His face was Hollywood handsome, his body lean like a pole-vaulter’s. His first name alone commanded the kind of instant recognition that only Elvis surpassed. But it was his singular voice—big as the Bible, yet softened at the edges, like a Carolina mountain—that made Billy Graham a thoroughly American institution. Dr. Graham he may have been to the rest of the world; at home he was always “Billy.” And when he died on February 21 at the age of ninety-nine, the entire nation paused to mark the passing of a man who gave new dignity and definition to the word “Evangelist.”
For much of his life, Billy Graham was the best-known preacher in the world. In a span of half a century he reached—in person, on the radio, and via television—an estimated 200 million people with the Gospel. Graham’s evangelical crusades took him from small town stadiums to nearly every country in the world, though he never got to preach in the one place he most fancied: the ancient coliseum in Rome. His books sold in the tens of millions, and his Biblical films and videos were seen everywhere that evangelical Christians gathered—including flights to Israel on El Al Airlines.
Fame made Billy friend to royalty, counselor to countless CEOs, and confidant of every U.S. President from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Bill Clinton—except for John F. Kennedy. JFK, the first and only Catholic in the White House, kept Graham at a distance. And for good reason. Like a great many Protestants, Graham believed a Catholic President would be beholden to the Pope. Although he wrote his friend Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy's running mate, that he was staying out of the 1960 election—he would in fact be in Switzerland during the campaign—Billy secretly convened a group of Protestant leaders and organized a campaign (in the name of preserving “religious liberty”) to get out the Protestant vote. The Washington Post penetrated the group’s secret meeting in Washington weeks later and broke the story—except for Graham’s important role in it. And Graham, still in Switzerland, allowed Norman Vincent Peale to take the fall for him, which nearly destroyed Peale’s career. JFK read the Post story and then decided to accept an invitation to address a convention of Southern Baptist clergy in Houston. The rest is history, but Kennedy never let Billy in the White House.
If the other residents of the White House used him, as they surely did, Graham used the White House to foster a kind of national piety. It was Graham who encouraged Eisenhower (his favorite President) to institute the annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast, where Billy himself often presided. And whenever a national tragedy occurred, like the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, it was usually Graham who was summoned to speak a televised healing word. Billy may have been Southern-born and Baptist-bred, but to the world he became the generic Dr. Christian.
Christians believe that in the Bible they have the word of God. But for William Franklin Graham, God was also in the voice. On the prosperous dairy farm where he grew up outside Charlotte, North Carolina, Billy’s pious family often prayed for half an hour between the end of dinner and the washing of the dishes. At sixteen, “Billy Frank” made his personal “decision for Christ” after listening to a revival preached by an itinerant Southern evangelist named Mordecai Ham. Against his own wishes, Billy’s parents sent him off to Bob Jones College in Greenville, South Carolina, where the furiously fundamentalist Dr. Jones told him, “God can use that voice of yours.” But sports were Billy’s field of dreams. After one semester, he switched to an interdenominational Bible Institute in Florida, hoping he’d be noticed by one of the major-league baseball teams that practiced in nearby Tampa.
In Florida, he fell in love, was rebuffed, and while still in agony over his rejection heard the voice of God—it was at night while Graham was wandering on a golf course—telling him to go forth and preach. In any case, preaching was what the students were expected to do. They were also trained to overlook theological differences among Protestant denominations and stick to the basics of born-again Christianity. Thus Graham was baptized not one but three times—the last time as a Southern Baptist so that he could take a part-time preaching assignment in a Southern Baptist church. After a summer peddling Fuller Brushes door to door, Billy went on to graduate from Wheaton College in Illinois, where he met and married his classmate, Ruth Bell, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries. Though still in his twenties, Billy served briefly as an Evangelical college president in Minneapolis, developed a radio program, and eventually put together a team of Gospel singers and organizers that was to become The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
For the first thirty years of preaching, Graham’s basic sermon seldom changed. He usually began with a rapid recitation of brief anecdotes—in later decades, they tended to be about his friends among the rich and famous. To these he’d add some dire statistics picked up from the media (for years he kept a UPI wire receiver in his home) illustrating how far the world had fallen and how fast the end times were approaching. Then came the Gospel message, followed by his call to the crowd to come forward and make that personal “decision for Christ” without which there was no hope of salvation. Off the page, his sermons often read like a homily from Readers’ Digest. Graham was no theologian and did not pretend to be. But with his resonant voice he could make the simplest sentence sound like sacred scripture.