Profile: Billy Graham

From North Carolina Farm Boy to "Evangelist to the World"

Born Nov. 7, 1918, four days before the Armistice ended World War I, William Franklin "Billy" Graham Jr. was reared on a dairy farm in Charlotte, North Carolina. Growing up on the farm during the Depression, he developed the hard work ethic that would carry him through six decades of ministering to the world.

At age 15, the young Graham made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ through the ministry of Mordecai Ham, a traveling evangelist who visited Charlotte for a series of revival meetings. Within the next ten years, Graham would graduate from Wheaton College in Illinois, marry Ruth McCue Bell, a fellow student and daughter of a missionary surgeon, and begin his ministry that would take him to the far reaches of the earth—preaching the Gospel to more people in live audiences than anyone else in history. Through his world famous "crusades" and various religious gatherings, Graham has reached some 215 million people in live audiences in more than 185 countries and territories. At the age of 86, Billy Graham held his final crusade at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, New York. More than 200,000 people were counted on a single day of the three-day Crusade.

Biblically Correct vs. Politically Correct

Taking a stand for what was biblically correct was something Graham has always strived to do—whether it was politically correct or not. In doing so, he was never offensive but merely acted as an ambassador of God's love toward all people. Graham refused to preach in South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s because the gatherings would not be racially integrated. When he finally did go to South Africa in 1973, he repeatedly told the integrated crowd, "Apartheid is sin." Graham suffered some of the sharpest criticism of his career when he took the Gospel behind the "Iron Curtain" in the 1980s. Despite attacks by many in the religious community, he emphatically stood by his belief that God led him to "go into all the world to preach the Gospel" (Mark 16:15)—including into communist countries.

Whether he was preaching to "Iron Curtain communists," remote African villagers, heads of state, or crowds of teenagers, Billy Graham's message of encouraging people to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior has never wavered. From the 1949 Los Angeles Crusade, where overflowing crowds gathered for eight weeks straight, to worldwide television audiences to the White House, where he provided spiritual counsel to every president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush, Graham delivered the same message to each person he encountered.

He also has believed strongly in the power of broadcast media. A pioneer in the use of television as a way to spread the Gospel, Billy Graham started airing a series of TV specials in 1957. 

Often, Graham, who is frequently referred to as "America's Pastor," has been called upon to provide comfort to the nation. Following the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Graham spoke words of inspiration and encouragement to the survivors and victims' families. Just days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America, Graham took the pulpit at the National Cathedral in Washington.

"...We all watched in horror as planes crashed into the steel and glass of the World Trade Center. Those majestic towers, built on solid foundations, were examples of the prosperity and creativity of America. When damaged, those buildings eventually plummeted to the ground, imploding in upon themselves. Yet, underneath the debris, is a foundation that was not destroyed....Yes, our nation has been attacked, buildings destroyed, lives lost. But now we have a choice: whether to implode and disintegrate emotionally and spiritually as a people and a nation—or, whether we choose to become stronger through all of this struggle—to rebuild on a solid foundation. And I believe that we are in the process of starting to rebuild on that foundation. That foundation is our trust in God."

In 1950, Billy Graham founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, through which he conducted his crusades as well as his radio and print ministries, including:

  • The Hour of Decision—a radio program broadcast around the world for more than 60 years
  • Crusade TV specials—broadcasts begun in 1957, reaching millions of people across the United States and Canada
  • "My Answer"—a syndicated column begun in 1952, carried by newspapers nationally and internationally
  • Decision magazine—the official publication of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and one of the largest religious periodicals in the world with a circulation of more than 450,000
  • World Wide Pictures—produced and distributed more than 125 Christian films

Billy Graham believes strongly in the power of the written word and has authored 33 books. Many of them became best sellers, including his memoirs, Just As I Am (Harper Collins, 1997), which hit three top best-seller lists in the same week and remained on The New York Times best-seller list for 18 weeks.

Among his numerous awards and honors, Graham received the Congressional Gold Medal (the highest honor Congress can bestow on a private citizen) in 1996, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (America's highest civilian honor) in 1983, the Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion in 1982, and a citation from the George Washington Carver Memorial Institute for his contributions to race relations in 1964. Billy Graham has also been regularly listed by the Gallup organization as one of the "Ten Most Admired Men in the World" (a record 60 times—including 54 consecutively—more than any other individual in history) and appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek, Life, U.S. News and World Report, Parade, and numerous other magazines. 

Ever humble of his preaching and his legacy, Graham told a Time magazine interviewer in 1993, "God will raise up different ones [evangelists] who will do it far better than me."