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Billy Graham (1918 - )

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, now ninety-two, has 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).

By Jonathan Martin, North Carolina History Project


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Timeline: 1916-1945 , 1946-1990 , 1990-present
Region: Piedmont Plateau , Statewide

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