Billy Graham: a compelling life

• The reverend Billy Graham died this week
• I spent an afternoon with Billy Graham’s sister
• The canvas crusade that made Billy Graham
• Relationship with Martin Luther King
• What did Billy mean to be born again?

THE REVEREND BILLY GRAHAM DIED THIS WEEK. When I was a kid in Australia, I heard Billy preach over my Dad’s radio, and I can remember him railing at communism, as well as inviting people to come forward to receive Jesus. Moved in some mysterious way, people would come forward hundreds at a time.

My Dad was born again when I was 6 years old (he was 33). I have a clear memory of him stumbling toward the back door, leaning heavily on a neighbor. Dad was having a mental break-down, and turned to God. Many times after this, he talked to his four sons about being born again, and by the age of 26 each of us was.

When I was teaching at Oral Roberts University, and Oral’s son died tragically, Billy sent him a sympathy telegram which was read to the student body. It included the words “through the telescope of your tears”. I wish I could recall the rest of that wonderful telegram.

Billy Graham arrives at his 95th birthday party, pushed by his grandson, Edward Graham. Click to enlarge and reference source.

I MET BILLY GRAHAM’S SISTER, a gracious and personable lady, when I worked at Los Alamos Laboratories in the seventies – her husband was another scientist who worked there in the lab. The four of us, including my wife, drove up into the Jemez mountains to see the golden aspens after church one Sunday.

• He grew up on the family dairy farm near Charlotte, North Carolina, the oldest of four children, with two younger sisters and a younger brother. In 1933, when Prohibition in the United States ended, Graham’s father forced him and his sister Katherine to drink beer until they got sick, which created such an aversion that both avoided alcohol and drugs for the rest of their lives.
• Graham was turned down for membership in a local youth group because he was “too worldly”. According to his autobiography, Graham was converted in 1934 at age 16 during a series of revival meetings in Charlotte led by Mordecai Ham.
• Unlike many evangelists, he had little formal theological training. During his time at Wheaton College, Graham decided to accept the Bible as the infallible word of God.

GRAHAM HELD REVIVAL MEETINGS IN LOS ANGELES IN 1949, FOR WHICH HE ERECTED CIRCUS TENTS IN A PARKING LOT. Only 30 years old, the handsome Southern Baptist preacher raised on a dairy farm was already thinking about leaving the ministry after a series of disappointing revivals in other cities. But when movie stars showed up to hear Graham preach, he attracted national media coverage, especially in the conservative Hearst chain.

Dubbed the Canvas Cathedral, the tent would host more than 350,000 Californians who crammed nightly into the tight rows of folding chairs to hear the energetic preacher’s fiery message. The crusade ran for eight weeks – five weeks longer than planned. Graham became a national figure with heavy coverage from the wire services and national magazines. He had made it!

Billy Graham in LA in 1949 delivers a sermon to a crowd at Washington Blvd and Hill St. Photo: Los Angeles Times. Click to enlarge or to source.

• Graham was a registered member of the Democratic Party. “Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future”. [IDP comment: good advice for the present USA where strident conversations often forget that there are good Christian folks on both sides of the political spectrum].
• Graham was a spiritual adviser to several presidents; he was particularly close to Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon.

In 1957 he invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to preach jointly at a revival in New York City.
“You have courageously brought the Christian gospel to bear on the question of race,” King wrote to Graham on Aug. 31, 1957. King continued in an encouraging tone: “Your tremendous popularity, your extensive influence and your powerful message give you an opportunity in the area of human rights above almost any other person that we can point to.”

It has been reported (but I couldn’t find confirmation) that Graham bailed King out of jail in the 1960’s when he was arrested in demonstrations.

Billy Graham preaching at a 1966 crusade. Click to enlarge and to reference source.


• Graham conducted more than 400 crusades in 185 countries and territories on six continents, preaching live to 215 million people. In Moscow, in 1992, one-quarter of the 155,000 people in Graham’s audience went forward at his call to receive Jesus and be born again.

“It’s like one of those polished onyx cubes that come from Mexico,” said Michelle to my grand-daughter Kara (see HERE). “If a person is open to God and willing to believe in and follow Jesus, the onyx stone flips onto another side. You start to see things differently. You are more aware of the resources of God, and more confident in accessing those resources as you go through life.
The onyx flip represents a spiritual and psychological change,” Michelle continued, “and you are reoriented toward God.”

Onyx cube – model for born-again experience. Click to enlarge or to source.

“Jesus said the kingdom of heaven belongs to children like you, Kara, precisely because you are more transparent, more humble, and more open to the things of God.”
Michelle resumed. “The opposite is to be mentally closed to the things of God, through pride or disinterest……and then the onyx doesn’t flip”.

George Will, a conservative thinker admired and followed by many fans, critiqued Billy Graham’s life and choices this week. One of Will’s ill-chosen under-statements: “Graham’s preaching, to large rallies and broadcast audiences, gave comfort to many people and probably improved some.”

Will’s criticism has been rebuffed by Owen Strachan (see HERE). For example:
“I think of the effects of Graham’s preaching, for example, in the life of Chuck Colson. When Colson was lost and adrift following his role in Watergate, he visited a friend named Tom Phillips who had recently been converted at a Graham crusade. Phillips, a successful CEO, shared the gospel—the good news of Christ’s salvific death and life-giving resurrection for sinners—with Colson. Colson was converted soon after. A broken man, already divorced and to that point in his life chasing power, fame, and money, became new.”

This blog is a re-post, with changes and additions, of my blog from five years ago.

If you would like to receive by email each blog I write, its free. Just enter your email address where it says SUBSCRIBE TO BLOG at top right (your email is totally protected). If you decide later not to receive these blogs, you can unsubscribe with one easy click.
Please hit one of the SHARE buttons below the blog if you know someone who would be interested in this story.

The Gray Nomad ….. Help someone to hope.
Rabbi, we know that you are come from God as a Teacher; for no one can do these wonderworks, and produce the proofs that you do, unless God is with him. Jesus answered him, I assure you that unless a person is born again (anew, from above), he cannot ever experience the kingdom of God. (John, chapter 3).

God’s second call whispers to me, “You have my love, you don’t have to pay for it. And you didn’t earn it and can’t deserve it. You only have to be open to it and receive it. You only have to say yes to My love – a love beyond anything you can intellectualize or imagine.” (Brennan Manning in the Ragamuffin Gospel, chapter 9).

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Neil Palmer
Neil Palmer
6 years ago

Thanks for the informative blog. So sad to hear of the passing of Billy Graham, but what a mighty legacy! Coming from Ian’s family, I can attest to the remarkable influence of Billy’s preaching on Dad, Mum and the four boys in helping us to make our decision to follow Jesus. His 1959 crusades in Australia reached 3 million people (Australia’s population then was 12 million). The Melbourne Cricket Ground is the place where sport is normally worshipped, but the biggest crowd ever (130,000) was to hear Billy Graham preach. And the wonderful music that accompanied his meetings – a taste of heaven? Gone from this life, but never forgotten.

Mary Ann Pollock
Mary Ann Pollock
6 years ago

I love the blog about Billy Graham. I always admired him so much and he was one Preacher that I could listen to numerous times and never tire of his sermons. Thanks for all your research and writing this great blog. Keep those blogs coming.

Karen Larre
Karen Larre
6 years ago

Beautiful, Ian!

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x