By Steve DuPlessie | February 23, 2018
I want to take a moment to recognize the crossing over to glory this week of Billy Graham at 99 years old. His nephew said in a TV interview that the family isn’t mourning the death because his uncle Billy is now at home with the two people he loves most, Jesus and his late wife, Ruth.
Billy gave his life to Jesus when he was 16 at a tent revival meeting led by evangelist Mordaccai Ham. He preached his first sermon at 19, graduated from Wheaton College and married Ruth Bell, the daughter of missionaries in China. After a short stint as a pastor and then president of a small Christian college, Billy began preaching full time as a traveling evangelist for Youth For Christ. That set the stage for launching his own evangelistic crusades in the middle of the post-war optimism of the 1940s.
I remember going as a kid to the Billy Graham crusade in Providence in 1964 with my parents. I remember the huge crowd, a choir of hundreds, and Billy Graham boldly preaching the gospel. I don’t recall the scripture text or the theme of his message that night except that he kept saying, “The Bible says…” in his North Carolina drawl. And when he called people to “Make a decision for Jesus” as the choir sang multiple verses of Just As I Am, hundreds of people responded.
Billy launched the Hour of Decision radio program in 1950 pioneering what is now a prolific Evangelical presence in broadcast media. In 1956 he launched an influential monthly magazine, Christianity Today, that serves as a strong voice of Orthodox gospel-centered evangelicalism today. And he co-founded my alma mater, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, north of Boston, in 1969.
But Graham is best remembered for his 417 evangelistic crusades. From the first crusade in circus tents with 6,000 attendees in Grand Rapids Michigan in September of 1947, to the final crusade with hundreds of thousands of people in New York City in 2005, Billy faithfully preached the gospel night after night. He insisted on integrating his crusades in the 1950s, before the tide of Civil Rights swept the nation. Over 58 years, Billy Graham reached more than 210 million people in over 185 countries and territories on six continents.
Billy was criticized by conservative fundamentalists for inviting Roman Catholic bishops to sit on the stage with him as he preached the gospel and for visiting Communist countries during the Cold War era. But he was happy to have Catholic bishops and Communist dictators sit on the platform behind him as long as he was free to preach Jesus Christ as the Savior of sinners.
The longest of Graham’s evangelistic crusades took place in New York City in Madison Square Garden in 1957, which lasted every night for 16 weeks. In the largest single audience in the history of his ministry, 1.1 million people assembled at Yoido Plaza in Seoul in South Korea in 1973. In Moscow, in 1992, one-quarter of the 155,000 people in the audience went forward at Billy’s call to stand up and come forward to accept Jesus as their Savior.
In 2008 his staff estimated that Billy had spoken to more than 2.2 billion people in person, by radio, TV, or video. They estimate that 3.2 million people trusted Jesus as their savior at a Billy Graham Crusade.
He met personally and prayed with every US President from Harry Truman to Barrack Obama. He trained thousands of evangelists and counselors. He authored 33 books. And throughout decades of close media scrutiny, he set a high standard for unquestioned personal integrity; he famously established the Graham Rule of never being alone with a woman who was not his wife, not even in an elevator or a taxi cab.
Billy wasn’t perfect. He loved the spotlight and used the media well to advance his cause. He allowed politicians to use his presence for their advantage. He said things in the Oval Office with Richard Nixon that were ungracious in context and vile when taken out of context. Yet he lived a relatively simple and quiet life in spite of his international prestige.
In the end, there are millions who heard the gospel – many for the first time – from Billy Graham, and unknown tens-of-thousands who will be in heaven because of his single-focus on preaching the good news that Jesus loves sinners and died to save them. His voice and influence will be missed. Pray that God will raise up more women and men like him who will proclaim Jesus without fear or apology, women and men who keep Jesus and the gospel central to what they are all about.