

In my piece I said that they shared a number of common features, and there were a number of parallels between the two lives. I wrote:

A number of other similarities emerged: both are nearly 80; both grew up in rural America on dairy farms; both men’s families lost nearly all in the great depression; and both knew early on that they were to make an impact on their world.

Both men have rejected racism, ensuring that blacks and whites alike took part in their work. Also, both recognised the importance of working together with people from differing religious persuasions. Thus Marx made a point of working with Protestants where possible, and Graham encouraged working together with Catholics. Both also sought to work with Jewish groups as well whenever feasible. Thus ethnic and religious bigotry were notably absent from their ministries.

Early on in his ministry Graham had made a point of ensuring that no hint of scandal be found in his organisation. Back in 1948 he and his team decided to set out a group of resolutions which would guide their work in the future. The first point was to be totally open and accountable concerning finances. The second commitment was to avoid all hints of sexual immorality. Third, the team resolved to always work together with local churches, and seek unity wherever possible. Fourth, they determined to be unflinchingly honest about numbers – the number of conversions, etc. No exaggerations, no misrepresentations.

Between these two men, probably every country on earth has been visited. They are both remarkable for their travels and countless speaking engagements. Many a younger man would not have kept up with the gruelling schedules, the sleepless nights and the strange surroundings. Both men, although now well advanced in years, are still fully devoted to their cause, although Graham is slowed down by Parkinson’s disease….

Both men have been to Australia on numerous visits. On one visit to Australia, when South Australia legalised abortion in 1970, Fr Marx gave 31 lectures in 30 days to stave off further attempts to spread abortion. He left behind a manuscript on euthanasia which was published as The Mercy Killers. Well over a million copies were to be sold or distributed.

Billy Graham is best known for his overflow crowd at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. On one Sunday afternoon in March 1959, 143,750 people crammed into the Melbourne Cricket Ground to hear Graham preach. It was his largest crowd to date, and the biggest crowd ever assembled at the MCG. Graham’s largest audience was in Seoul, Korea, in 1973, when over one million people crowded into an open air plaza to hear him speak.

So what made Billy Graham tick? Obviously, he had a deep and abiding love for God and for man. That is all one needs really. And he simply took to heart passages like Romans 10:13-15:

For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Some of you know a bit about church history and have read about the great Christian preachers, revivalists and evangelists of the past such as the Apostle Paul of old, or more recently, George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, Charles Finney, Jonathan Edwards, etc. I, like many others, have often wondered what it would have been like to have actually heard such preachers.

Well, many of us got to hear – either in person, or on video – what Billy Graham was like as a preacher. My wife and I for example heard him in Amsterdam at the International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists, in July 1983 where we helped out as volunteers.

So we know a little bit about what it is like to actually hear, if not see, a great evangelist for Christ. Yes, there have been others, and there will be others. But in many ways the life and ministry of Graham was unique. He will be missed by millions.

He has run the race and finished the course that God laid out for him, and now enjoys his eternal reward of being with the one he most loved, Christ his Saviour. As always, such moving examples of godly faith inspire us to also make a difference for Christ and the Kingdom.

This quote of his has gone viral during the past week or so, and is still worth running with: “Someday 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.”

God bless you Billy. Well done, good and faithful servant.

[1464 words]

15 Replies to “Notable Christians: Billy Graham”

  1. Thank you for your tribute. Billy Graham left a legacy of faith and his life reflected God’s love. Well done in deed.

  2. G’day Bill,

    I have been going, daily, to your website for years; and was looking forward to your perspective on Billy Graham. And I have to confess I wondered whether you were affected by some of the criticism of him – easy-believism, overdone altar calls, working with theological liberals. But now an article, and thank you.

    I couldn’t help noticing that the secular left’s ABC didn’t post about his death until hours afterwards (their billion dollars doesn’t cover someone looking at US news overnight) and then it was on their website for less than 24 hours. And nothing of his funeral.

    And yet Billy Graham spoke, in person, to more people than any other person in history. And those words were ‘the Bible says’ and the the gospel of the Lord Jesus. And in the public eye for 60 years without a sexual or financial scandal, both of which the media would have delighted in reporting.

    Blessings, and peace
    Andrew Campbell

  3. Thanks Andrew. Of course Graham was not perfect, and I would have some disagreements with him here and there, as I would with most folks. And yes, he has his fair share of critics. Sadly, but expectedly, I have already had Christian detractors letting me know in no uncertain terms that they think Graham was of the devil, and that I am too for daring to offer this tribute to him. My advice to these heresy hunters is this: when they help to win as many millions of people to Christ and the Kingdom as Graham did, then they can come back here and chew us out. Until then, I prefer to just ignore them. They are a dime a dozen, and I tire of them greatly to be honest. They delight in tearing others down to build themselves up. I have spoken about this issue elsewhere:

  4. Dear Bill,
    We have been watching for your tribute. Thank you.

  5. Interesting contrast between your article on Billy Graham and the one underneath it. Two different worlds. Thanks Bill. A fitting tribute to a very great man.

  6. In Albury NSW, Anglican archdeacon Peter Macleod-Miller (pro abortion; pro homo etc) wrote a letter (Border Mail) villifying & riddiculing this GREAT man while rejecting the Bible as old & irrelevant!? Billy Graham was/is an inspiration & will be rightly remembered as one of histories greatest for humanity! Macleod-Miller is a VERY sick man at the feet of Satan, & in praying for Christ to lift the curtain of lies from him, I think of the Holy Spirit moving through Billy all those years & I see that there is Hope! A GREAT GREAT MAN!! To loosely quote scripture: Are there any left?

  7. A fitting tribute to a truly great man, whatever one may think about certain points of his theology and evangelistic practice. As Paul Ryan well put it in his speech over Graham’s body at the Capitol, “Jesus said, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your mind and strength’. Billy Graham rose from his bed every morning and did just that every day of his life.”
    Yes, I for one disagreed with certain things: his Arminian tendencies, the invitation system, and co-operating with liberals and Roman Catholics. There was also a (temporary?) flirtation with universalism in an interview with Robert Schuller many years ago, which disappointed me. But all that said, I worked happily on a Billy Graham organising team in 1968. And he remained faithful to the Gospel and to his Lord and Saviour to the very end. I don’t think he was any Calvinist, but that final perseverance to the end we see in him epitomised Calvinism just the same.
    God be thanked for such a servant. He has gone to his exceeding great reward.

  8. I recall as a boy of 4 sitting and listening to Billy Graham preach and looking in awe at the huge crowd with people sitting on the MCG turf. In 1969 I heard him preach at the Myer Music Bowl and the last meeting at the MCG. Sitting up on the platform was a local Baptist minister by the name of Norman Pell who I came to know whilst attending a church he had helped found in the Ringwood area back in 2002. Norman spent some years in America with Billy Graham’s organisation and from hearing Norman talk about Billy Graham, one knew that the term AMERICA’s PASTOR was well deserved. Well done Good and Faithful Servant. Thank you Billy.

  9. Bill,
    You observed, “And yes, he has his fair share of critics. ” Billy often said that it was his policy never to answer his critics; that to do so would divert him from the all-important work of the Gospel.
    Well, it can we’ll be observed that living to such a ripe old age was answer enough: he outlived them all! Never would his critics have imagined that in death he would be accorded the almost singular honour of lying in state in the Rotunda of the Capitol.
    As I think Voltaire once remarked, “No-one ever erected a monument to a critic”! (Correct me if this was someone else)

  10. What books would you recommend on the three you mentioned (Charles Spurgeon, Charles Finney, Jonathan Edwards) and can you think of other men like them you would recommend reading???

  11. Thanks Paul. I already did a piece on Spurgeon in which I mentioned some good biographies:

    I am now doing a piece on Edwards. But the main bio to run with is probably George Marsden’s 500-page effort (Yale University Press, 2003). I will include other titles when the piece is posted.

    Finney also has many books one can refer to. These two are solid bios:
    Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, Charles Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelism (Eerdmans, 1996).
    Keith Hardman, Charles Grandison Finney 1792-1875: Revivalist and Reformer (Baker, 1990).

    As to other great evangelists, preachers, revivalists and Christian leaders, there would be hundreds. Perhaps look at my series on notable Christians:

  12. Amen to all. You have written Bill. Keep praying for us St Billy Graham. Thank you for your example of how to live the Gospel.

  13. Can’t believe how many have emerged from under their rocks to try and denigrate Billy Graham? I remember first seeing him on television when I was 15, in 1959 when he spoke at the MCG here in Melbourne, never forgot it, the most charismatic speaker I’ve heard, ever.
    His critics are lacking a bit in the ‘love & forgiveness’ department, so right there are going against everything God stands for, so lose any credibility with me! Mr Graham may not have been perfect, but was about as close as a human being can get, the only crime he every committed was spreading the word and love of Jesus Christ! If he didn’t get a Gold Pass straight through the Pearlies, there’s bucklies hope for the rest of us!

  14. Yes I am with you Girvan, and I do grieve at all the self-appointed heresy hunters out there. Even if in his quite old age (and maybe with some mental deterioration as a result?) Graham said a few worrying things, those several dozen words must be stacked up against the many millions of words he preached over the decades, all offering solid biblical truth.

    As to those who think he is the antichrist because he dared to work with others to further the gospel, I have said often enough now that I am willing where possible to work with others, even though some real theological differences may well exist between us. See these articles for starters:

    Yes, no one is perfect, and one day when I stand before my Lord I am sure that I will discover that I have said or taught things that were blatantly wrong, perhaps even untruthful. I am so very glad that God is patient with me and gracious to me. If my life was in the hands of some of these heresy hunters, they would have written me off long ago.

    And I have written about all this quite often over the years, so there is no need to repeat myself, but I would say four brief things to those who denounce Graham and people like him.

    One. If you think folks like Graham are Satan’s spawn and to be condemned as heretics and apostates, then you are saying the same about me, since I support these men. If that is what you think about me, well, that is up to you. That just betrays some rather ugly, ungracious and ungodly censoriousness on your part. And it is God and his opinion of me that really matters, not what these critics think.

    Two. Heresy hunters are a dime a dozen, and they bother me to be honest, as I believe they greatly bother our Lord. There is of course real heresy and real apostasy, but that is a far cry from what so many of these armchairs critics are on about. Condemning everyone else as a heretic who does not line up exactly with you and your doctrine and your handful of followers is not a sign of godliness or spirituality, but the very opposite. But I speak to all this in greater detail here:

    Three. I will always run with the line Moody gave in such situations. The story goes like this:

    One day a lady criticized D. L. Moody for his methods of evangelism in attempting to win people to the Lord. Moody’s reply was “I agree with you. I don’t like the way I do it either. Tell me, how do you do it?” The lady replied, “I don’t do it.” Moody retorted, “Then I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”

    Four. When these armchair critics have helped to bring as many millions of people into the Kingdom as Graham did, then I might take the time to listen to them more seriously. Until then, I really cannot be bothered, sorry.

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