November 7, 1918 – February 21, 2018
From North Carolina
Served around the world
"During all my years as an evangelist, my message has always been the Gospel of Christ. It is not a Western religion, nor is it a message of one culture or political system. … It is a message of life and hope for all the world."
Billy Graham passed away February 21st, 2018 at the age of 99. His impact reverberates everywhere. The numbers are simply astounding: 215 million people make up his total audience with more than 3 million becoming born again Christians in his seven decades of ministry. His 400 crusades were given all over the world, in more than 80 countries. Taking into account the simulcasts and other rallies, that number climbs to more than 185 countries and territories.
But here’s the real punch of the story: he never tried to be anything but faithful. "I am not going to Heaven because I have preached to great crowds or read the Bible many times," he said. "I’m going to Heaven just like the thief on the cross who said in that last moment: 'Lord, remember me.'"
He was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, and grew up on his family’s dairy farm. It was in Charlotte, at a revival meeting with evangelist Mordecai Ham, that Billy decided to give his life to the Lord. He was 16 years old and his ambitions were changing. Through a series of providential events, he started college in South Carolina before moving to Florida to begin preaching. I remember growing up in Tampa and passing by the exact corner (my Mom would name it emphatically) where he started telling people about Jesus on the streets. After Florida, he moved to Illinois and graduated from Wheaton College, and, more importantly, met and married Ruth Bell. (Ruth died in 2007. They were married 64 years.)
When you read Billy Graham’s biography Just As I Am, it’s amazing to account for the next movements in his life. It involved a start in radio and the beginning of revival meetings that he’d call crusades, hearkening to the idea that Jesus’ message is on the move to bring salvation. In 1949, when Billy was only 30, Christ took the reigns in even more extraordinary ways. He had done crusades in several locations for 2 years, attracting several thousand people each night, but Los Angeles would be different. The Los Angeles crusade was scheduled to take place during a three-week period, but because of prayer, because of God’s working, and because of the growing amount of press coverage, the crusade expanded to eight weeks and reached more than 350,000 people. After Los Angeles, this growth happened time and time again throughout the years. In 1973, for example, he spoke to an estimated 3.2 million people in Seoul, South Korea, with more than 75,000 people deciding to make a decision to follow Christ.
There is so much more. He truly became America’s pastor, ministering to presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. He met with all types of people, from C.S. Lewis to Mother Teresa to Bono. He bailed Martin Luther King Jr. out of jail and he opened his stage to racial and denominational integration. He had one objective: that Christ be preached. “God proved his love on the Cross,” he said, "When Christ hung, and bled, and died, it was God saying to the world, 'I love you.'"
His refrain was "The Bible says…" He used it nearly every sentence. He understood the truth that his words didn’t hold any power. Rather, it was the Word of God that brought people to the altar of salvation, that saw into the depths of each heart and brought life. "God created man in His own image with a hunger for eternity," he said. "Man is thirsty for life."
I remember going to several Billy Graham crusades and prepping for them at church. It was an experience of God’s mighty work, not simply due to the numbers involved, but knowing that God was touching people through this simple preacher with the simple message of the Gospel. I’ll never forget those crusade nights. They refocused me, broke me down, made me see outside of my silly wants into the want of God: drawing all people to himself.