Billy’s other nickname, the “President’s Pastor,” is a remarkable testament to the influence that Billy has throughout his career being a minister. From former President Harry Truman to the current President Barack Obama, Billy has had the opportunity of sitting with them and ministering to them. Billy has made strong friendships with many of the presidents that he has spoken with, so much so that he was called to eulogize former President Lyndon Johnson during his funeral.
It is not so surprising for someone like Billy Graham to become very well-known throughout the international community. With his strong personality and courageous demeanor, Billy has established this extraordinary persona that has become very famous to the extent that it would be hard to find a place where people are not aware of Billy.
An Award-Winning Evangelist
Being extraordinarily famous, Billy has also received a tremendous amount of awards and recognitions throughout his life. Aside from being a recipient of at least 20 honorary degrees, Billy has also received at least 30 awards in his lifetime, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (which is the highest civilian award in the United States), the Congressional Gold Medal (which is the highest honor that the United States Congress can bestow on a civilian), and the Sylvanus Thayer Award (which is the most prestigious award that the United States Military Academy can give to a civilian).
Billy has been included in the “Who’s Who in America” since 1957, and has been named Freedom’s Foundation Distinguished Person for numerous times. Billy has repeatedly appeared on “Gallup’s List of Most Admired Men and Women” 55 times since 1955, which is more than any other individual in the world.
Aside from being a pastor, Billy is also a well-known television personality. From the very first time he appeared on television, Billy’s fame has spread and has acquired numerous media and publishing outlets that he used to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ in many parts of the world. He is also a critically acclaimed author, having written numerous bestselling books in his career.
Billy is known to be a man who puts faith into action. He does not only stand up and preach to thousands about Jesus Christ; Billy acts upon the things that he believes and preaches. Through his foundation, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Billy has been able to not only preach the gospel to billions of people, but has also been able to bring hope and love to them through various charitable efforts, such as relief programs in times of devastation and destruction, as well as numerous aid programs for families that live in parts of the world that are under poverty and lack.
One of the things that have made Billy an extraordinary person is his belief that every person is equal. It may not seem that important to us today, but during Billy’s early years in the ministry, he created quite a controversy when he spent a lot of his time fighting for the equality along with another well-known minister, Martin Luther King, Jr. In interviews made with him, Billy often explains how the gospel is for all people, no matter what skin color or race they may be. He says:
“I think it is a sin to look at another person as inferior to yourself because of race or because of ethnic background and I think the greatest thing to do is to pray that God will give you love for them and I do. As we came into today I looked at all the different colors and I thought, what a wonderful place to minister, New York City, with all these thousands of people of different colors and different backgrounds. It's a marvelous place.”
People who have heard Billy speak always remembers him as someone who fought for the equality of people. In a crusade he held many years ago, Billy spoke to a crowd of thousands and said:
“...And if you're a black man, they'll call you sometimes, an Uncle Tom, or they'll say that you've fallen for the white man's religion. Don't let anybody kid you about that. Jesus was born in that part of the world and reared in that part of the world that touches Africa, Europe, and Asia. Jesus did not have white skin like mine, nor did he have black skin like some of you. Jesus belonged to all the people. He had a brown skin.”
Another amazing trait that Billy possesses is his extraordinary humility. In all of the interviews made with him, Billy acknowledges that everything he was able to achieve in life was all because of the grace of God. Throughout his years of ministry, Billy always points people to God as the only source of change in their life. When he was being asked about the lives that were changed due to his preaching, as well as whether or not he wonders why he was chosen, Billy simply answered:
“I know the gospel has. I don't think I can change anybody's life... I always wonder why I was chosen. And I'll ask the Lord the first thing when I get to heaven. Why me? Why was I allowed to go all over the world and preach the gospel? I didn't have any talents nor abilities. I was a farm boy. All I had was a college degree, and I didn't go any further. As I look back, I feel even more unqualified--to think I sat there and talked to the President of the United States. I can only explain that God was planning it in some ways, even though I didn't understand it.”
Billy Graham was born on November 7, 1918 in Charlotte, North Carolina, to William Franklin Graham, Sr., and Morrow Coffey. His parents were strict Calvinists (a group of Christians who adhered to the teachings of the famous John Calvin), raised Billy and his sister Katherine under the teachings of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the congregation that the family attended.
Growing up in the family dairy farm under the strict and legalistic lifestyle of their faith, there was very little indication that the young Billy would someday grow up to become a voice that would shake the world through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. While Billy was obedient and honored his parents in the best way he can, he did not show much interest in joining the ministry of the church they were attending; Billy would later on explain that he found the system “too legalistic.”
Billy’s sense of equality can be traced back to his earliest years. There were several workers in the Graham family farm, and three of these families were black. During those days, racial discrimination was rampant, as the white people saw the black people as inferior to them. This, however, did not become Billy’s mindset. In spite of what other’s thought and said about the black people, Billy never distanced himself from them. He spent a lot of time playing with the kids of the black workers in their farm, and as he grew up had more friends in the black community.
Billy said this in an interview:
“My father had a dairy farm. He employed three black families and one white family and I used to play with black children. I used to eat in their homes and then when I got to be 13, 14, maybe a little bit younger, I began to see that they were different than me and then I went on, after college, I went to school in Illinois and we had black students, or African–American students, and I got acquainted with them.”
When Billy was fifteen years old, in 1933, the Prohibition in the United States ended, allowing the sale, production and transportation of alcohol to the public. In order to teach his children of the non-benefits of drinking alcoholic beverages, William Sr. forced the young Billy and his sister Katherine to drink beer until they got sick; this experience created such an aversion on the two teenagers that from that time on, they avoided alcoholic drinks and drugs for the rest of their lives.
Several experiences led Billy to grow deeper in his faith; and so, he decided to join a local youth group, but was rejected after being branded by the leaders of that group as being “too worldly.” Afterwards, Albert McMakin, a friend who worked at the Graham family farm, informed Billy of the evangelist Mordecai Ham. Intrigued by this unfamiliar persona, Billy—at 16 years old—started attending a series of revival meetings run by the famed preacher.
Although Billy was known to be a well-behaved teenager in the neighborhood, there was something about the message on sin that Mordecai Ham preached that spoke to Billy’s heart. After attending several meetings, Billy finally got convicted and decided to give his life to Jesus Christ in 1934, a day which he says was the one that changed his life forever.
When Billy graduated from Sharon High School in 1936, he enrolled at the Bob Jones College in Tennessee. Although raised up in a legalistic and strict background, Billy found the coursework and the rules in the school as “too conservative and legalistic.” During this time, Billy was listening to Charley Young, a pastor from the Eastport Bible Church. Billy’s attitude towards the school’s rules almost got him expelled, but after hearing an encouraging lecture from Bob Jones, Sr., Billy decided to take his collegiate studies more seriously. Billy recalled Bob telling him:
“At best, all you could amount to would be a poor country Baptist preacher somewhere out in the sticks.... You have a voice that pulls. God can use that voice of yours. He can use it mightily.”
The following year, in 1937, Billy transferred from the Bob Jones College to the Florida Bible Institute to study theology. It was his time in Florida Bible College that Billy claims to have received his calling. In interviews made with him, as well as in his autobiography, Billy said that God spoke to him at the eighteenth green of the Temple Terrace Golf and Country Club (which is today situated in front of the Sutton Hall of the college). After this, Billy joined a church that was aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention, and was ordained there in 1939. Billy described his calling experience in an interview:
“Later, on a golf course in Florida, I felt called to preach the gospel. And one night in the full moon and the palm trees around where our school was, I knelt down there alone. And I said, ‘Lord, I'll do what you want me to do and go where you want me to go,’ and that was another big spiritual experience for me.”
Marrying Ruth and Starting a Family
During the Second World War, Billy wanted to serve his country and join the military but he was impeded from doing so by his study and ministry. Although he had this longing and desire to be able to fight for his country, Billy felt strongly that his calling was not in the physical battlefield, but in the battlefield of the hearts and minds of people through preaching the gospel.
After graduating from the Florida Bible Institute and earning his bachelor’s degree, Billy moved to Illinois and attended Wheaton College to further pursue his studies by taking up anthropology as a major subject. Several significant things happened to Billy while he was in Wheaton. The first one was, it was in that school where Billy finally decided to accept that the Bible was indeed the infallible word of God (with the help of Henrietta Mears, a well-known preacher who was from the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood) and the next one was, it was here that Billy found his wife, Ruth McCue Bell.
Ruth was the daughter of L. Nelson Bell, a general surgeon who followed his calling to become a missionary to China. As such, Ruth spent a great deal of her childhood overseas, and it was in her teens that she began to spend more time in her own homeland.
Billy and Ruth’s love story started out like a cheesy love novel. When Billy first met Ruth, he was mesmerized by her beauty, attitude, and charm. In an interview made with Billy, he recalled the first time he met Ruth:
“I saw her walking down the road towards me and I couldn't help but stare at her as she walked. She looked at me and our eyes met and I felt that she was definitely the woman I wanted to marry.”
Eventually, the two, with their parents’ blessings, married in August 1943 after Billy graduated from Wheaton and earned his master’s degree. Billy’s love for Ruth was undeniably exceptional. So much so that he created a policy to never be alone with any woman other than Ruth—this would later on become popularized as the “Billy Graham Rule.”
Ruth bore Billy five children: Virginia (a.k.a. Gigi; born in 1945, she later on became a well-known inspirational speaker and author), Anne (born in 1948, she later headed and ran AnGel ministries), Ruth (born in 1950, later on founded and led her own organization which was named “Ruth Graham & Friends;” Ruth was also a well-known speaker and led a number of conferences in the United States and Canada), Franklin (born in 1952, later on headed the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and established the international relief organization known as the “Samaritan’s Purse”), and Nelson Edman (born in 1958, later on became a pastor and the head of East Gates Ministries International).
After graduating from Wheaton, Billy started his career as a pastor by leading the First Baptist Church in Illinois in 1943. During his time in the church, Billy helped a friend pastor named Torrey Johnson, who was having problems with his radio program due to lack of funding. Entitled “Songs in the Night,” Billy was able to save and continue the airing of the program (Billy invited the famous George Beverly Shea to become the director of radio ministry), until he left it in 1945 to pursue his pastoral career. In 1944, Billy left First Baptist Church to join Youth for Christ, an evangelical group that focused on returning soldiers and the youth in the United States.
In 1947, Billy became the youngest person to serve as a president of any United States college or university after he was appointed to be the president of Northwestern Bible College in Minnesota, at age 30. Around the same time, he was also hired as a full-time evangelist of Youth for Christ International by Charles Templeton, which made Billy the first evangelist of the organization.
Billy Begins to Deliver Sermons and becomes a Superstar-Pastor
The following year, however, Billy left Youth for Christ so he can focus on his work in Northwestern Bible College (Billy’s decision to leave was also partly caused by Charles’ insistence that Billy should get an advanced theological degree, which Billy declined because he was serving full-time at the school). Billy stayed in the school for another four years until in 1952, when he left to pursue preaching full time.
It was also in 1947 that Billy began his ministry and crusades. The first ever crusade he held was at the Civic Auditorium in Michigan in September, where around 6,000 people attended to hear him preach. This was truly an extraordinary feat, as it was rare for someone of Billy’s age and ministry background to have attracted such a large crowd of people.
However, it was not until 1949 that Billy began to attract national attention, when he was invited to preach in a revival that was held by the group called “Christ for Greater Los Angeles.” Through his heartfelt gospel sermons and charismatic personality, Billy caught the attention of a local radio personality named Stuart Hamblen. When Stuart invited Billy in his radio show, a news mogul named William Randolph Hearst was listening.
Inspired and attracted to Billy’s charisma and appeal to the youth, William urged his newspaper editors to put Billy on national. Within a few days, Billy became a national ‘superstar-pastor’ figure. The national media turned their attention to Billy’s growing crusades, which thrust Billy further into the spotlight of American radio and television.
From that moment on, it was only up for Billy and his team. As his crusades grew in number, Billy started to rent bigger facilities and go beyond the borders of the United States. A usual Billy Graham crusade would comprise of Billy preaching to the crowd (an average of no less than fifty to a hundred thousand people), then after the preaching he would invite people to come forward and accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior and Lord, accompanied by the altar call song “Just As I Am.”
Quote Against Communism
Many sociologists during that time believed that the reason behind Billy’s success was the cultural impact of his preaching against communism to the people, a topic which was at that time very in demand due to the Cold War between the western world and the Soviet Union. In an interview made with him in 1954, Billy spoke about the evils of Communism by saying:
“Either communism must die, or Christianity must die, because it is actually a battle between Christ and anti-Christ.”
Billy’s preaching of the gospel became a powerful source of hope for the American people, who were in fear of the possibility of a nuclear war. During the fifties, as the tensions between the two superpowers (United States and the Soviet Union) grew, nuclear weapons were developed more and more, which brought more dread and fear over the people who started to realize how fragile life was. It was in these moments when they found peace and comfort in their spiritual life through the crusades and religious revivals being held by Billy Graham; thus, Billy’s popularity soared all the more, enabling him to reach more people with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In 1950, in order to maintain and expand his professional ministry, Billy and his team established the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Minneapolis. The organization was Billy’s way of putting together all the activities and projects of his team under one roof, so that they can be organized in a better way. Since the founding of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, it has branched out into numerous ministries which included the radio program titled “Hour of Decision,” a syndicated newspaper column titled “My Answer” (which was distributed by Tribune Media Services), the magazine “Christianity Today” (established in 1956, with Carl Henry as its first editor), and “World Wide Pictures” to name a few.
Billy’s amazing insight and wisdom allowed him to see the vast potential of media as a means of spreading the gospel beyond the United States. Through BGEA, Billy has been able to share his crusades beyond the physical borders of space and time, and has enabled him to reach out to more and more people, which in turn have had their lives changed after hearing the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
An Influential Social Figure
One of the things that Billy started focusing on in the mid-fifties was the issue of segregation and civil rights. Initially, Billy did not pay much attention to the issue but after it began to receive national attention, Billy spent a lot of time in fighting against segregation and promoting the rights of the black people who were oppressed. In fact, Billy made friends with Martin Luther King, Jr., a famous black preacher who was also known to fight for civil rights. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was imprisoned in 1963, Billy helped his friend out by posting a bail for Martin to be released from prison. Billy was among those who attended the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. after he was assassinated.
Along with the growing international popularity that Billy was reaching came a special kind of attention that United States presidents bestowed on him. From the very first time that Billy became widely known, he was always invited to meet with whoever was sitting as president at the White House and discuss with them, thus enabling Billy to make friends with the United States presidents. From President Harry S. Truman to the current president-elect Barack Obama, Billy has always had the opportunity to sit down and discuss with the presidents any kind of matter or issue.
Billy’s first encounter with a United States president was not something that he would describe as ‘memorable.’ Although his meeting with President Harry Truman went well, things got sour for Billy after he revealed in an interview the things that he discussed with the president. President Truman went as far as calling Billy a ‘counterfeit’ for his actions, and did not maintain a friendly relationship with him. From that moment on, Billy began to treat his conversations with the presidents with discretion and confidentiality.
In spite of this negative experience, Billy did not sulk down in defeat and from that time on became a frequent visitor of the famed presidential home. Billy also began to be known as the ‘pastor to presidents,’ a title given to him by the media for developing close relationships with United States presidents, the most notable being former presidents Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton.
Billy’s friendship with the presidents allowed him to become influential in the area of politics, something that he has often been criticized upon. Some critics stated that Billy was attracted to the seat of political power due to his friendships with the presidents, but Billy has always defended this by stating that his friendship with the presidents was not so that he could exercise his influence over them, but so that he could guide them in ruling the country through the gospel. In an interview made with him many years later, Billy said:
“I was aware of the risk at all times, political risk. Politics has always been ugly to me, and yet I accept that as a fact of life. The emphasis I tried to leave was love, not ... my own love for them but that they need to have love for the people who were opposed to them.”
When Billy was later on asked about his stance on Christian conservatives getting involved in politics, he simply answered:
“I think they have every right to be involved. I'm trying to stay out of politics. And I have been queried quite a bit lately, why I don't take stands on certain issues. I just feel that my issue is the Gospel of Christ, that God loves you and that God is willing to forgive you. Put your trust in him. And I think that's my message. And if I get off on these other things it divides the audience.”
In the sixties, Billy’s popularity spread further internationally with the improvements in media technology. In fact, he was the first evangelist known to have spoken behind the Iron Curtain by conducting numerous crusades in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union. In fact, during a crusade he held in Russia one time, more than an eighth of those who attended went forward to receive Jesus as their personal savior and lord.
In the seventies, Billy firmly fought against apartheid in Africa. In fact, in spite of the many invitations for him to speak in South Africa, Billy consistently refused to go there until he was assured that the government allowed the integration of seating for all audiences—whether they be black or white. In 1973, during his first crusade in the country, Billy openly denounced apartheid and supported the abolishment of that system.
Earning a Star and Speaking at TED
Billy’s successes inspired thousands of ministers around the world to go forth and do evangelistic missions internationally to spread the good news of the gospel. When Billy learned of this, it became one of his main priorities, and started to foster evangelism by supporting numerous missionaries around the world. In 1988, Billy made his first crusade in China, which was described by his wife, Ruth, as a ‘homecoming’ experience for her, since she was born and raised there.
In 1989, Billy was honored by Hollywood and gave him a star at on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. With this, Billy became the first and only minister (who was functioning in his capacity) who received a star at the famous site.
In 1991, Billy held the largest North American crusade in the Central Park of New York City. The event was attended by an estimated number of 250,000 individuals. The following year, during a crusade at Moscow, more than a quarter of the 155,000 attendees went forward to receive Jesus Christ. In 1998, Billy had an opportunity to speak in front of scientists and philosophers when he was invited to speak at the TED conference.
After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Billy was invited to lead a prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral for the victims of the attacks as well as for the entire nation. The event was attended by thousands of people, including the then-sitting President George W. Bush and all the living former presidents. Billy has also made several appearances and led prayers in various calamities and incidents for the nation, such as the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the Festival of Hope for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Retirement from Ministry and Losing Ruth Graham to Cancer
In 2005, Billy announced his retirement from the ministry due to the decline of his health. In fact, during the crusade at Corona Park in New York City, Billy announced that it would probably be his last North American Crusade. By God’s grace though, Billy was still able to attend other conferences since then.
In June of 2007, Ruth Graham, Billy’s wife of over 60 years, died after fighting against degenerative osteoarthritis and pneumonia. A few days before her death, Billy and Ruth agreed to be buried alongside each other at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina. After being removed from life support, Ruth began to enter into a semi-coma and in June 14, finally succumbed to death.
Issues were raised as to where Ruth was to be buried (Franklin agreed to have Ruth buried at the library, but his younger brother, Ned, insisted that their mother should be buried in Asheville, North Carolina as Ruth had always spoken of how she wanted to be buried there), but were settled and Ruth was finally laid to rest at the Billy Graham Library at Charlotte.
Refusing to Succumb to Parkinson’s disease
Since the late nineties, Billy has been suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Throughout this past decade, Billy has caught a number of diseases and sicknesses (such as hydrocephalus, broken hips, bronchitis, prostate cancer and pneumonia), which led to his frequent hospitalization. The latest of these hospital visits was in August 2012, when Billy was admitted to Mission hospital in North Carolina after he was diagnosed with a pulmonary infection, which the doctors believed to be bronchitis.
And yet in spite of all these inconveniences that he is currently facing, Billy still remains faithful to God. In fact, during an interview, when Billy was asked about his importance in the world, he answered:
“I think that's the reason the Lord let me get sick quite often. Because he knocked me down to teach me about my own mortality.”
All throughout his career as a minister, Billy was often criticized for being soft in preaching the gospel, not focusing on the danger of going to hell if people did not accept. In regards to these accusations, Billy does not try to defend himself by justifying his actions. He simply answers:
“Well, they have a right to say that, and they are true to a certain extent, but I don't—that's not my calling. My calling is to preach the love of God and the forgiveness of God and the fact that he does forgive us. That's what the cross is all about, what the resurrection is all about, that's the gospel. And you can get off on all kinds of different side trends, and in my earlier ministry, I did the same, but as I got older, I guess I became more mellow and more forgiving and more loving.”
Billy Graham’s life serves as a powerful reminder of how depending on God will get you to places you would never have even imagined. His story also reminds us of how the power of believing can make your dreams come true, and get you through all the trials and tests that would come your way.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Billy Graham Evangelistic Association
- Samaritan’s Purse
- Southern Baptist Association
- The Democratic Party
Awards and Achievements
- 1957: Received the Gold Medal Award from the National Institute of Social Science
- 1962: Received the Gutenberg Award of the Chicago Bible Society
- 1964: Received the Gold Award from the George Washington Carver Memorial Institute
- 1964: Received the Speaker of the Year Award
- 1965: Received the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement
- 1965: Received the Horatio Alger Award
- 1965: Received the National Citizenship Award from the Military Chaplains Association of the U.S.A.
- 1965: Received the Wisdom Award of Honor
- 1969: Awarded the Torch of Liberty Plaque by the Anti-Defamation League
- 1969: Awarded the George Washington Honor Medal by the Freedoms Foundation
- 1969: Honored by Morality in Media for “fostering the principles of truth, taste, inspiration and love in media”
- 1971: Received the International Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews
- 1972: Received the Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Broadcasters
- 1972: Received the Franciscan International Award
- 1972: Received the Sylvanus Thayer Award
- 1974: Awarded the George Washington Honor Medal by the Freedoms Foundation
- 1976: Received the Philip Award from the Association of United Methodist Evangelists
- 1977: Received the first National Interreligious Award from the American Jewish Committee
- 1981: Received the Religious Broadcasting Hall of Fame Award
- 1982: Won the Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion
- 1983: Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian award
- 1986: Received an Award of Merit from the National Religious Broadcasters
- 1986: Received the North Carolina Award in Public Service
- 1996: Awarded the Congressional Gold Medal (along with his wife Ruth Graham)
- 1999: Inducted to the Gospel Music Hall of Fame by the Gospel Music Association
- 2000: Received the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award
- 2001: Conferred the Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire
- 1948: Honorary Doctor of Divinity from King’s College
- 1948: Honorary Doctor of Humanities form Bob Jones University
- 1950: Honorary Doctor of Laws from Houghton College
- 1956: Honorary Doctor of Letters from Wheaton College
- 1959: Honorary Doctorate from William Jewell College
- 1964: Honorary Doctor of Seminary
- 1967: Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Belmont Abbey College
- 1973: Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Jacksonville University
- 1981: Honorary Doctor of Theology from the Christian Theological Seminary
- 1981: Honorary Doctor of Theology from the Reformed Theological Academy
- 1985: Honorary Doctor of Christianity from the Dallas Baptist University
- 1996: Honorary Doctor of Divinity from the University of North Carolina