Rob Buckingham's Blog

A Tribute to Billy Graham

Billy Graham is the most well-known Christian of the last century.  He was a household name, known even to me in my atheist days, although I didn’t give him much thought.  But, since my conversion is 1977, I have had tremendous respect for him and all he achieved in spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.  He passed away last week aged 99.

At his final Crusade at Flushing Meadows, New York (June 2005) Billy Graham said, “I have one message: that Jesus Christ came, he died on a cross, he rose again, and he asked us to repent of our sins and receive him by faith as Lord and Saviour, and if we do, we have forgiveness of all of our sins.”  It was the same message he proclaimed to the 215 million people who attended one of his more than 400 rallies, simulcasts and evangelistic meetings in more than 185 countries on six continents.  He reached millions more through TV, video, film, online and in the 34 books he wrote.

Billy Graham was born four days before the end of World War I – 7 November 1918.  He grew up during the depression and, like many of his generation, developed character through difficult times that would stand him in good stead through a life of Christian ministry.

Even though his family was Christian, young Billy didn’t share their enthusiasm for the faith: “I detested going to church,” he said when recalling his youth.  However, a few weeks before his 16th birthday, Dr Mordecai Ham, a travelling evangelist, was invited to conduct a few weeks of revival meetings in Charlotte, North Carolina where the Graham family lived.  Billy refused to go and hear Dr Ham until a friend finally convinced him.  To avoid the preacher’s direct gaze and fiery words, Billy and his friend, Grady Wilson, joined the choir so they could sit behind him (even though neither of them could sing in tune).

It was the message of God’s love that finally drew Billy Graham to Jesus.  On one night, Dr Ham’s text was Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Billy responded to the appeal to accept Christ later writing, “I walked down to the front, feeling as if I had lead weights attached to my feet.”  A family friend came and stood beside him, explained God’s plan of salvation, and led him in prayer.  He said, “No bells went off inside me. No signs flashed across the tabernacle ceiling … I simply felt at peace … happy and peaceful.”  This entire experience would later shape the way he conducted his own evangelistic rallies with a message of God’s love.

A few years later Billy Graham studied at the Florida Bible Institute, and later, Wheaton College in Chicago, where he met fellow student Ruth McCue Bell, the daughter of medical missionaries in China. The couple graduated and married in the summer of 1943.  Mr. and Mrs. Graham and their five children made their home in the mountains of North Carolina.  They were married for 64 years before Ruth’s death in 2007.

After two years of traveling as a speaker for the Youth for Christ organization, Billy Graham held his first official evangelistic Crusade in 1947; but it was his 1949 Los Angeles Crusade that captured the nation’s attention.  Originally scheduled to run for three weeks, the “tent meetings” ran for a total of eight weeks as hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children gathered to hear Graham’s messages.  On the heels of this campaign, Graham started the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.  Since 2000, Graham’s son, Franklin, has led the Charlotte-based organisation, which employs some 500 people worldwide. [1]

His largest live audience was in 1973 when he addressed more than one million people crowded into Yoido Plaza in Seoul, South Korea.  In the same year, preaching in Johannesburg, Graham said, “Christ belongs to all people. He belongs to the whole world … I reject any creed based on hate … Christianity is not a white man’s religion, and don’t let anybody ever tell you that it’s white or black.”  He also denounced racism in the United States when desegregation was not popular, holding desegregated crusades, even in the Deep South, well before the U.S. Supreme Court banned discrimination on a racial basis.  In 1977 communist-led Hungary opened doors for Graham to conduct preaching missions in virtually every country of the former Eastern Bloc (including the Soviet Union), as well as China and North Korea.  More than 3.3 million people attended one of his meetings in person during his 1959 crusades in Australia and New Zealand.  Over 140,000 people responded to an invitation to the Christian Gospel.  The impact of those meetings continues in Melbourne’s Churches today, including Bayside Church.

At three global conferences held in Amsterdam (1983, 1986, 2000), Graham gathered some 23,000 evangelists from 208 countries and territories to train them to carry the message of Jesus Christ around the world.

In 1996, Graham and his wife, Ruth, received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award Congress can bestow on a private citizen. He was also listed by Gallup as one of the “Ten Most Admired Men” 61 times.  During the week of his 95th birthday in 2013, Graham delivered his final message via more than 480 television stations across the U.S. and Canada.  More than 26,000 churches participated in this My Hope project, making it the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s largest evangelistic outreach ever in North America.

Billy Graham, like all of us, made plenty of mistakes.  His biggest, he would later admit, was endorsing Richard Nixon for President.  In 2011, Billy Graham told Christianity Today that he wishes he hadn’t been so political during parts of his career.  Church leaders and pastors would do well to heed this and refrain from aligning themselves politically.

A “private” funeral, with 2,300 guests, is being held tomorrow (March 2nd) at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina.  The service will be livestreamed. [2]  Billy Graham will then be laid to rest beside his late wife, Ruth.  The inscription to be placed on his grave marker states, “Preacher of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

“There were a few times when I thought I was dying, and I saw my whole life come before me …” said Graham at his Cincinnati Crusade on June 24, 2002.  “I didn’t say to the Lord, ‘I’m a preacher, and I’ve preached to many people.’ I said, ‘Oh Lord, I’m a sinner, and I still need Your forgiveness. I still need the cross.’ And I asked the Lord to give me peace in my heart, and He did – a wonderful peace that hasn’t left me.”

Billy Graham is survived by his sister Jean Ford; daughters Gigi, Anne and Ruth; sons Franklin and Ned; 19 grandchildren; and numerous great-grandchildren.  One of his most famous sayings was, “When they say ‘Billy is dead,’ you tell them he is more alive than ever. He has just changed his address!'”  I’m looking forward to sharing that address with him in the future.  How about you?





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