William Franklin “Billy” Graham, Jr. is an American evangelical Christian evangelist, ordained as a Southern Baptist minister, who rose to celebrity status in 1949 reaching a core constituency of middle-class, moderately conservative Protestants.
Born on November 7, 1918, in Charlotte, North Carolina, Billy Graham was preaching at an L.A. revival and was a guest on Stuart Hamblen’s radio show in 1949. The publicity made Graham a superstar and he began broadcasting his sermons globally. Though detractors have criticized Graham for being too liberal, one Time reporter dubbed him “the Pope of Protestant America.”
He held large indoor and outdoor rallies; sermons were broadcast on radio and television, some still being re-broadcast today. In his six decades of television, Graham is principally known for hosting the annual Billy Graham Crusades, which he began in 1947, until he concluded in 2005, at the time of his retirement. He also hosted the popular radio show Hour of Decision from 1950 to 1954. He repudiated segregation and, in addition to his religious aims, helped shape the worldview of fundamentalists and evangelicals, leading them to appreciate the relationship between the Bible and contemporary secular viewpoints.
Graham was a spiritual adviser to American presidents; he was particularly close to Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson (one of Graham’s closest friends) and Richard Nixon. He insisted on integration for his revivals and crusades in 1953 and invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to preach jointly at a revival in New York City in 1957. Graham bailed King out of jail in the 1960s when King was arrested in demonstrations. He was also lifelong friends with another televangelist, Robert H. Schuller, whom Graham talked into doing his own television ministry.
Graham operates a variety of media and publishing outlets. According to his staff, more than 3.2 million people have responded to the invitation at Billy Graham Crusades to “accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior”. As of 2008, Graham’s estimated lifetime audience, including radio and television broadcasts, topped 2.2 billion. Because of his crusades, Graham has preached the gospel to more people in person than anyone in the history of Christianity.
Graham has repeatedly been on Gallup’s list of most admired men and women. He has appeared on the list 55 times since 1955, more than any other individual in the world. Grant Wacker reports that by the mid-1960s, he had become the “Great Legitimator”: By then his presence conferred status on presidents, acceptability on wars, shame on racial prejudice, desirability on decency, dishonor on indecency, and prestige on civic events.
Early Life And Marriage
The November 7, 1918 born, is the eldest of four children born to Morrow (née Coffey) (1892–1981) and William Franklin Graham, Sr. (1888–1962). He grew up on a family dairy farm, near Charlotte, North Carolina, with his two younger sisters and younger brother. In 1927, when he was eight years old, the family moved about 75 yards (69 m) from their white frame house to a newly built red brick home. He was raised in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church by his parents and is of Scottish and Irish descent. Starting to read books from an early age, Graham loved to read novels for boys, especially Tarzan. Like Tarzan, he would hang on the trees, and gave the popular Tarzan yell, scaring both horses and drivers. According to his father, that yelling had led him to become a minister. In 1933, when he was fourteen, as 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.
After Graham was turned down for membership in a local youth group because he was “too worldly”, Albert McMakin, who worked on the Graham farm, persuaded him to go and see the evangelist Mordecai Ham. According to his autobiography, Graham was converted in 1934, at age 16 during a series of revival meetings in Charlotte led by this evangelist.
After graduating from Sharon High School in May 1936, Graham attended Bob Jones College, then located in Cleveland, Tennessee. After one semester, he found it too legalistic in both coursework and rules. At this time, he was influenced and inspired by Pastor Charley Young from Eastport Bible Church. He was almost expelled, but Bob Jones, Sr. warned him not to throw his life away: “At best, all you could amount to would be a poor country Baptist preacher somewhere out in the sticks…. You have a voice that pulls. God can use that voice of yours. He can use it mightily.”
In 1937, Graham transferred to the Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College of Florida). In his autobiography, Graham wrote of receiving his “calling on the 18th green of the Temple Terrace Golf and Country Club”, which is immediately in front of today’s Sutton Hall at Florida College. Reverend Billy Graham Memorial Park was established on the Hillsborough River directly east of the 18th green and across from where Graham often paddled a canoe to a small island in the river, where he would preach to the birds, alligators, and cypress stumps.
After graduating from the Florida Bible Institute with a bachelor’s in theology, Graham moved to Illinois and enrolled at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois for further spiritual training. It was during his time at Wheaton that Graham decided to accept the Bible as the infallible word of God. In Wheaton, he met his future wife, Ruth McCue Bell. Ruth was the daughter of a missionary, and lived with her family in China until she turned 17. After graduating with a degree in anthropology in 1943, Graham and Bell were married on August 13 of the same year. Ruth Graham died on June 14, 2007, at the age of 87 after about 63 years of their marriage.
Graham and his wife had five children together: Virginia Leftwich (Gigi) Graham (born 1945; an inspirational speaker and author); Anne Graham Lotz (born 1948; runs AnGeL ministries); Ruth Graham (born 1950; founder and president of Ruth Graham & Friends, leads conferences throughout the U.S. and Canada); Franklin Graham (born 1952), who serves as president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and as president and CEO of international relief organization, Samaritan’s Purse; and Nelson Edman Graham (born 1958; a pastor who runs East Gates Ministries International, which distributes Christian literature in China).
Graham has 19 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren. Notably, his grandson Tullian Tchividjian, son of Gigi, was the senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Churchin Fort Lauderdale, Florida until he was defrocked in June 2015 after admitting to an extra-marital affair. Tchividjian later filed for divorce from his wife, Kim.
While attending college, Graham became pastor of the United Gospel Tabernacle and also had other preaching engagements. Graham briefly pastored the First Baptist Church in Western Springs, Illinois, in 1943-44, before leaving to join Youth for Christ, an evangelical missionary group which spoke to returning servicemen and young people about God. In 1947, Billy Graham became president of Northwestern Schools, a group of Christian schools in Minnesota. In 1948, he resigned from Youth for Christ and focused on Northwestern Schools until 1952, when he resigned to concentrate on preaching.
It did not take long for people to identify with Billy Graham’s charismatic and heartfelt gospel sermons. In 1949, a group called “Christ for Greater Los Angeles” invited Graham to preach at their L.A. revival. When radio personality Stuart Hamblen had Graham on his radio show, word of the revival spread. The publicity filled Graham’s tents and extended the revival for an additional five weeks. At the urging of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, papers around the nation covered Graham’s revival meetings closely.
As a consequence, Graham became a Christian superstar. Sociologically it is believed that Graham’s success was directly related to the cultural climate of post-WWII America. Graham spoke out against the evils of Communism—one of the biggest fears threatening the American consciousness. In a 1954 interview Graham stated, “Either communism must die, or Christianity must die, because it is actually a battle between Christ and anti-Christ.” With the advent of nuclear weapons and the demonstrated fragility of life, people turned to spirituality for comfort, and Graham illuminated their path.
Thus, Graham helped bind together a vulnerable nation through religious revival. By glazing over the finer details of Christianity and focusing on more moderate doctrines, Graham made evangelism enticing, non-threatening, even easy—and the media made his messages accessible to the masses.
Since his ministry began in 1947, Graham conducted more than 400 crusades in 185 countries and territories on six continents. The first Billy Graham Crusade, held September 13–21, 1947, in the Civic Auditorium in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was attended by 6,000 people. Graham was 28 years old. He called them crusades, after the medieval Christian forces who conquered Jerusalem. He would rent a large venue, such as a stadium, park, or street. As the sessions became larger, he arranged a group of up to 5,000 people to sing in a choir. He would preach the gospel and invite people to come forward (a practice begun by Dwight L. Moody). Such people were called inquirers and were given the chance to speak one-on-one with a counselor, to clarify questions and pray together. The inquirers were often given a copy of the Gospel of John or a Bible study booklet. In Moscow, in 1992, one-quarter of the 155,000 people in Graham’s audience went forward at his call. During his crusades, he has frequently used the altar call song, “Just As I Am”.
Graham was offered a five-year, $1 million contract from NBC to appear on television opposite Arthur Godfrey, but he turned it down in favor of continuing his touring revivals because of his prearranged commitments. Graham had missions in London, which lasted 12 weeks, and a New York City mission in Madison Square Garden in 1957, which ran nightly for 16 weeks.
Impact and Criticism
Graham’s detractors have criticized him for being too liberal and refusing to play into partisan politics. Fundamentalists wrote him off when he condemned violence perpetrated by the anti-abortion group “Operation Rescue.” Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr has called him “simplistic,” while evangelist Bob Jones believes Graham has done “more harm to the cause of Jesus Christ than any other living man.” President Truman even went so far as to call Graham a “counterfeit.” Some anti-Semitic comments between Graham and President Nixon were also caught on tape in 1972.
However, through his long and extraordinary career, Graham has overwhelmingly been regarded in a positive light, one Time reporter calling him “the Pope of Protestant America.” Another reporter from USA Todaywrites, “He was the evangelist who did not rip off millions (Jim Bakker) or run with prostitutes (Jimmy Swaggart) or build a megachurch (Joel Osteen) or run for president (Pat Robertson) or run a Christian political lobby (Jerry Falwell).”
Graham’s integrity has encouraged millions to heed his spiritual guidance, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Bono, Muhammad Ali and United States presidents from Eisenhower to Bush. He has been rated by the Gallop organization as “One of the Ten Most Admired Men in the World” a staggering 51 times. He is regarded by contemporaries as humorous, non-judgmental, sincere, innocent and accepting.
Civil rights movement
During a 1953 rally in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Graham tore down the ropes that organizers had erected to separate the audience into racial sections. He recounted in his memoirs that he told two ushers to leave the barriers down “or you can go on and have the revival without me.” He warned a white audience, “we have been proud and thought we were better than any other race, any other people. Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to stumble into hell because of our pride.”
In 1957, Graham’s stance towards integration became more publicly shown when he allowed African American ministers Thomas Kilgore and Gardner Taylor to serve as members of his New York Crusade’s executive committee and invited the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he first met during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, to join him in the pulpit at his 16-week revival in New York City, where 2.3 million gathered at Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium, and Times Square to hear them. Graham recalled in his autobiography that during this time, he and King developed a close friendship and that he was eventually one of the few people who referred to King as “Mike,” a nickname which King asked only his closest friends to call him. Following King’s assassination in 1968, Graham mourned that America had lost “a social leader and a prophet”. In private, Graham would also advise King and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Despite their friendship, tensions between Graham and King emerged in 1958 when the sponsoring committee of a crusade which took place in San Antonio, Texas on July 25 arranged for Graham to be introduced by that state’s segregationist governor, Price Daniel. On July 23, King sent a letter to Graham and informed him that allowing Daniel to speak at a crusade which occurred the night before the state’s Democratic Primary “can well be interpreted as your endorsement of racial segregation and discrimination.” Graham’s advisor, Grady Wilson, replied to King that “even though we do not see eye to eye with him on every issue, we still love him in Christ.” Though Graham’s appearance with Daniel dashed King’s hopes of holding joint crusades with Graham in the Deep South, the two still remained friends and King told a Canadian television audience the following year that Graham had taken a “very strong stance against segregation.” Graham and King would also come to differ on the Vietnam War. After King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech denouncing U.S. intervention in Vietnam, Graham castigated him and others for their criticism of American foreign policy.
By the middle of 1960, King and Graham traveled together to the Tenth Baptist World Congress of the Baptist World Alliance. In 1963, Graham posted bail for King to be released from jail during the civil rights protests in Birmingham. Graham held integrated crusades in Birmingham, Alabama, on Easter 1964 in the aftermath of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and toured Alabama again in the wake of the violence that accompanied the first Selma to Montgomery march in 1965.
Graham’s faith prompted his maturing view of race and segregation; he told a member of the KKK that integration was necessary primarily for religious reasons: “there is no scriptural basis for segregation”, Graham argued, “The ground at the foot of the cross is level, and it touches my heart when I see whites standing shoulder to shoulder with blacks at the cross.”
Graham said that his planned retirement was because of his failing health. In August 2005, Graham appeared at the groundbreaking for his library in Charlotte, North Carolina. Then 86, he used a walker during the ceremony. On July 9, 2006, he spoke at the Metro Maryland Franklin Graham Festival, held in Baltimore, Maryland, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
In April 2010, Graham, at 91 and with substantial vision and hearing loss, made a rare public appearance at the re-dedication of the renovated Billy Graham Library.
There had been controversy over Graham’s proposed burial place; he announced in June 2007 that he and his wife would be buried alongside each other at the Billy Graham Library in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. Graham’s younger son Ned had argued with older son Franklin about whether burial at a library would be appropriate. Ruth Graham had said that she wanted to be buried not in Charlotte but in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, where she had lived for many years; Ned supported his mother’s choice. Novelist Patricia Cornwell, a family friend, also opposed burial at the library, calling it a tourist attraction. Franklin wanted his parents to be buried at the library site. At the time of Ruth Graham’s death, it was announced that they would be buried at the library site.
Graham has preached Christianity to live audiences of nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories through various meetings, including BMS World Missionand Global Mission. He has also reached hundreds of millions more through television, video, film, and webcasts.
Graham has written the following books; many have become bestsellers. In the 1970s, for instance, “The Jesus Generation sold 200,000 copies in the first two weeks after publication; Angels: God’s Secret Agents had sales of 1 million copies within 90 days after release; How to Be Born Again was said to have made publishing history with its first printing of 800,000 copies.”
- Calling Youth to Christ(1947)
- America’s Hour of Decision(1951)
- I Saw Your Sons at War(1953)
- Peace with God(1953, 1984)
- Freedom from the Seven Deadly Sins(1955)
- The Secret of Happiness(1955, 1985)
- Billy Graham Talks to Teenagers(1958)
- My Answer(1960)
- Billy Graham Answers Your Questions(1960)
- World Aflame(1965)
- The Challenge(1969)
- The Jesus Generation(1971)
- Angels: God’s Secret Agents(1975, 1985)
- How to Be Born Again(1977)
- The Holy Spirit(1978)
- Evangelist to the World(1979)
- Till Armageddon(1981)
- Approaching Hoofbeats(1983)
- A Biblical Standard for Evangelists(1984)
- Unto the Hills(1986)
- Facing Death and the Life After(1987)
- Answers to Life’s Problems(1988)
- Hope for the Troubled Heart(1991)
- Storm Warning(1992)
- Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham(1997, 2007)
- Hope for Each Day(2002)
- The Key to Personal Peace(2003)
- Living in God’s Love: The New York Crusade(2005)
- The Journey: How to Live by Faith in an Uncertain World(2006)
- Nearing Home: Life, Faith, and Finishing Well(2011)
- The Heaven Answer Book(2012)
- The Reason for My Hope: Salvation(2013)
- Where I Am: Heaven, Eternity, and Our Life Beyond the Now(2015)
See also Books By Billy Graham
Awards and honors
Graham has frequently been honored by surveys, including “Greatest Living American” and has consistently ranked among the most admired persons in the United States and the world. He has appeared most frequently on Gallup’s list of most admired people. Since 1955, Graham was recognized by Gallup a record 55 times (49 times consecutively)—more than any other individual in history.
In 1967, he was the first Protestant to receive an honorary degree from Belmont Abbey College, a Roman Catholic school.
Graham received the Big Brother of the Year Award for his work on behalf of children. He has been cited by the George Washington Carver Memorial Institute for his contributions to race relations. He has received the Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion and the Sylvanus Thayer Award for his commitment to “Duty, Honor, Country”. The “Billy Graham Children’s Health Center” in Asheville is named after and funded by Graham.
For hosting many Christian musical artists, Graham was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1999 by the Gospel Music Association. Singer Michael W. Smith is active in Billy Graham Crusades as well as Samaritan’s Purse.
In 1983 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
In 2000, former First Lady Nancy Reagan presented the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award to Graham. Graham has been a friend of the Reagans for years.
In 2001 Queen Elizabeth II awarded him an honorary knighthood.
A professorial chair is named after him at the Alabama Baptist-affiliated Samford University, the Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth. His alma materWheaton College has an archive of his papers at the Billy Graham Center. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Ministry. Graham has received 20 honorary degrees and refused at least that many more. In San Francisco, California, the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium is sometimes erroneously called the “Billy Graham Civic Auditorium” and falsely considered to be named in his honor, but it is actually named after the rock and roll promoter Bill Graham.
On May 31, 2007, the $27 million Billy Graham Library was officially dedicated in Charlotte. Former presidents Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton appeared to celebrate with Graham. A highway in Charlotte bears Graham’s name as does I-240 near Graham’s home in Asheville.
The movie Billy: The Early Years premiered in theaters officially on October 10, 2008, less than one month before Graham’s 90th birthday. Graham has yet to comment on the film, but his son, Franklin released a critical statement on August 18, 2008, noting that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association “has not collaborated with nor does it endorse the movie.” Graham’s eldest daughter Gigi, however, has praised the movie and has also been hired as a consultant to help promote the film.
- The Salvation Army’s Distinguished Service Medal
- Who’s Who in America annually since 1954
- Freedoms Foundation Distinguished Persons Award (numerous years)
- Gold Medal Award, National Institute of Social Science, New York, 1957
- Annual Gutenberg Award of the Chicago Bible Society, 1962
- Gold Award of the George Washington Carver Memorial Institute, 1964, for contribution to race relations, presented by Senator Javits (NY)
- Speaker of the Year Award, 1964
- American Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Award, 1965
- Horatio Alger Award, 1965
- National Citizenship Award by the Military Chaplains Association of the U.S.A., 1965
- Wisdom Award of Honor, 1965
- The Torch of Liberty Plaque by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, 1969
- George Washington Honor Medal from Freedoms Foundation of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, for his sermon “The Violent Society,” 1969 (also in 1974)
- Honored by Morality in Media for “fostering the principles of truth, taste, inspiration and love in media,” 1969
- International Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews, 1971
- Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Broadcasters, 1972
- Franciscan International Award, 1972
- Sylvanus Thayer Award from United States Military Academy Association of Graduates at West Point (The most prestigious award the United States Military Academy gives to a U.S. citizen), 1972
- Direct Selling Association’s Salesman of the Decade award, 1975
- Philip Award from the Association of United Methodist Evangelists, 1976
- American Jewish Committee’s First National Interreligious Award, 1977
- Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission’s Distinguished Communications Medal, 1977
- Jabotinsky Centennial Medal presented by The Jabotinsky Foundation, 1980
- Religious Broadcasting Hall of Fame award, 1981
- Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion award, 1982
- Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award,1983
- National Religious Broadcasters Award of Merit, 1986
- North Carolina Award in Public Service, 1986
- Good Housekeeping Most Admired Men Poll, 1997, No. 1 for five years in a row and 16th time in top 10
- Congressional Gold Medal (along with wife Ruth), highest honor Congress can bestow on a private citizen, 1996
- Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation Freedom Award, for monumental and lasting contributions to the cause of freedom, 2000
- Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) for his international contribution to civic and religious life over 60 years, 2001
- Many honorary degrees including University of Northwestern – St. Paul, Minnesota, where Graham was once president, named its newest campus building the Billy Graham Community Life Commons.