William Franklin Graham, Jr. was born on November 7, 1918 on a dairy farm near Charlotte, North Carolina. Billy Graham was raised in the Reformed Presbyterian Church by his parents, Morrow Coffey and William Franklin Graham. After graduating from Sharon High School in May 1936, he attended Bob Jones College (now Bob Jones University), then located in Cleveland, Tennessee, for one semester. Billy found it too strict in both coursework and rules. During the semester he was influenced and inspired by Pastor Charles Young from Eastport Bible Church. He was nearly expelled for this and Bob Jones, Sr. warned him not to throw his life away. “At best,” Bob told him, “all you could amount to would be a poor country Baptist preacher somewhere out in the sticks…You have a voice that pulls. God can use that voice of yours. He can use it mightily.”
In 1937, Billy Graham transferred to the Florida Bible Institute (now known as Trinity College of Florida). In his autobiography Graham wrote that he “received his calling on the 18th green of the Temple Terrace Golf and Country Club. Graham often paddled a canoe directly east of the 18th green to a small island in the river where he would preach to the flora and fauna. Graham graduated in 1940 with a Bachelor of Theology degree.
Graham attended Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois from 1939 to 1943 and graduated with a BA in anthropology. While attending Wheaton, Graham became pastor of the United Gospel Tabernacle and had other preaching engagements. On August 13, 1943, two months after graduation, Graham married a Wheaton classmate, Ruth Bell, whose parents were Presbyterian missionaries in China, where her father was a general surgeon. When they met Ruth thought that he “wanted to please God more than any man I’d ever met.” Together they have five children.
Graham served briefly as pastor of the Village Church in Western Springs, Illinois. His friend Torrey Johnson had a radio program “Songs in the Night” about to be canceled due to lack of funds. Graham took over Johnson’s program with financial support from his parishioners. The new program, still called “Songs in the Night”, was launched on January 2, 1944. His radio ministry continued for many years even though Graham decided to move on in early 1945. Graham served as President of Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1947 at the age of thirty. He continues to hold the distinction of being the youngest person to serve as a sitting college president.
Graham intended to become a chaplain in the armed forces, but shortly after applying he came down with a severe case of mumps. This ended his plan. He recuperated in Florida and went on to co-found “Youth for Christ” with Charles Templeton. He traveled throughout the US and Europe as an evangelist. In 1949, Graham scheduled a series of revival meetings in Los Angeles, California. The meetings went on for eight weeks though they were only scheduled for three. The Los Angeles revival is considered to be the time when Billy Graham became a national religious figure. Graham’s rise to national prominence was due in part to the news mogul, William Randolph Hearst. Hearst respected Graham for being his own person and following what he believed, even though they never met. The result of the increased media exposure from Hearst is what caused the revival to run five more weeks. Henry Luce, the founder of Time Magazine, put Graham on the cover of Time in 1954.
Graham has conducted more than 400 crusades in 185 countries/territories on six continents. The first Billy Graham Crusade was held September 13-21, 1947 in Grand Rapids, MI where 6000 people attended. He founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in 1950, headquartered in Minneapolis. The association later relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina. The BGEA Ministries have included: Hour of Decision – a weekly radio program broadcast around the world, Mission television specials regularly broadcast in prime time in the US and Canada, My Answer – a newspaper column carried by papers across the US, Decision Magazine, Christianity Today, Passageway.org – a teen website, and World Wide Pictures.
During the 1960s Graham opposed segregation and refused to speak in segregated auditoriums. Once he tore down the ropes that the organizers had put up to separate the audience. Graham said,
“There is no spiritual basis for segregation … The ground at the foot of the cross is level, and it touches my heart when I see whites standing shoulder to shoulder with blacks at the cross.”
Graham paid bail money to secure the release of Martin Luther King, Jr. from jail during the 1960s civil rights struggle. He invited Dr. King to join him in the pulpit at his 16-week revival in New York City in 1957. During that revival Graham was heard by 2.3 million listeners. Graham and King became friends, with Graham becoming one of the few whites allowed to call King by his birth name, “Mike.”
During the Cold War, Billy Graham became the first evangelist to speak behind the Iron Curtain, calling for peace. During the Apartheid era, Graham refused to visit South Africa until its government allowed his audiences to sit unsegregated. Throughout the course of his ministry Graham has preached world peace to over 200 million people. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy began the tradition of consulting the Reverend Billy Graham. Others followed-Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Clinton and the two Bushes. Even other political leaders and spiritual leaders who do not always agree with Billy Graham do agree that his sincerity, transparent and convincing, cannot be denied.
“And I think that there is a hunger for God and people are living as best they know how according to the light they have.”
– Reverend Billy Graham (1993)