William “Billy” Frank Graham (1918- ), evangelist, was born on a dairy farm on the outskirts of Charlotte, North Carolina. Raised in a pious Presbyterian home, at the age of sixteen Graham went forward to accept Christ at a local tent revival featuring “hellfire and brimstone” evangelist Mordecai Ham. Desiring a Christian education, he decided against the University of North Carolina and opted for Bob Jones University (then in Cleveland, TN) in 1936. However, he quickly became disillusioned with the rigid fundamentalism there and stayed only one semester. In January 1937 he went to Tampa, Florida to enroll at the Florida Bible Institute. In 1939 he was baptized and ordained a Southern Baptist preacher.
Upon his graduation in 1940 Graham headed north to Wheaton College–a small, conservative liberal arts school west of Chicago–and majored in anthropology. Graham preached frequently during his student days and graduated in 1943. Following a brief stint as a pastor in Western Springs, IL, he accepted a position as the first full-time paid staff member for the newly-organized Youth for Christ. After several tours of the U.S. and two trips abroad Graham was tabbed in 1947 by aged fundamentalist firebrand William Bell Riley to succeed him as president of Northwestern Bible College in Minneapolis in 1947, a position he would hold for four years.
Evangelism, however, better suited Graham’s temperament and a 1949 Graham campaign in Los Angeles attracted local attention and then, with the help of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, he became the focus of national publicity. Incorporating the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in 1950, successful “Crusades” in Boston, Columbia, SC, Portland, OR and other cities followed, as did a monthly magazine (Decision), a nationally-syndicated radio program (The Hour of Decision), a motion picture production company (Worldwide Pictures), and two best-selling books Peace With God (1953) and The Secret to Happiness (1955). Within five years of his national debut BGEA officials estimated that nearly 200,000 potential converts had come forward at Graham crusades. Graham’s success and irenic temperament made him a key figure in the emerging “new evangelical” movement as represented by groups like the National Association of Evangelicals.
His desire to work with others did not help him in all circles, however: many fundamentalists criticized his tolerance toward liberal Protestants and withdrew their support. But Graham’s image and message had moved beyond the isolated factions of the “fighting fundys” and during the 1960s and 1970s it was clear that he had ascended to the role of “America’s Pastor” (or, the “Protestant Pope”). He was consistently named one of the most admired men in America and from Eisenhower down through George W. Bush served to some degree as a spiritual adviser to the occupants of the Oval Office.
Graham’s influence extended well beyond North America, however; he made numerous overseas trips and served as a driving force behind the important Lausanne Conferences on World Evangelization. By the time age began to slow Graham down in the mid-1990s he had preached to more people than anyone in history–by some estimates as many as 250 million–in nearly 200 countries, preached to untold millions via the radio, TV, and print media, and sold hundreds of millions of books in numerous languages. It is no exaggeration to state that Billy Graham was the most influential evangelical of the 20th-century.
For further reading see, William Martin, A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story (Morrow, 1991), and, John Pollock, Billy Graham: Evangelist to the World (Harper & Row, 1979).