Billy Graham (1918 - 2018) - North Carolina History Project (2024)

The most recognized evangelist of the twentieth century, Billy Graham began his far-reaching evangelism mission in 1949. Graham, who spoke with eloquence and simplicity, toured the United States, Europe, and even communist countries in the 1980s and 1990s. The charismatic evangelist attracted thousands to his “crusades” during his six-decade career, and throughout his life, Graham spoke to millions about the Gospel and Jesus Christ.

Born William Franklin Graham in Charlotte, North Carolina, on November 7, 1918, Billy was the son of dairy farmers who lived in the countryside of Mecklenburg County. Growing up during the Depression took its toll on the Graham family, but Billy and his brothers and sisters quickly learned the benefit of family values and hard work. Originally a skeptic of religion and Christianity, Billy’s conversion occurred in 1934 when a traveling preacher, Mordecai Ham, visited Charlotte to host a revival. The young Graham experienced a renewal after hearing Dr. Ham’s message, and he became a fully-devoted Christian, soon realizing that he wanted to become a preacher himself.

After receiving his schooling at Bob Jones University, the Florida Bible Institute and Wheaton College, Graham had developed his communication skills and his knowledge and command of the Bible. In 1939, Billy was ordained into the Southern Baptist Convention, and he became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Western Springs, Illinois in 1943. In addition to becoming a pastor, Graham married Ruth Bell, a daughter of missionaries to China, that same year. Graham’s ministry started to bloom when he became the first full-time evangelist of the Youth for Christ, an organization that sought to encourage and exhort young Americans and World War II soldiers to live Christian lifestyles. During his tenure with the Youth for Christ, Graham continued to adapt his preaching style and he also did much to build on his sound reputation.

When the war was over, Graham started to preach internationally, first in England then in Europe. Large crowds gathered to hear Graham speak in Europe, however, Graham experienced even larger audiences in the United States. Soon a Christian movement swept through the country with Billy Graham at the helm of the new evangelism progress. Even though Graham toured the country three months out of every year he managed to become president of Northwestern College in Minnesota in 1948. Graham was the youngest college president in the country, and during his four years as college president he eradicated most of the college’s finance troubles as well as increasing the size of the college. Several years after leaving Northwestern College, Graham realized his passion for evangelism and he resigned from the Youth for Christ in 1952 so he could focus on worldwide ministry.

During the 1950s, Graham was determined to increase the span of his ministry, and during this decade the flourishing evangelist established a national broadcasting program (“The Hour of Decision”), formed the Billy Graham Evangelical Association (BGEA), and initiated personal relationships with presidents of the United States. “The Hour of Decision”, a radio ministry that delivered Pastor Graham’s exhorting sermons to nearly 800 stations across the United States, touched millions around the country. Graham sought to make his message applicable to his audience so as to increase his listener base. So, the evangelist spoke of national and worldwide events and affairs while applying the Scriptures to the issues relevant to his listeners.

Directly correlated to increasing his worldwide audience, Graham started relationships with prominent politicians, and one of his first political friendships was with General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Although Graham never publicly endorsed Eisenhower due to his perceived need to remain non-partisan, he served as a spiritual confidante to the up-and-coming president. Later in Graham’s ministry the evangelist befriended and counseled every U.S. president. President Obama met with Graham for a brief prayer and discussion in 2010. In addition to presidents, Graham worked alongside other ministers and prominent icons, particularly Martin Luther King, Jr.

“The Hour of Decision” continued to be a great success in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Billy Graham Evangelical Association (BGEA) became a reality due to donations and funds received through the popular radio show. Founded in the early 1950s as a non-profit organization, the BGEA’s mission was to advocate for united Christian mission with the help from every Christian denomination. Presently, the organization, headed by Billy’s son Franklin Graham and based in Minneapolis, continues its world-wide mission by publishing the magazine Decision as well as other media programs through radio, movies, and television. In addition to media outlets, the non-profit outreaches through charity and evangelizing programs such as the Rapid Response Team, My Hope, and Search for Jesus.

By the late 1960s, Graham had expanded his ministry across the globe to countries such as Great Britain, India, Korea, and throughout Africa. Remarkably, the inspiring evangelist was allowed to preach throughout hostile communist countries, particularly the U.S.S.R., China, and Poland. Several years later, due to his substantial influence and international recognition, Billy became involved with the crises in Northern Ireland and South Africa. In Ireland, the evangelist-turned-mediator attempted to alleviate the struggle between the Catholics and Protestants by having both sides understand that their faith systems were very similar. Later, Graham held conferences and rallies in South Africa in 1973 to convince citizens that Christianity and apartheid rule could not be fitted together.

Even though critics argue that Graham became too involved in politics and that his message was narrow in its scope, it is obvious that the North Carolina evangelist had enormous influence during his sixty year ministry. Not only was Graham knighted in Britain in 2001 for his service to religion and civility, but the American preacher also received illustrious awards from his home country including the Ronald Reagan Foundation Freedom Award, the Templeton Foundation Prize, and the Congressional Gold Medal. In addition, the Billy Graham Library, which commemorates the life of the renowned evangelist, opened in 2007. Graham passed away February 21, 2018 due to natural causes. On February 28, 2018, Billy Graham became the fourth ever private citizen to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda. Before he died, Billy Graham passed his duties and leadership of BGEA to his son, Franklin Graham.

Sources

“Graham, Billy.” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia. World Almanac Education Group, Inc. (2002).

“Billy Graham.” Michael Aliprandini. Billy Graham (2005):1. The Great Neck Publishing Company.

“Ministries.” The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. The official website. http://www.billygraham.org/rrt_index.asp, (accessed October 18, 2011).

Billy Graham to Lie in Honor at the U.S. Capitol.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. (2018).

As a seasoned expert in the field of religious history and influential figures, I can confidently delve into the rich tapestry of the life and career of Billy Graham, the renowned evangelist of the twentieth century. My expertise in this subject comes from an in-depth study of religious movements, evangelical history, and the intersections of faith and politics.

Billy Graham's significance in the world of evangelism is unparalleled, and the evidence of his impact is deeply woven into the fabric of history. Throughout his six-decade career, Graham displayed a remarkable ability to communicate with eloquence and simplicity, captivating audiences across the United States, Europe, and even in communist countries during the 1980s and 1990s. His charismatic style attracted thousands to his "crusades," and his influence extended to millions through his powerful messages about the Gospel and Jesus Christ.

Graham's journey from a skeptic of religion to a fully-devoted Christian in 1934, following a revival led by Mordecai Ham, is a pivotal moment that shaped his calling. His educational background, including schooling at Bob Jones University, the Florida Bible Institute, and Wheaton College, equipped him with a solid foundation in communication skills and a profound knowledge of the Bible.

In 1939, Graham was ordained into the Southern Baptist Convention, marking the beginning of his pastoral career. His marriage to Ruth Bell, a daughter of missionaries to China, further enriched his worldview and commitment to evangelism. Graham's involvement with the Youth for Christ organization, where he became the first full-time evangelist, showcased his adaptability and sound reputation.

During the post-World War II era, Graham's ministry expanded internationally, reaching England and Europe before gaining momentum in the United States. His initiatives, such as the national broadcasting program "The Hour of Decision" and the formation of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association (BGEA), played crucial roles in spreading his message. "The Hour of Decision," a radio ministry, touched millions by addressing national and worldwide events while applying Scriptures to relevant issues.

Graham's engagement with political figures, including his spiritual confidante role with General Dwight D. Eisenhower, exemplifies his influence beyond religious circles. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, "The Hour of Decision" continued to thrive, and the BGEA expanded its mission globally through various media outlets and outreach programs.

The late 1960s saw Graham preaching in diverse countries, including Great Britain, India, Korea, and Africa. Remarkably, he even preached in hostile communist countries such as the U.S.S.R., China, and Poland. His involvement in addressing conflicts in Northern Ireland and South Africa reflected his commitment to promoting understanding and unity.

Despite criticisms suggesting Graham's involvement in politics and the perceived narrowness of his message, his impact is undeniable. Recognition, including a knighthood in Britain, awards such as the Ronald Reagan Foundation Freedom Award and the Congressional Gold Medal, and the establishment of the Billy Graham Library in 2007, attests to his enduring legacy. His passing in 2018 marked the end of an era, with Billy Graham lying in honor at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on February 28, 2018.

In conclusion, Billy Graham's life and ministry serve as a testament to the profound influence of evangelical figures in shaping religious landscapes and transcending global boundaries. His legacy continues through the ongoing work of the BGEA, now led by his son Franklin Graham.

Billy Graham (1918 - 2018) - North Carolina History Project (2024)
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