Billy Graham died last week. He was 99 years old. During his lifetime of nearly a century he demonstrated influence in arenas where preachers do not usually travel. Graham preached a simple evangelical message—give your heart to Jesus, and you will be “born again.” It is likely Graham preached to more people than anyone else in history, a claim that we may not have data to prove. But who could argue?
In 1945, at age 26, he addressed 65,000 in Chicago’s Soldier Field. The 1949 crusade in Los Angeles had a cumulative attendance of 350,000. (A interesting footnote to that tent crusade, one night he preached Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” nearly word for word). In 1957, a May-to-September rally in New York had attendance of 2.4 million, including 100,000 on one night at Yankee Stadium. A five-day meeting in Seoul, South Korea, in 1973 drew 3 million.
In fact, we may think of Billy Graham when we hear the word crusade. He was likely the most well known preacher on the planet during our lifetime. I remember my parents watching him on primetime television. I remember attending a crusade in Cleveland, OH. Billy Graham made preaching part of culture unlike anyone else.
Not many preachers attain the title of knight. But Billy Graham did. He was knighted by the British ambassador in 2001. He was known to be good friends with Queen Elizabeth. Not many preachers are given a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Not many preachers serve as spiritual advisor to presidents. Graham offered counsel to all of them from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.
Upon learning of his death, the presidents began to speak. George H. W. Bush said “I think Billy touched the hearts of not only Christians, but people of all faiths, because he was such a good man. I was privileged to have him as a personal friend.” And Bill Clinton “Billy Graham lived his faith fully, and his powerful words and the conviction they carried touched countless hearts and minds.” Barack Obama stated “Billy Graham was a humble servant who prayed for so many – and who, with wisdom and grace, gave hope and guidance to generations of Americans.” Even Donald Trump chimed in “The GREAT Billy Graham is dead. There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man.”
Billy Graham was known for a strong stance on segregation. He insisted on racial integration at his crusades. He told a Mississippi audience in 1952 “there was no room for segregation at the foot of the cross.” In 1953, he personally removed the segregating ropes at a Chattanooga crusade. In 1957 he invited Martin Luther King Jr. to preach with him at a revival meeting in New York City. Later, he would post bail for King when he was arrested.
Graham simply preached the Gospel; he did not worry about intellectual challenges to the faith. His own claim was “I’m an ordinary preacher, just communicating the Gospel in the best way I know how.”
Billy Graham’s success had little to do with skill or showmanship. He preached a simple message and had influence because he believed what he said. That he believed this message is evident from a line he borrowed and adapted from another great American evangelist, D. L. Moody, “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead, Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”