A Tribute to Billy Graham at 90

One of the great fears of my life as a boy growing up in Greenville, South Carolina is that Billy Graham would die. Today he is 90 years old. Thank you, Lord, that you answered my boyish prayers. Happy birthday, Billy. Here’s to your life!

Billy Graham was born on November 7, 1918 in North Carolina. In 1934, under the preaching of evangelist Mordecai Ham, Billy was converted to Christ. Which means that Mordecai Ham is one of the most influential preachers of the 20th century.

Billy attended Bob Jones University in Cleveland, Tennessee for one year and spent three and a half years at Florida Bible Institute in Tampa. In March of 1938 he was called to preach:

One night in March, 1938, Billy Graham returned from his walk and reached the 18th green immediately before the school’s front door. “The trees were loaded with Spanish moss, and in the moonlight it was like a fairyland.” He sat on the edge of the green, looking up at the moon and stars, aware of a warm breeze from the south. The tension snapped. “I remember getting on my knees and saying, ‘God, if you want me to preach, I will do it.’ Tears streamed down my cheeks as I made this great surrender to become an ambassador for Jesus Christ.” (John Pollock, Billy Graham, 17)

In the summer vacation of 1937 he had asked Emily Cavanaugh to marry him. In May of 1938, she said no.

Billy was ordained in 1939. The first time he gave his own “altar call” he was at a little church on the Gulf Coast and there were 100 people present. Thirty-two young men and women came forward (Pollock, 22).

In the fall of 1940, he entered Wheaton College. He met Ruth Bell in the lobby of Williston Hall.

Ruth told Billy that she was unsure after all. She feared that her desire to be his wife denied a clear missionary call, unless he were bound for Tibet. “He went and prayed about the mission field, and he just had no leading whatsoever. Finally he said, ‘Well, do you think God brought us together?’ – and I had to admit I felt God had.” Billy pointed out that the husband is head of the wife: “The Lord leads me and you follow.” Ruth agreed, in faith. (Pollock, 26)

They were married August 13, 1943.

In August, 1949, his faith in the Bible was put to the test. It came to a climax at a student conference in the San Bernardino mountains of California. Charles Templeton had asked questions about the Bible’s truthfulness that Billy could not answer.

Billy went out in the forest and wandered up the mountain, praying as he walked, “Lord, what shall I do? What shall be the direction of my life?”

He had reached what he believed to be a crisis.

He saw that intellect alone could not resolve the question of authority. You must go beyond intellect. He thought of the faith used constantly in daily life: he did not know how a train or plane or car worked, but he rode them.... Was it only in things of the spirit that such faith was wrong?

“So I went back and I got my Bible, and I went out in the moonlight. And I got to a stump and put the Bible on the stump, and I knelt down, and I said, 'Oh, God; I cannot prove certain things. I cannot answer some of the questions Chuck is raising and some of the other people are raising, but I accept this book by faith as the Word of God.’” (Pollock, 53)

That next month came the decisive turning point in Billy’s global evangelism, the L. A. Crusade. Overnight he became a nationally known figure. One year later, Newsweek called him “America’s greatest living evangelist” (May 1, 1950).

He never lost the unshakable conviction that God had called him sovereignly to the work of evangelism and that he owed everything to God’s initiative.

“With all my heart as I look back on my life, [I believe] I was chosen to do this particular work [of evangelizing] as a man might have been chosen to go into East Harlem and work there, or to the slums of London like General Booth was. I believe that God in his sovereignty – I have no other answer for this – sheer sovereignty, chose me to do this work and prepared me in his own way.” (Christopher Catherwood, Five Evangelical Leaders, 234)

For all the technology he employed, he relied profoundly on the Holy Spirit in the work of evangelism.

He told students in 1964 at Harvard Divinity School… “I used to think that in evangelism I had to do it all, but now I approach evangelism with a totally different attitude. I approach it with complete relaxation. First of all, I don’t believe that any man can come to Christ unless the Holy Spirit has prepared his heart. Secondly, I don’t believe any man can come to Christ unless God drives him. My job is to proclaim the message. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to do the work, period.” (Catherwood, 230)

When it was not yet the politically correct thing to do he was an advocate for racial integration and respect.

In 1972, Graham accepted an invitation to speak in Durban and Johannesburg provided that the audiences were racially integrated. The South African government disliked this and only reluctantly agreed…. Howard Jones recalls [Martin Luther] King telling Graham, “Your crusades have done more to help race relations than anything else I know.” (Catherwood, 209)

He is famous for saying that he preached too much and studied too little.

One of my great regrets is that I have not studied enough. I wish I had studied more and preached less. People have pressured me into speaking to groups when I should have been studying and preparing. Donald Barnhouse said that if he knew the Lord was coming in three years, he would spend two of them studying and one preaching. I’m trying to make it up. (Christianity Today, September 23, 1977)

This is especially ironic in view of Pollock’s 1966 description of Billy’s habits of study:

Beyond all else Billy Graham studies the Bible, the supreme authority for his belief and action. Every day he reads five Psalms, covering the psalter in a month, and one chapter of Proverbs, the book that “shows us how to relate our own lives to our fellow men.” He reads through a Gospel each week, using commentaries and modern translations, and constantly returns to the Acts of the Apostles. He annotates throughout the Bible. “Sometimes His word makes such an impact on me that I have to put the Bible down and walk around for a few moments to catch my breath.” He learns great stretches by heart…. (Pollock, 248)

All of this was saturated with prayer. “I have so many decisions to make each day, and so many problems, that I have to pray all the time” (Pollock, 248).

Surely John Pollock is right that “Prayer and Bible reading, inextricably intertwined, are the tap roots of Billy Graham’s character and of his message” (248).

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.