Remembering Billy Graham: Some Personal Reflections

I met Billy Graham two times. The first was on his first London Crusade in March, 1954. It was his first crusade abroad and he went on to Holland, France, and Germany.  I had just turned eight years old but I remember it well. In addition to preaching at Wembley Stadium, to overflow crowds, Graham visited some of the post-War US military bases in England, including Burtonwood, near Liverpool, where my father, a Major in the USAF at the time, was stationed. The whole base came out for the event. Billy Graham was already well known after packed crusades in 38 American cities. It was an outdoor affair with Graham up on a platform. My memories of that day are reinforced by silent Super-8 home color movie film footage, now faded and fuzzy, but still remarkably clear, that my father shot that day. It was a windy day and you can see Billy Graham waving his Bible with his hair blown in the wind. Afterwards my father took me up to shake hands with him and told him I was going to be a “preacher.” He was huge to me, large hands, with steel blue eyes and an amazing voice. Like many of you I can heard that voice in my head right now. Some of you perhaps watched the Netflix series “The Crown,” about Queen Elizabeth II. In Season 2 there is an episode where Billy Graham, played by Paul Sparks, visits the Queen. They have a conversation about what it means to be a Christian. It is worth watching.

The second time was in 1966, on Billy Graham’s Berlin Crusade in 1966. According to the list in Wikipedia that was his 183rd crusade. He was legendary at the time, at the height of  his career. I had just finished my B.A. degree in Greek and Bible at Abilene Christian College (now Abilene Christian University) that May and had gone over to Germany and Austria to take Bibles, clandestinely (i.e. smuggling!) into the Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe. It is hard to believe but even owning a copy of the Bible was forbidden at that time in the Communist block. I was affiliated with the Church of Christ in Berlin and was invited  to a pre-Crusade luncheon for local religious leaders. I was only 20 years old, so I hardly was a “leader” but I was invited nonetheless. I remember the lunch was a buffet affair where you had a tray and went down a food line. I ended up next to Mr. Graham and we began to talk. He of course asked me who I was and what I was doing in Berlin. He was amazingly attentive when he talked to someone, giving one the feeling that you were the only one he was focusing on. After we got our food and sat at various tables I sat near him and listened to him talk. Again he was tall, impressive, charismatic, with his tan skin, hair, blue eyes, he kind of filled a room, and his voice was so remarkable with that aristocratic NC accent. I attended a couple nights of the Berlin Crusade. It was translated, of course, into Germany, phrase by phrase, and knowning both languages the process was interesting to observe. I would say the pause for translation did detract from his normal flow and pacing, which was the most remarkable feature of his speaking style.

Wikipedia lists Graham’s his crusades with the various stats on numbers of countries, individuals who head him live over the years, and so forth. Take a look at the list, it is quite impressive and maybe you will remember a time when you heard him live.

We have now lived in Charlotte for 29 years–longer than any other place in my life. Here in Charlotte Billy Graham is our favorite son. The Billy Graham Library is an amazing place to visit. It includes his boyhood house, moved and preserved, that was on a dairy farm just south of town, where Park Avenue and Woodlawn intersect. We have a freeway named after him. His plain pine casket will “Lie in Honor” at the U.S. Capital Wednesday and Thursday and his funeral, which he elaborately planned, will be here in Charlotte on Friday, March 2nd, which happens to be my birthday.  It will be at the Billy Graham Library with a huge tent erected to handle the invitation only crowd–a kind of tribute to his original tent crusades in 1947. I am assuming the guest list will be a remarkable Who’s Who of our 20th and 21st century cultures, both nationally and perhaps internationally.

Since we live in Charlotte we have met various people connected to Billy Graham and his family, including his brother Mel, nieces and nephews, and we know many who know his large extended family. Charlotte has grown into North Carolina’s urban center in the past 30 years we have lived here, but at the heart it has a close knit local community that is easy to connect with. Billy Graham’s presence here is large.

There is a lot in the media this week about Billy Graham’s scandal free career–neither financial or sexual failures. He was one of the few ministries that did not ask for money in public events or on the air–when the TV crusades were aired there were free booklets and other materials offered. The address was simply Billy Graham, Minneapolis, MN. He had a rule that he was never alone with any woman other than his wife or a family member. I would also add he lived a modest life style, nothing ostentatious, no expensive hobbies or interests. He seemed wholly committed to “preaching the Gospel” as he described it so many times.

All that said Graham mostly pushed a literalist, fundamentalist, brand of Christianity, that was often on the wrong side of issues of war, human sexuality, religious diversity, and individual human rights. For years he wrote a column published in thousands of newspapers called “My Answer,” but too often his answer was just an echo of his booming baritone voice, “The Bible says…” as simplistic answer to just about anything and everything, without attention to history, context, or critical interpretation. See, for example, the touching essay “The Soul Crushing Legacy of Billy Graham.” From my observation Billy Graham seemed to mellow a bit as he grew older, softening or generalizing some of his positions. Whatever one thinks of him he was a force of nature, a phenomenon of our times, and his death is truly a cultural milestone of my own life, born the year before his first Crusade.