William Franklin Graham, Jr.—known to the world as Billy—was born November 7, 1918, on his parent’s dairy farm near Charlotte, North Carolina. But it was his second birth that compelled Billy to take the Gospel to the world.
Only a few days from his 16th birthday in 1934, salvation came to Billy like a bolt from the blue during a revival meeting featuring an old-style Baptist preacher, Mordecai Ham. The evangelist’s message was loud, animated and blunt.
A friend who was with Billy the night of his conversion told a writer that at a crucial moment in the service, Ham pointed a finger at Billy and bellowed, “You’re a sinner!” The gangly country boy was so stunned by the truth of it that he confessed Jesus as his Savior moments later.
Here are a few other glimpses of big decisions and events that followed:
• 1935. Like an explorer in search of an unknown world, Billy took time to gain his footing and direction. There was a false start in 1935 at Bob Jones College, a fundamentalist school where Billy found the stringent rules of conduct oppressive. According to biographers, when he decided to transfer to a Florida Bible school, college founder Jones told him, “If you’re a misfit at Bob Jones College, you’ll be a misfit anywhere, Billy. You leave and throw away your life at a little country school like that down there, chances are you’ll never be heard from again. Best you’ll ever amount to is a poor country preacher somewhere out in the sticks.”
• 1948. After 10 years of preaching, Graham’s evangelistic career was growing. Not yet a national figure, he had already seen many other evangelists who lost their way because of sin. With the help of his staff, he established principles of conduct aimed at keeping him and his organization free of scandal and personal failure. Among his pledges, he promised:
1. To operate with integrity and openness in all his financial dealings.
2. To guard against even the appearance of sexual sin. He promised he would never be alone with a woman other than his wife.
3. To avoid pride by giving honest attendance figures for his crusades.
Billy kept the commitments through decades of ministry.
• 1949. While on a mountain retreat with other young Christian leaders, Billy was secretly struggling with doubts about the inspiration of the Bible. He headed into the woods alone, and after earnest prayer made a commitment to embrace the Bible by faith as the Word of God.
A month after settling his doubts, Billy launched a major crusade in Los Angeles. It was the turning point for his ministry. The crusade tent was filled with thousands for each service and the altars were full. Life magazine took notice, telling the nation about him in “A Rising Young Evangelist.” Among those who heard the Gospel from Billy were entertainers, athletes and even a prominent mobster of the day.
• 1950. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) was founded as the vehicle for sharing the Gospel with the world. Billy built a team that has evangelized through national and international crusades, radio, television, movies, books, magazines, mass mailings and the Internet.
• 1953. Though the major events of the Civil Rights Movement were still to come, Billy made a decision in 1953: He would no longer preach in front of segregated crowds. Billy said, “When God looks at you, He doesn’t see the outward appearance; the Bible says He looks upon the heart.”
• 1954. Though critics doubted the British would show much interest in a young American preacher, “The Greater London Crusade” became the biggest evangelistic venture of the 20th century in England. Nightly meetings were held in a dog-racing stadium called Harringay Arena, and there were also events at Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square and at some American military installations near London. More than 187,000 people attended the final day of services.
• 1957. Back at home, Billy took on another challenging city when the crusade moved into New York City for 100 meetings in a 16-week crusade. Again, the houses were packed, including events in Yankee Stadium, Harlem and, on the final day, Times Square.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the opening prayer at one of the New York City meetings. Though they approached their work with different tactics, their friendship and mutual admiration was genuine.
• 1969. It’s well known that Billy spent private moments with every American president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, and was famously close to Richard Nixon. Billy played an important role in reigniting the spiritual life of Dwight D. Eisenhower, leading Ike to join a Presbyterian church where he worshipped while in office. Shortly before Eisenhower’s death in 1969, Billy visited him at the hospital. According to the president’s grandson, David Eisenhower, the former president and Billy talked about the plan of salvation, as they had many years before. Eisenhower listened and then replied, “I’m ready.” And soon he was gone.
• 1975. After producing a long string of movies intended for showings at churches, World Wide Pictures, the movie arm of the BGEA, released a major motion picture, The Hiding Place. The story was based on the life of Corrie ten Boom, who Billy once called “one of the great Christian heroines of the century.” During World War II, ten Boom and her family made their home a hiding place for Jews as they tried to escape the Nazi Holocaust. When the ten Boom family was caught, Corrie was imprisoned in a concentration camp and lost most of her family.
• 1982. Without fanfare, Billy visited the Soviet Union as a tourist in 1959. Back home he was known as a staunch anti-communist. Of the Russians, he had said, “The devil is their god.” But quietly, he developed contacts and slowly pushed for more than 20 years to get approval for a public crusade in Moscow.
In 1982, the Cold War was heating up and President Ronald Reagan was about to place more missiles in Europe. The door cracked open for Billy as he was invited to speak at a conference on religion in Moscow. He accepted, though criticized from many directions—the press, academia, other Christian leaders. Their complaints were largely silenced when Billy was invited back to the USSR in 1984 and 1992 for evangelistic campaigns that drew many thousands.
As Billy said, “I intend to go anywhere, sponsored by anybody, to preach the Gospel of Christ, if there are no strings attached to my message.”
• 1991. More than 250,000 people gathered in New York City’s Central Park at Billy’s largest crusade service ever in North America. With help from 900 churches representing 40 denominations, Billy was a hit with the city. Even the New York Times agreed, calling Billy the “elder statesman of evangelism” who brought a message of love and redemption to the Big Apple.
After preaching a message rooted in John 3:16, Billy pointed to the faces in the crowd and repeatedly called out “God loves you! God loves you! God loves you!”
• 2005. Billy returned to New York again for the last crusade of his career. There would be other events, but they would include a Billy who was slowly stepping back as his son, Franklin, took on more and more of the preaching.
• 2013. “My Hope with Billy Graham,” another great evangelistic effort will take place in November, the month he turns 95. He is asking Christians across the nation to invite friends, neighbors, coworkers and others who do not know Christ as their Savior to come into their homes or churches to watch a video message he has recorded for the event.
Billy says, “I have had the privilege of preaching the Gospel on every continent … and I have found that when I present the simple message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, with authority, quoting from the very Word of God—He takes that message and drives it supernaturally into the human heart.”
To find out more about My Hope and how you can get involved, go to myhopewithbillygraham.org.
By the Numbers
Here are statistical snapshots from Billy Graham’s six-decade crusade career.
City: Los Angeles, California
Duration: Eight weeks September to November 1949
Main tent: 150×480 feet with a capacity of 9,000
Total Attendance: 350,000 unique visitors
Professions of Faith: 3,000
City: Seoul, South Korea
Duration: 5 days in 1973
Attendance last service: 1.1 million
Total attendance: 3.2 million
Professions of Faith: 75,000
TOTAL CRUSADE STATS
Duration: 58 years
Total attendance: 215 million, plus video audience
Professions of Faith: 3,200,000
Photographs Courtesy of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association