By Charles A. Collins, Jr.
"The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty…” – Psalm 90:10 (ESV)
In light of the Psalmist’s observation, the death of Billy Graham on the morning of Wednesday, February 21, was not entirely surprising as he had attained the age of 99 — a matter of months shy of five score years — but for those of slightly less than my age and older it marked the passing from life’s stage of someone who had always been prominent and respected and who had preached the Gospel to more people than any other individual in the history of the church.
William Franklin Graham, Jr., was born on November 7, 1918 in Charlotte, North Carolina. While hard to imagine in light of Charlotte’s present image as a New-South metropolis, the Queen City in those days was a much smaller city of some 46,000 in his youth and he grew up on a working dairy farm, milking his father’s cows each morning and evening. The Scotch-Irish Grahams were members of Chalmers Memorial Associate Reformed Presbyterian Meeting House (a church to which the mother of Bishop John Shelby Spong — whose theology markedly differed from Graham — also had family connections) in his youth and later joined the Bible Presbyterian Church. As a teenager Graham was turned down for membership in a youth group for being “too worldly,” and at the behest of one of the workers on his father’s farm went to hear revivalist Mordecai Ham. He underwent a profound conversion at age 16 and sensed a call to preach the Gospel.
After graduation from Sharon High School Graham first attended Bob Jones College, then located in Cleveland, Tennessee. He found the college too legalistic and, Bob Jones, Sr. wasn’t terribly impressed with him either, warning him not to throw his life away and famously telling him “At best, all you could amount to would be a poor 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.” Graham later transferred to Florida Bible Institute and finally to Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology.
Far more significant than the education that he received at Wheaton was his experience in meeting the pretty daughter of a Presbyterian medical missionary to China, Ruth Bell, whom he married in 1943. Upon graduation he served briefly as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Western Springs, Illinois (along with a church that he had served while a student at Wheaton, the only two pastorates that he ever held) and then became president of Northwestern Bible College in Minneapolis — at the age of 30, he was the youngest college president in the country.
In 1949, while still president of Northwestern Bible College, Graham conducted a series of revivals in the circus tent in Los Angeles that attracted national attention, aided by newspaperman William Randolph Hearst who told his reporters to “puff Graham.” The crusade ran for eight weeks — five longer than planned — and though not the first of more than 400 that he was to conduct in more than 185 countries on six continents, it attracted national attention. His preaching was simple — he often stated that he preached the same message over and over again for 60 years — calling sinners to repent and believe on Jesus Christ.
In the spring of 1954, Billy Graham preached an extended crusade in London, England. The then-Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher participated and he attracted the attention of a young Queen Elizabeth, who met with him and invited him to preach in her private chapel. The most recent season of The Crown (an excellent series, by the way), dramatizes their meeting with her majesty’s desire to be “a simple Christian.” Their friendship lasted for the rest of his life and in 2001 he was made an honorary Knight of the British Empire. The effects of that crusade were far-reaching — Michael Baughen, who later became the bishop of Chester, described it as “divine adrenalin for a jaded church” and a number of evangelical clergy and lay leaders in the Church of England and other churches noted the profound impact of those gatherings in their lives.
Billy Graham was also a trendsetter in civil rights. While not actively participating in marches, he integrated his crusades at a time when doing so was atypical. He was also a leader in the Laussanne Covenant, which challenged Christians to world evangelization. Known as the “Pastor to Presidents,” he advised every American president from Harry Truman to Barrack Obama.
He lived more than 60 years in the public eye and managed to avoid personal or financial scandal in doing so. One of the ways in which he did so was his practice of not spending time alone with any woman except for his wife, the so-called “Billy Graham Rule” that was recently in the press when it was revealed that Vice President Mike Pence follows the same practice.
This writer never had the privilege of meeting Billy Graham but did spend the first six-and-a-half years of his life in Black Mountain, North Carolina, near Graham’s longtime residence in Montreat. Ruth Graham occasionally shopped in the Collins Department Store in Black Mountain, managed by my father and Billy Graham came into the store on at least one occasion. In the autumn of 1994 Billy Graham conducted a crusade in Atlanta and since the evangelist was then 75 years old I, in my first year at Erskine Theological Seminary, figured that it might be my last chance to see him so I headed off to Atlanta on a Wednesday afternoon after Greek class and got to see him in the Georgiadome. He would, of course, go on to live nearly another quarter century.
I give thanks for the life and monumental ministry of the Reverend Dr. Billy Graham, KBE.
The Reverend Charles A. Collins, Jr., is an Anglican priest currently serving as chaplain for a local hospice. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.