Church history: Billy Graham: Evangelist to the World

My one purpose in life is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which, I believe, comes through knowing Christ. —Billy Graham

Graham’s evangelistic tours in America and around the world awakened many people to the need for a spiritual rebirth and a personal relationship with Jesus. It is estimated that some three million people responded to Graham’s offer at the end of his campaign sermons to come forward and accept Christ. Graham reached countless other millions with the gospel of Christ through television specials, satellite crusades, radio ministries, motion pictures, a literature ministry, and the books he wrote. Training ministries and seminars have equipped thousands of grass-roots evangelists in large-scale and one-on-one evangelism.

Graham met with the pope, the queen, several prime ministers and kings and celebrities. He met every U.S. president from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama. Graham has often been called on to serve as “America’s pastor,” helping to inaugurate or bury a president or otherwise lend a public voice of assurance in times of tragedy or crisis.

Early life and education

William Franklin (“Billy”) Graham, Jr. was born November 7, 1918, near Charlotte, North Carolina, the eldest of four children. His parents regularly attended the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church with the children. While attending revival meetings in Charlotte at age 16, Graham experienced conversion, committing his life to Christ. He changed his denominational affiliation to the Southern Baptist Convention in 1938 and was ordained the next year as a Baptist minister in the St. John’s River Association.

From 1936 through 1943, Graham attended three different Christian colleges. He stayed at the ultraconservative Bob Jones College in Tennessee for only a few months, graduated from the Florida Bible Institute in 1940 with a Bachelor of Theology degree and from Wheaton College in Illinois in 1943 with a B.A. in anthropology.

At Wheaton he courted fellow student Ruth Bell. The couple married on August 13, 1943. After graduation, Graham served for a little over a year as the pastor of a Baptist church in the Chicago suburb of Western Springs.1 In 1945 Graham became the field representative of a dynamic evangelistic movement, Youth for Christ International. For the next four years, Graham traveled throughout the United States, Canada and Europe speaking at rallies and organizing YFC chapters.

Evangelistic missions

Graham gained sudden national attention in 1949 with a seven-week tent revival campaign in downtown Los Angeles attended by 350,000. Graham said of the Los Angeles tent campaign: “Overnight we had gone from being a little evangelistic team…to what appeared to many to be the hope for national and international revival.”2

In part, Graham gained national attention because newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst instructed his newspapers across the country to “puff Graham.” Other newspapers and the Associated Press also picked up the story of his evangelistic rally. Newsreels of the  campaign began to appear in theaters.

Graham launched his worldwide ministry with his 1954 London campaign, supported by a thousand churches in the greater metropolitan area. More than two million people heard Graham speak during his three-month-long series of sermons, and thousands came to Christ. The outstanding success of the Greater London Crusade3 helped establish the validity and scope of Graham’s international ministry.

Graham’s successful 1957 New York City evangelistic campaign established him as the acknowledged standard-bearer for evangelical Christianity. At the 16-week rally in New York City, almost 2.4 million people packed Madison Square Garden and other venues and events to hear the young preacher. It is estimated that 96 million people saw at least one of the Madison Square Garden meetings on television. “That experience showed us that God was opening the door to a new medium for the furtherance of the Gospel,” said Graham.4

Those are but three examples of hundreds of evangelistic campaigns through the decades that Graham has organized and led. He has preached the gospel to more people in more nations and territories before live audiences than anyone else in history — more than 210 million people in over 185 nations.

Creating a sure footing for evangelism

As Graham’s fame increased, so did criticism of his evangelistic style. Some branded him a real-life “Elmer Gantry” preacher, after the 1925 Sinclair Lewis novel and 1960 film about a salesman who teams up with a female evangelist to sell religion to America in the 1920s. To counter such complaints he knew were sure to come, early on in 1948, Graham and his associates created “The Modesto Manifesto.” They determined to avoid behavior that failed to reflect Christian values and gave evangelists a bad name.

The Manifesto dealt with the problem of evangelists falling into the trap of seeking financial self-enrichment and indulging in sexual immorality. Adherence to strict ethical standards allowed Graham to remain untouched by the sensational financial and sexual scandals that embroiled prominent television preachers during the 1980s.

Fundamentalists would accuse Graham of corrupting the gospel message by accepting help and support from mainline Protestant denominations and liberal Christian clergy. Despite the criticism, he was determined to seek a broad base of ecumenical support for his evangelistic campaigns. Graham once said, “I intend to go anywhere, sponsored by anybody, to preach the gospel of Christ, if there are no strings attached to my message.”5

To enable his ministry to run on an orderly, businesslike basis, Graham, his wife and a number of key people in his ministry incorporated as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in 1950.

The role of the BGEA

The heart of the BGEA program was the mass evangelistic mission events that Graham led with fellow evangelists and in partnership with churches around the world. They are now chiefly conducted by his son, William Franklin Graham III, who has stepped into his father’s shoes as president of BGEA (since 2001).

Graham’s evangelistic campaigns have always been meticulously planned and organized down to practical details such as recruiting choir members, ushers and counselors. The BGEA sends out teams of workers to assist communities planning to hold evangelistic meetings. The organization holds rallies only where they have been invited by a large number of local
pastors and churches.

People coming forward to accept Christ at the evangelist’s service-ending invitation meet with volunteer counselors, who refer them to participating pastors in their community. BGEA’s follow-up programs have proved successful. According to surveys, 70-80 percent of those converted at evangelistic missions remain committed Christians.

In 1992 the BGEA announced that Graham had Parkinson’s disease and would be less involved in mission activities. He described his goal: “Whatever strength I have, whatever time God lets me have, is going to be dedicated to doing the work of an evangelist, as long as I live.”6

The Billy Graham Library

The Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina, was dedicated on May 31, 2007 on the grounds of the international headquarters of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA). Though ill and infirm, 88-year-old Billy Graham was on hand for the festivities and briefly addressed the 1,500 guests. Former presidents George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton also spoke at the opening of the $27 million dollar, 40,000-square-foot complex.

Graham’s son, Franklin, explained the purpose of the Library, pointing out that his father didn’t want “too much of Billy Graham in it.” He wanted it to reflect the message of the gospel he had preached for 60 years. Graham, speaking from in front of the Library, repeated this hope in his address. “The building behind me is just a building,” he said. “It’s an instrument; it’s a tool of the gospel.”

The Library complex includes innovative multimedia exhibits, a theater, bookstore and rustic café. Visitors can take an inspiring tour through six decades of the evangelistic work of Billy Graham and the BGEA, bringing the gospel to people of all walks of life. The cavernous lobby of the structure is styled after a dairy barn to highlight Graham’s upbringing on a farm only four miles away.

The Library is open to the public free of charge. For information about the library, please visit the website

1 Graham and his late wife, Ruth, have lived in Montreat, North Carolina, since 1945. Ruth Bell Graham died at age 87 on June 14, 2007, at their home. They have three daughters, two sons, 19 grandchildren and many great grandchildren.

2 Billy Graham, Just As I Am (HarperCollins, 1997), p. 158.

3 Graham’s evangelistic rallies, called “crusades” for many years, are now referred to as “missions.”

4 Just As I Am, p. 323.

5 “Billy Graham: Evangelist to Millions,”

6 Ibid.

Author: Paul Kroll

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