During his last “crusade,” held in New York City in 2005, Billy Graham, America’s great pastor-evangelist, declared: “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 Christ by faith as Lord and Savior, and if we do we have forgiveness of all our sin.”
On February 21, 2018, Billy Graham passed away. He was 99 years old. In his autobiography, he had written that “the first question I am going to ask when I get to heaven is this: Why me, Lord, why did you choose me, a farm boy from North Carolina, to preach to so many people, . . . and to have a part in what You were doing in the latter half of the twentieth century?” He believed that “only God” knew the answer to that question.
He did not ask this question out of a sense of pride. Rather, he humbly wondered. After all, how could it be explained that a dairy farm boy would become a world-famous evangelist, the lead preacher in four hundred crusades? Between the years 1947–2007, Graham preached the gospel of Jesus Christ in packed stadiums and churches to more people than anyone else in human history—at least 215 million in 185 countries. He proclaimed the gospel to a million people at a crusade in South Korea. Additional millions heard his gospel message on the radio or on television and videos, or read about the gospel in his Decision Magazine or in one of his thirty-four books. What prompted many presidents of the United States, and foreign leaders such as Queen Elizabeth, to welcome his friendship and sometimes his counsel? What led Martin Luther King, Jr. to esteem Billy Graham a friend and colleague in tackling the segregationist beliefs of the Old South? King once said to Graham, “You take the stadiums, and I will take the streets.” What could account for Graham’s remarkable role in fostering better understanding among people of different faiths, reducing East-West political tensions, and encouraging religious life in communist Eastern Europe? What explains his promotion of the life of the Christian mind, which prompted him to accept the presidency of a Christian school and help launch Christianity Today in 1956? How did it happen that, following World War II, Billy Graham, along with Carl F. H. Henry, rallied dispirited Evangelicals to become an influential religious movement?
Billy Graham repeatedly and sincerely gave credit to the Lord for any good that came from his ministry. But a brief remembrance of Graham’s spiritual background and message does shed light on other factors that shaped his career. First, Billy Graham was thoroughly convinced that the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ transforms lives (Romans 1:16). At age sixteen in Charlotte, North Carolina, Graham was converted to Christ through the fiery preaching of Mordecai Ham, a Southern revivalist. Graham described his experience of being born again (John 3:1–16): “Have you ever been outdoors on a dark day when the sun suddenly bursts through the clouds? Deep inside, that’s how I felt. The next day the flowers and the leaves on the trees looked different. I was finding out for the first time the sweetness and joy of God, of being truly born again.”
In his lengthy evangelistic ministry, Graham called upon his audiences to repent of their sins, accept Christ as their Lord and Savior, and be born again. Graham reminded his audiences that everyone has sinned and is going to die some day and answer to a Holy God for those sins. He urged his audience to get right with God before it was too late. In his crusade “invitations,” he called upon them to come just as they were to Christ.
Second, Billy Graham possessed a single-minded desire to serve the Lord in ministry. One evening, while studying at a Bible School in Tampa, Florida, Graham got down on his knees by the eighteenth green of a neighboring golf course and yielded his life completely to the Lord’s service. Thereafter, he viewed himself as an “ambassador for Christ.”
Third, Billy Graham based his evangelistic preaching on the Bible’s authority. Before his famous Los Angeles Crusade of 1949, Graham experienced doubts about the authority of Holy Scripture. Up at Forest Home campground in southern California, he went into the woods and placed his Bible on a stump. He prayed and accepted by faith that the Bible is the trustworthy Word of God. Upon doing this, Graham said, “I sensed the presence and power of God as I had not sensed it in months.” Graham indicated that his commitment to the authority of Scripture constituted the “secret” of his ministry. When he entered a pulpit, he did not count on his own rhetorical skills to win people to Christ. Rather, he relied on God’s Word. As he said, citing Hebrews 4:12, God’s Word is like a sword, a hammer, and a fire which the Holy Spirit uses to open resistant hearts to the gospel of Jesus Christ. He kept open Bibles in the rooms where he lived, so that he could have easy access to Scripture during each day and at times of prayer. He took seriously the biblical admonition to pray without ceasing.
Will there ever be another Billy Graham, an evangelist so beloved worldwide and whose reputation is unsullied by sexual and financial scandals? In 1989, Graham humbly reflected upon who might be his successor: “I keep remembering the words of someone I heard years ago, ‘God buries His workmen and carries on His work.’ I do not think any of us are indispensable, whatever field of the Lord’s work we are in. . . . I am convinced that there are thousands of evangelists throughout the world that are more faithful and more capable than I am. . . . They may not be Americans, and they may not have big organizations, but they have the anointing of the Holy Spirit.”
Now Billy Graham has passed away, or as he said, “changed my address and gone into the presence of the Lord.” In doing so, he has joined the ranks of the greatest evangelical preachers, along with Dwight L. Moody, George Whitefield, and John Wesley. Rest in peace, Billy Graham. You served the Lord faithfully and upon reaching heaven’s gates, undoubtedly received the Lord’s welcoming commendation: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
John D. Woodbridge is research professor of church history and the history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.