William Franklin Graham, Jr., better known as Billy Graham, was an evangelist and servant of Christ for over 70 years. The organization he founded, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, is involved in global evangelism, training, and outreach ministries. Billy Graham was born in 1918 in North Carolina and died in 2018 at 99 years old.
Billy Graham was the world’s most famous evangelist for over 60 years, carrying on the tradition of men like D. L. Moody and Billy Sunday. Graham held more than 400 crusades and evangelistic rallies in more than 185 countries and territories. It’s estimated that he preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to 215 million people. He also had a broad outreach through his radio and television shows, video and film projects, newspaper and magazine ventures, and the internet. Graham wrote 34 books, including Peace with God, Angels, and his best-selling autobiography, Just As I Am. Often called “America’s Pastor,” Graham prayed with every U. S. president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.
Billy Graham declared the gospel simply and clearly. At his last crusade in 2005, he said, “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 him by faith as Lord and Savior, and if we do, we have forgiveness of all of our sins” (from his official website).
Billy Graham married Ruth Bell in 1943, and they remained married until Ruth’s death in 2007. Billy and Ruth had five children. From all accounts, he was a loving and godly husband and father. In the mid-1940s, Graham worked with Youth for Christ and in 1947 held his first evangelistic mission, or crusade. In the late 1940s and early ‘50s, Graham became a household name in America and England as his “tent meetings” began to fill even the largest stadiums and sporting arenas.
Billy Graham was innovative in his use of mass media. Early on, he saw the value in disseminating the gospel via every means possible. He is considered one of the pioneers of radio and television evangelism. His weekly radio program Hour of Decision ran for over 50 years. He co-founded the magazine Christianity Today and published Decision magazine. He wrote books and the syndicated newspaper column “My Answer.” Later, he used the internet to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.
To maximize his outreach in each city, Graham worked with a local council of churches. Graham himself was ordained in the Southern Baptist Fellowship, but he wanted the gospel to have as large a venue as possible, so he reached across denominations. This practice brought accusations of ecumenism, but, for Graham, it was simply the best way to reach the most people. The local council helped spiritually by praying for the crusade in the weeks before Graham arrived. They also helped logistically, organizing details and raising funds for the big event. After the crusade, the various churches were committed to following up with newborn believers. Graham’s final crusade, in New York City in 2005, was sponsored by 1,400 regional churches from 82 different denominations.
Billy Graham’s crusades always drew big crowds, and the crowds always heard the gospel. Each service included music—a large choir comprised of local talent, along with well-known vocalists and instrumentalists. Each service ended with an altar call. Graham urged people to respond to the gospel by coming forward and giving their lives to Christ. The hymn “Just As I Am, Without One Plea” was the song of invitation.
Graham made a point of staying on task; that is, he wanted to focus on preaching the gospel, and, for the most part, he stayed out of politics and avoided controversies over lesser things. “There’s nothing coming out of Washington or any of those places that are going to save the world or transform men and women,” he said. “It’s Christ.”
Graham occasionally made doctrinally questionable statements, especially in his later years. As an example, on more than one occasion he seemed open to the idea that a person could be saved without faith in Jesus Christ, in clear contradiction to verses like John 14:6 and Acts 4:12. Most, if not all, of these dubious statements were later retracted or clarified. Whatever the case, they serve as a powerful reminder that no one is perfect and that ultimately our faith must rest in God and His Word, not in any human being.
Billy Graham went to be with the Lord on February 21, 2018. He left behind a legacy of faithful service to the Lord and many lives changed because of his commitment to pointing people to Jesus Christ. His grave marker contains these fitting words: “Preacher of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.”