Billy Graham has been in the news lately. He was sick and then became very weak. At the time of this recording, he seems stronger. Of course, he is 95 years old and will not be with us much longer. With his name in the news, it brings up questions about Graham’s legacy and your own life, Pastor John. Let me ask you a few things about Billy Graham. I heard somewhere that when you were a kid you were afraid Billy Graham would die. It frightened you to think of the prospect. What was that fear about?
It was immature. It was an example of “ye of little faith.” But it was real. It is strange. I can remember.
Struck with Fear
I think I was about eleven. We had a back porch, and my basketball hoop was fastened to the top of the back porch because the garage was under the porch. I can picture it now: I am standing just to the left of the basketball backboard, facing the driveway where I shot baskets, and this feeling came over me. It is really strange. I can remember this feeling came over me — a fear that Billy Graham might die. That would have been 1957 or somewhere around there.
I didn’t articulate to myself what would happen to the church or to the world, but I just had this fear that something terrible would happen to the church if Billy Graham wasn’t there for us. And I have tried to figure out why I thought that.
Defending the Bible
In those days, the 1950s, among evangelicals — I didn’t know that word from Adam at the time; I learned that word in college — there weren’t a lot of respected people who spoke for the Bible.
So the resurgence of evangelicalism that happened in the late 1940s — under Harold John Ockenga, Fuller Seminary, Gordon Seminary, Christianity Today, Billy Graham, and Wheaton College — that constellation of central evangelicalism was a newer thing on the horizon. And there weren’t a lot of people.
There were some famous TV personalities, but nobody would have thought of them as evangelical. Billy Graham just seemed to be bigger than life. He represented what we believed about the Bible. And to lose him would have been almost to see Christianity vanish off the American cultural scene.
I mean, this is a stupid, immature, little faith I had. Yet it gives you the sense — a little taste — of what a little John Piper was learning about the dangers of celebrity attention.
We ought to have heroes. We really should have heroes. And Billy Graham is still one of mine. But the danger is always there of making them too important — more important than the cause of Christ. We can somehow think that poor Jesus — poor, risen, omnipotent, all-authority-having Jesus — is going to stumble if one of our heroes stumbles or gets taken off the scene.
No one is ever indispensable to the cause of Christ. Only Christ is indispensable. I needed to learn that, and I didn’t feel that like I should have at age eleven. I feel ashamed of that, but I am glad God was merciful to me. He helps us grow up and realize he is everything, and all of his advocates in this world are important, but they are not indispensable.
Billy Graham Crusades
Did you ever go to any crusades or meet Billy Graham?
I went to the New York crusade. A lot happened when I was eleven or twelve — the summer of 1957. We went as a family. I am pretty sure it was because my father wanted to see this phenomenon up close.
My dad’s relationships were really hanging on this. That is, his relationships with very precious friends were in the balance. It was in the media everywhere, and many people were criticizing Billy Graham for it, and others were stunned at the work of God in it. My father, I think, wanted to see it.
So, I went and saw the crusade there. I was at one or two other crusades. I think I was at one in California when he came. I was in seminary at the Anaheim stadium. I can’t remember all of them. So, yes, I have been to crusades, and the first one was very moving, probably because so much was in the balance with regard to my father’s relationships.
Our First Meeting
I met Billy Graham when I was fourteen years old at Cliff Barrows’s house. I think a little background here will help.
In Greenville, South Carolina, where I grew up, there was Bob Jones University. Billy Graham went there and left, and then my dad stayed. My dad then later resigned because of the conflict with Billy Graham. There was a cluster of evangelists called WOEs — wives of the evangelists. Cliff Barrows, the song leader for Billy Graham, lived there. I went to high school with his kids. At his home every now and then, he would have these gatherings for kids and their families. Billy Graham happened to show up at one of them.
All I remember is the guy was tall. He was a giant, and I was little. I got to shake his hand, and I remembered being nervous in the presence of greatness. That was the first time.
A True Privilege
More recently, about a year ago, I was able to visit him at his home here. I say “here” because I am living down south as I record this (down near Asheville, North Carolina). What a privilege to spend fifteen or twenty minutes with a man who is remarkably humble and seems to love to give credit to others. He seems to very naturally speak of others rather than himself. He speaks most endearingly of Jesus.
That meeting really was a high point for me. If I came close to the dangers of hero worship or celebrity admiration, it would be Billy Graham. He has been there all my life long and still is even in his ill health. What a privilege it was to spend a few minutes with him.