Billy Graham: the world is his pulpit.
Finding William Franklin Graham, Jr., at home in Montreat, North Carolina, is an event in itself. In fact, just keeping the car on the narrow mountain road that winds up to this sequestered aerie of Billy and Ruth Graham is an adventure. The valley floor lying 3,600 feet below the front porch and the Blue Ridge Mountains rising to the few scattered morning clouds above the backyard is the perfect setting for their house, built from old log cabins. Why Billy Graham, now 67, hasn't retired to this beautiful spot is one of the world's worst-kept secrets.
"America's Choice,' a TV program that polls the public to find the ten top personalities in various categories, had chosen for two of its subjects this particular week the Scariest Movie Villain and the Best-Known Evangelist. I missed guessing the top villain by a mile (turned out to be Vincent Price, not Lon Chaney). And though I hit the No. 1 evangelist right on the button, I take no special credit. Surely other millions of listeners that night knew as well that America's leading evangelist would be Billy Graham. It was just too easy.
Only those without television, radio, newspaper, or word-of-mouth for the past 40 years could have missed. No religious crusader has carried the gospel message to more people in more lands, presented that message with more power or authority, or stirred a deeper response in his listeners. The Billy Graham Crusades have put the feet of more than a million converts on the narrow road that leads to eternal life. Of his 12 books, The Jesus Generation sold 200,000 copies in the first two weeks after publication; Angels: God's Secret Agents had sales of 1 million copies within 90 days after release; How to Be Born Again was said to have made publishing history with its first printing of 800,000 copies. In the past 30 years Billy Graham's World Wide Pictures company has made more than 130 full-length documentary and feature films with a GA (God-approved) rating. Some 200 newspapers with millions of readers carry his daily column "My Answer.' Two million subscribers await the arrival each month of Decision, the magazine he launched in 1960 that is printed in 11 editions and translated in 6 languages and in Braille. He leads the "Hour of Decision' weekly radio program, broadcast by more than 700 stations around the world. He is regularly listed as one of the "Ten Most Admired Men in the World.' He has been on the cover of Time. He receives hundreds of speaking requests every year. Political leaders have asked him to run for office, but he has always declined.
Had it been suggested to young Billy Graham in the '30s that long before age 67 he would be recognized as the world's best-known evangelist, the chances are he would have fallen off his bicycle laughing (and maybe injured the two goats and a collie that faithfully trailed behind the rear wheel). Not that his early dreams excluded his being the focus of thousands in stadiums across the country. But had these early ambitions been realized, the viewers would have been watching a professional baseball player, not a man behind a pulpit. The doctors at Mayo having recently assessed Graham's heart as that of a 30-year-old, he might today, in fact, be the oldest first baseman in the National League.
After catching baseball fever from shaking hands with the great Babe Ruth, and possibly with the thought of getting out of milking 16 cows morning and night, how did this son of a North Carolina dairyman become a switch hitter and begin belting grand slams for the Lord?
It happened this way: Graham's attention to high-school studies and his passion for reading history books (about 100 by age 14) began to diminish the Babe Ruth inspiration. It remained for a fiery Southern evangelist named Mordecai Fowler Ham to call a third strike on young Billy Graham's baseball ambitions. After holding out during several nights of revival meetings, the 16-year-old accepted Ham's invitation to "come forward.' The prayers of Billy's parents had been answered. The conversion was also to answer the prayer of the leader of Charlotte's (NC) Day of Prayer that "out of Charlotte the Lord will raise up someone to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth.'
Graham began his religious education at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, but found the atmosphere "too somber.' After one semester he left to enroll at Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College) near Tampa, where he had the Scriptures "ground into him.' He also fell in love with a fellow student, but was rejected because his intended felt he lacked "religious purpose' in his life.
The inconsolable suitor began walking a nearby golf course at night and praying for the Lord to heal his broken heart. On the 18th green one night he fell to his knees and cried out, "All right, Lord, if you want me you can have me!'
The Lord wanted him. Billy Graham began reading and digesting the sermons of many preachers. Then he would go out by night to a swamp adjoining the school and, standing on a stump, deliver the gospel to a congregation of bullfrogs, alligators, and raccoons. Though the offerings were small, his confidence grew until he finally felt up to accepting an invitation to conduct a revival at a small Baptist church in the area. The man who would one day attract an audience of more than a million at a single service was on his way.
Next stop--Wheaton College, in Illinois, where he majored in anthropology and took a postgraduate course in falling in love--this time for keeps.
Ruth McCue Bell's housemother had written of this brown-haired, hazel-eyed girl of 20: "Very attractive, beautiful to look at, and excellent taste in dress. The most beautiful Christian character of any young person I have ever known . . . She ranks very high in the qualities of poise, forcefulness, and courtesy.'
Although duly smitten, Graham despaired of his chances with Ruth because she was much admired and he "had so little to commend him.' Little did he realize that the "tender trap' even then was beginning to close. Aside from his impressive height, wavy blond hair, blue eyes, tanned skin, and neat clothes, Ruth could see, as she recalls, "a seriousness about him; there was a depth. He was a mature man; he was a man who knew God; he was a man who had a purpose, a dedication in life; he knew where he was going. He wanted to please God more than any man I'd ever met.'
Two months after their graduation in 1943, Ruth became Mrs. William Graham. In 1945 their daughter Virginia (now Mrs. Stephan Tchividjian) was born; in 1948 Anne Morrow (Mrs. Daniel Lotz); in 1950 Ruth Bell (Mrs. Ted Dienert); in 1952 William Franklin (president of Samaritan's Purse and World Medical Mission, two companion mission organizations, and recently elected to the board of directors of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association); and in 1958 Nelson Edman (currently in seminary). They would comprise the home team.
The first member of the team Billy Graham credits for much of the success of his crusades came into the fold with the takeover of a radio program on a Chicago station. George Beverly Shea, a devout young man with a voice described as a "deep molassesbarrel baritone,' still delivers the last solo song before Billy Graham's sermons. With their song leader, Cliff Barrows, they began touring the country and holding meetings wherever they could find a few small churches to sponsor them.
In 1949 the trio came to Los Angeles for what was expected to be a typical tent meeting. Instead it became the catalyst that would change a backwoods preacher into one of the most influential religious figures of his time.
Some believed the instantaneous success of the tent meetings resulted from advertising. Others held that it was the conversion of several minor celebrities. Still others gave credit to publicity from the William Randolph Hearst press. However, had anyone bothered to ask the young evangelist why the normal crowd of 3,000 a night suddenly swelled to 10,000 and the meetings were extended an extra five weeks, he would have offered this explanation:
"An older preacher who had heard my sermon one night said that I was preaching a literal Bible and holding to old-fashioned ideas of theology that were not going to be listened to. Deeply shaken, I slipped away to my cottage alone. I knelt down by the bed and wept. I opened my Bible and prayed: "Oh, God, am I wrong? Is this Your true word? Or is it what some people claim--just man-written history, myth, and poetry?' And then the greatest peace, the greatest assurance, came over me. I said, "Oh, God, I can't understand all that's in this Book. But I am going to accept this Book by faith, as Your revelation to man, Your word, Your message to the human race.''
From that moment on, Graham says, "my mind was completely made up. I have never known a moment's doubt since then. This decision gave a power and authority to my preaching that has never left me. The gospel in my hands became a hammer and a flame.'
And so Billy Graham and his two-man team all lived happily ever after? Not exactly.
True, Graham's career had caught fire. The next year, he preached to 1,757,000, with 43,700 accepting his invitation to accept Christ. Following an Atlanta meeting, however, the Atlanta Constitution ran two pictures side by side: one of Graham in the pulpit exhorting the assemblage, the other of the chief usher toting the "love offering' of $16,000. No captions were necessary.
"It was like a kick in the stomach,' Graham recalls. "We didn't know of any way of supporting our ministry except by taking the "love offering.'' At the advice of friends, he decided to form the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, run by a board of directors, to take a yearly salary, and to publish the amount.
"Half of that salary [today increased to $59,500] Graham returns to the association, along with book and movie royalties,' says George M. Wilson, Graham's business manager for 35 years.
The cash flow of the Minneapolis-based association now approaches $50 million a year. The ever-increasing international crusades born of that triumphant Los Angeles tent meeting are fast complying with the directive found in Acts 1:8: ". . . and ye shall be witnesses unto me . . . unto the uttermost part of the earth.'
Although England may not be quite the uttermost part, that country became the launching pad in 1954 for Billy Graham's rocketing world-wide ministry (currently 64 countries and counting). English newspaper headlines heralded his success: "Drama at Wembley: 10,000 Converts Surge Forward in the Rain'; "Britain's Biggest Religious Meeting of All Time'; "Church Crowds Mob Billy Graham--More Than 2 1/2 Million People in Glasgow Crusade'; "Queen Hears Billy Graham'; "A Multitude Gathers in Hyde Park.'
In 1953, NBC offered him a five-year contract, at $1 million a year, to go on television opposite Arthur Godfrey. He turned it down. He chose instead to carry the gospel to New York City, which he felt to be sorely in need of spiritual revival.
Whether in New York, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, or cities in countries trying vainly to sequester religion-starved citizens, crowds began to, and continue to, jam-pack and overflow the largest available facilities. It was overflow churches at every stop during his tour of Rumania last year. At Cradea, pews had to be removed so 4,000 could stand inside; another 25,000 were outside listening to loudspeakers. In Timisoara more than 35,000 stood for hours outside the packed Orthodox cathedral waiting to greet the evangelist. Hope Baptist Church in Arad seats 950 but managed to jam nearly 2,500 inside, with 30,000 more scattered on rooftops, on balconies, and in the streets throughout a four-block area, where loudspeakers had been hung from trees. In 1982, in a church seating only 400 in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, his audience of 1,200 had to take turns breathing. In Seoul, South Korea, more than 1 million people gathered at a single service to hear the message of Billy Graham.
"My sermons are simple, but so was Christ,' Graham says. Man is innately sinful, he teaches, but all his sins were atoned for in the moment Christ died on the cross. To find peace of heart and mind, therefore, all that is required of him is that he repent of his sins, put his trust in Christ, and work for Him thereafter in the body of His church. To the frightened, the floundering, and those clutching for a rock to cling to, this has been a message of love and hope.
A simple message, carried by a dairyman's son from North Carolina with little formal theological education, yet around the world Billy Graham is a religious figure only slightly less well-known than the Pope. He functioned in the role of unofficial White House chaplain through several successive administrations. He has been given enough awards to sink a battleship, and his honors run the gamut from Clergyman of the Year and one of the Ten Most Admired Men in the World to Greatest Living American. He has accepted more than 20 honorary degrees and refused as many more.
An eminent theologian attributes Billy Graham's impact on the 20th century to his "charismatic personality.' This implies far more than saying he is a man of great personal magnetism. Charisma, by definition, is a spiritual talent, regarded as divinely granted to a person as a token of grace and favor, giving to the recipient a supernatural power to inspire enthusiastic popular support.
Who on earth can judge Billy Graham's contribution to his millions of neighbors the world over? Of his own work, he says, "The great crowds themselves are meaningless. The thing that counts is what happens in the hearts of men. The evangelist sows the seed, and much inevitably falls upon stony ground and bears no fruit. But if only a few seeds flourish, the results are manifold. After 3 1/2 years of preaching to thousands of people, Christ could number only 120 followers at Pentecost. But those 120 changed the world.'
Billy Graham's ministry continues to alter the world for the better, yet he is modest about its results: "What good my ministry has done I'll never know until I get to heaven,' he says. "Then I may find that some obscure preacher working in a slum mission somewhere has done more to advance the kingdom of God than I.'
In the meantime, heaven can wait. Also waiting is the rocking chair on the porch of that lovely Montreat retreat. In his zealous efforts to heal the sickness that afflicts the souls of mankind, the Rev. Mr. Graham seemingly hasn't stopped long enough to realize that his age qualifies him to hit that old rocker and to begin indulging his hobbies of golf, swimming, and jogging. But when a man of 67 driven by divine inspiration has the heart of a 30-year-old --well, you're apt to find him scheduling a Billy Graham Crusade in Washington, D.C., for the last of April and the first of May . . . another crusade in Paris . . . still another in Florida . . . and then there's Amsterdam '86, a conclave of 10,000 evangelists he will lead. . . .
Photo: A Soviet congregation listens intently as Billy Graham delivers a sermon at the ornate Russian Orthodox cathedral in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.
Photo: Although past retirement age, Graham, 67, isn't ready to take full-time to his rocking chair at Montreat. As long as there are souls to be saved, he says, retirement can wait.
Photo: A closing-night crowd of 80,600 at the 1985 Anaheim Crusade (above) gives Billy Graham, with sons Ned and Franklin (left), thoughts of his 1949 Los Angeles tent meeting that drew 10,000.
Photo: "My sermons are simple, but so was Christ,' says Graham, whose words, nonetheless, have the power to fill such stadiums as Wanderers' Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa (right).
Photo: (Above) Rumanians jam-pack a church in Arad to hear the words of the American Baptist. At home in North Carolina (right), Graham relaxes with his wife, Ruth.
Photo: The evangelist accompanies emergency-relief supplies sent by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to aid an Indian village destroyed by a tidal wave.