An icon in modern Christianity is having a birthday. Dr. Billy Graham, of Montreat, North Carolina, is celebrating his 93rd. Congratulations and a warm Happy Birthday to Mr. Graham.
As a full-time evangelist, Graham has preached to more people than any other minister who has ever lived. And here I am not talking about his television audience, which at one time was vast. He did it in person, practically everywhere on earth, including Communist China and the old Communist USSR.
One of his crusades in Southeast Asia drew over 1 million people on the final night--that's one million people in one place on one night.
Graham has had the ear of kings, princes, heads of state, and a slew of American Presidents, beginning with Harry Truman and going all the way through George W. Bush. It is unknown if Barack Obama has ever sought the counsel of Mr. Graham, although the 2 have met together.
He once told Winston Churchill, face to face, that Britain would never be saved by military might alone but by the power of God as exhibited through Jesus Christ. When Churchill pressed him to explain himself, Graham proceeded to share the simple Gospel story. Graham stated that Churchill's response was this: "If ever there were any hope for the world, or for mankind, it lies in precisely what you have just described."
As a boy Graham was one of my heroes. My family, all of them, would gather around the television whenever Graham would telecast his crusades, which was usually 3 or 4 times per year. These events were so immensely popular that at one time the major networks carried them.
And when I was 5 or 6, I remember my Mother took me to hear Graham in person when he came to our hometown. I remember imitating him, emulating his mannerisms, speech patterns, and such, as children sometimes do with their heroes.
This was just the first of many such times when I would hear Graham in person.
Billy Graham was born near Charlotte, North Carolina, not far from my place of upbringing. As a teenager he and a friend went to a tent meeting being held by a famous evangelist at the time known as 'Mordecai Hamm.' The 2 had gone there to make fun of the preacher. And they did. But by the time Hamm had finished with his sermon, Graham was overwhelmed with some entirely unexpected. The evangelist had touched something deep within his soul, and he found himself 'under a heavy load of conviction,' as he later related.
When Hamm gave the invitation, Graham 'hit the sawdust trail,' as it was called back then, that is, he walked down the middle aisle of the gathering, which was covered in sawdust, and stood at the front just under the pulpit area, where, according to Graham, he publicly gave his life to Jesus Christ.
As a young man Graham found himself preparing for ministry. People were drawn to him due to his winsome personality and natural good looks. And by 1948, Graham was holding tent crusades in such sophisticated places as Los Angeles, California, which began slowly but within a week had turned into a major event drawing multi-thousands. The crusade went on for weeks on end, and crowds continued to swell night after night. It would be a major watershed event in the life of Billy Graham. He was immediately propelled onto the national stage as newspapers across the nation reported the phenomenon that had happened in Los Angeles.
Everywhere he went his crusades turned into protracted events, lasting much longer than planned in order to accommodate the massive crowds. In England, in Madison Square Garden in NYC, in Canada, and in other major, high profile venues, what was planned as 2-week crusades turned into 8 or 10-week campaigns. This, of course, made front-page news all over the world.
Graham would be so exhausted after these events that sometimes he would have to retreat to his home in the North Carolina mountains for months at a time to recuperate.
By the end of the 1990s Graham was forced to cut back on his schedule due to health issues associated with aging. But as Graham backed off, his son, Franklin, stepped up and filled in for his father as often as he could. Although not preaching much anymore, close family and associates say he is still active sharing the Gospel through the written word, in books and in articles.
For many years Graham was a member of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, where famed Southern Baptist Pastor W. A. Criswell was the Senior Minister for nearly 5 decades. Now Graham belongs to the First Baptist Church of Spartanburg, South Carolina, in the foothills of the mountains.
Unlike many well-known evangelists in the latter part of the 20th century, Graham managed to avoid scandal. He set it up that way. When he began the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, he set up a Board of Directors that made all of the decisions. Graham requested that he be placed on a salary so that there would not be any hint of impropriety. He never gave oversight to the financial records of the organization nor had any dealings whatsoever with the money that came in. All of this was handled by those chosen by the Board.
This speaks well of the organization and of Billy Graham, the man. And as for his personal life, his well-known 64-year love affair with his beloved wife, Ruth, now deceased, was such a major part of his identity that there was never even the slightest rumor that Graham had as much as looked at another woman with a wandering eye.
When the history of Christianity is rewritten for posterity, for generations to come, the name Billy Graham will most definitely be given a significant place in that history, for no other person in the modern era has come close to spreading the Gospel to as many persons as Graham.