Billy Graham died on February 21st, 2018, months short of his 100th birthday. Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Convention, called him the most influential evangelist since Apostle Paul. He preached the gospel to over 215 million people across 190 countries. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association claims that “throughout his life, Billy Graham preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to some 215 million people who attended one of his more than 400 crusades, simulcasts and evangelistic rallies in more than 185 countries and territories. He reached millions more through TV, video, film, the internet and 34 books.”
I remember my dad saying when I was a kid that only 2 people in the world could have their mail delivered to them without their addresses – the President of the United States and Billy Graham. Clearly, no one person has ever had the kind of globe-spanning reach that Billy Graham did. I’ve listened to several Billy Graham sermons on the TV, growing up, and the most compelling part of his crusade was his invitation to people to receive Christ, and his team singing ‘Just as I am without a plea’, as thousands flocked to the front of the stage.
He also came to India and conducted crusades in Bombay, Madras, Delhi and Nagaland. He preached his message to the Nagas who used to be head-hunters, but had turned to Christ when Christian missionaries brought them the gospel of forgiveness and repentance. In a different city, he recounts weeping as he witnessed a cremation where a young man pierced his father’s skull to ‘release his spirit’.
What makes Billy Graham especially remarkable was the undiluted purity of his message. He did not muddle it with fluff or affectation. Even in his very last crusade in 2005 held in New York he proclaimed “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.” An urgency to drive people toward Christ and away from judgment, delivered with clarity and compassion. His book, Peace with God, which I read in my teens, still remains, in my opinion, one of the best crystallizations of the Gospel, and apart from the Bible, the best gift to someone trying to understand God and His purpose.
One of my most poignant memories of Graham is when he comforted the nation after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. He was a spiritual counselor to Presidents since Dwight Eisenhower, right up to the current POTUS, Donald Trump. He steered clear of partisan politics and instead focused on giving Presidents spiritual advice from the Bible. His body was brought to the United States Capitol for the public to pay respects, making him only the 4th civilian in US history to be accorded such an honor. On his funeral today, in his home state of North Carolina, the gospel was preached under a tent to commemorate his revival meetings – just as in life, even in death, the name of his Lord and Savior was glorified.
Only at his death, did I grasp the import of his ministry. He was a staunch opponent of segregation. He insisted at his rallies that the ropes separating whites and blacks be removed. This is at a time when denouncing racism was not popular, and even before the US Supreme Court banned racial discrimination. He refused to speak in South Africa to segregated audiences, and went there only after integration occurred. In a meeting in Johannesburg in 1973, Graham said, “Christ belongs to all people. He belongs to the whole world.…I reject any creed based on hate…Christianity is not a white man’s religion, and don’t let anybody ever tell you that it’s white or black.”
Billy Graham was a close friend of Dr Martin Luther King’s and bailed him from jail. Although people forget today, MLK Jr was Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and central to his peaceful agitation was that racism was a sin in God’s sight for human beings created in the image of God.
It’s also heartening to read that all of Graham’s 5 children and several grand children are firmly rooted in the ministry today. There were personal failures and struggles with faith that several of them experienced, but God was faithful in answering the tearful prayers of their parents, Ruth and Billy Graham and honoring the godly example they set for their children. It’s a testament to the power and influence that righteous parents wield over the lives of their children.
Lastly, no tribute to Billy Graham is complete without an ode to his humility. Unlike the title-hoarding common today, he did not like being referred to as ‘Doctor’ since it was an honorary degree, and he hadn’t earned it at an institute. The best witnesses of a man’s character are his spouse and children, and his testify that the Billy Graham who thundered from a pulpit, was the same person they saw at home, a gentle and loving father – wholeheartedly devoted to Christ, passionately loving to his wife, a role model to his children, and unflinching until his last breath to the cause much greater than him. An era came to a close with his death. He’s said to have been planning his funeral in advance, so that the Gospel would be heard by many – fittingly a leading newspaper put it as ‘Billy Graham Holds One Last Crusade – His Funeral’.