CINCINNATI – The Rev. Billy Graham may be the most single-minded man on Earth. For more than 50 years, he has preached the word of God. Straight, simple, to the point. And he has impacted millions.
“I am not a great preacher and I don't claim to be a great preacher,” he once said. “I've heard great preaching many times and wished I was one of those great preachers. I'm an ordinary preacher just communicating the Gospel in the best way I know how.”
Starting with a tent revival in Los Angeles in 1949, Mr. Graham has preached before more than 210 million people in 185 nations. His television broadcasts have been viewed by approximately 2 billion people and it has been estimated that he has led 3 million people to become Christians.
The 83-year-old evangelist has prayed with 11 U.S. presidents and has been named in the Gallup Poll's annual list of the “Ten Most Admired Men in the World” a record 44 times.
Mr. Graham is scheduled to preach tonight for the third day in a row at Paul Brown Stadium, and at this point his only other scheduled mission is in Dallas in October. (He used to call his missions “crusades” until Sept. 11, when he dropped the term because of its reference to Christian-Muslim conflicts.)
On Thursday, the opening night of his four-day stop here, Mr. Graham used a cane to walk from the side of the stage to the podium and had help from his son and successor, Franklin.
He said he had not preached in nine months and asked for people to pray for him for strength to complete his sermon.
Wearing a black suit, white shirt, and red tie, his swept-back white hair blowing in the wind, Mr. Graham gripped the podium firmly, bracing himself against the quivers that come with Parkinson's disease. He stood throughout his 22-minute sermon, sat on a stool briefly while waiting for people to come forward for prayer, and then stood again for his closing comments.
Clearly Mr. Graham's unparalleled career is coming to a close. It's something he has spoken of many times. “Most of my life has already been lived,” he said back in 1987. “I'll be glad when the moment comes that the Lord calls me to heaven. I get tired down here sometimes.”
The Rev. Tony D. Scott, senior pastor of Cathedral of Praise in Sylvania, said he was 19 years old when he heard Mr. Graham speak during organizational meetings before a crusade in Greenville, S.C.
“He made quite an impact on me,” Mr. Scott said. “I felt like he was a true man of God with the heart of an evangelist. I do believe Billy Graham is the greatest evangelist of our time. God gave him a special calling and he lived up to it.”
Mr. Graham was born Nov. 7, 1918, on a dairy farm near Charlotte, N.C. His mother was a Presbyterian and his father was a Methodist. He attended a Presbyterian church in downtown Charlotte and made a commitment to Christ at age 16 in a revival led by the Rev. Mordecai Ham of Louisville, Ky.
“When my decision for Christ was made, I walked slowly down and knelt in prayer,” Mr. Graham once said. “I opened my heart and I knew for the first time the sweetness and joy of God, of truly being born again. If some newspaperman had asked me the next day what happened, I couldn't have told him. I didn't know. But I knew in my heart that I was somehow different and changed. That night absolutely changed the direction of my life.”
He attended Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College) in Tampa, Fla., and preached his first revival in 1938 at East Palatka Baptist Church. It was during this revival that Mr. Graham, after much prayer and his mother's permission, switched from Presbyterian to Baptist. He was ordained in 1939 by a church in the Southern Baptist Convention.
In 1940, he enrolled at Wheaton College, near Chicago, hoping to be admitted as a senior but after school officials reviewed his transcripts, he was granted sophomore status. It was there that he met Ruth McCue Bell, a fellow student born in China to missionary parents. It was love at first sight for Mr. Graham, who wrote to his mother that this is the girl he would marry. The wedding was held on Aug. 13, 1943, shortly after their graduation.
Mr. Graham became pastor of Village Baptist Church in Western Springs, Ill., earning $45 a week. During his short time there, he also became a featured speaker on a suburban Chicago station, WCFL. That is where he first began working with his longtime associate, singer George Beverly Shea, who at 93 still performs at Mr. Graham's missions.
The radio program led to an offer to work as international evangelist for Youth for Christ, and he became the fledgling organization's first full-time employee for a salary of $75 a week plus expenses. In his first year on the job, Mr. Graham traveled to 47 states, covering 220,000 miles.
“I read Ephesians again and again, where it mentions that the Lord gave some to be evangelists and some to be pastors. God just did not want me to be a pastor,” Mr. Graham once said. “It was time to take up what the Lord called me to do – evangelism.”
In 1949, a Los Angeles committee invited Mr. Graham to preach an old-fashioned tent revival. He scheduled a three-week meeting but the nightly meetings were drawing more people than could fit into the 6,000 capacity tent.
Mr. Graham extended the revival and, during its fourth week, the young evangelist with the life-changing sermons suddenly found himself splashed on the front pages of Los Angeles papers owned by media magnate William Randolph Hearst.
Before the eight-week L.A. revival concluded, Mr. Graham was featured in Newsweek, Time, and Life magazines and newspapers across the country.
Many of his subsequent revivals were similarly extended, including a 47-day outreach at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1957 that attracted more than 1.8 million people.
“The great crowds themselves are meaningless,” Mr. Graham said. “The thing that counts is what happens in the hearts of the people. The evangelist sows the seed, and much inevitably falls upon stony ground and bears no fruit. But if only a few seeds flourish, the results are manifold. After 31/2 years of preaching to the thousands of people, Christ could number only 120 followers at Pentecost. But those 120 changed the world.”
The Rev. Dr. Philip M. Jones, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Maumee, said many mainstream Protestants were alienated by Mr. Graham's fundamentalist preaching early in his career. “I think that I could speak for a lot of my colleagues in the mainstream in saying that Billy Graham has moved a great deal toward the center of American religious expression,” he said.
Dr. Jones is heartened by Mr. Graham's financial accountability and by his efforts to work with local church leaders and volunteers in providing follow-up ministry to new converts.
“When he comes through town, he does not leave behind a lot of Billy Graham supporters, but he leaves behind a lot of people connected with local churches as they begin to make their faith pilgrimage,” Dr. Jones said.
Mr. Graham's first meeting with a president was in 1950 when he was invited to meet Harry Truman at the White House. Mr. Graham asked if he could pray for the president, who replied: “I don't see any harm.” Afterward, the press asked him what happened in the meeting and naively, Mr. Graham spoke freely about their closed-door session. An irritated Mr. Truman declared Mr. Graham persona non grata.
President George W. Bush said that when his father was president, Mr. Graham started him on a spiritual journey during a weekend at the Bush family's summer home in Maine.
“He was like a magnet; I felt drawn to seek something different. He didn't lecture or admonish; he shared warmth and concern. Billy Graham didn't make you feel guilty; he made you feel loved,” Mr. Bush told an interviewer.
“Over the course of that weekend, Reverend Graham planted a mustard seed in my soul, a seed that grew over the next year. He led me to the path, and I began walking. It was the beginning of a change in my life.”
Mr. Graham's closeness to presidents has brought various criticisms but his association with Richard Nixon led to the most damaging report of his otherwise near-flawless career.
In March of this year, the National Archives released 500 hours of Nixon tapes which included a 1972 conversation in which Mr. Graham said he believed that Jews controlled the American media.
“This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country's going down the drain,” Mr. Graham told Mr. Nixon.
The evangelist, who in 1969 received the Torch of Liberty Award from the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith, issued an apology the day after the tapes' release, saying “I had scores of conversations with Mr. Nixon in which we discussed every conceivable subject. However, I cannot imagine what caused me to make those comments, which I totally repudiate. . I don't ever recall having those feelings about any group, especially the Jews, and I certainly do not have them now.”
“He does have his flaws, as does every human being,” Mr. Scott said. “Yet he has operated his ministry with integrity. I personally don't believe we will ever know the full effect of what he has accomplished.”
Mr. Graham said Thursday night that the Cincinnati mission is not being broadcast live but will be telecast nationwide this fall. He asked the people in the audience to pray for the televised services to lead viewers to Christ.
The spiritual impact of his televised sermons is something that cannot be tallied like the number of people who request prayer at his missions. But there are many people who have testified that the TV shows transformed their lives, among them Bishop Bruce Ough, leader of the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church; Dr. Dexter Phillips of Sylvania, founder of Christian Health Ministries, and country singer Paul Overstreet.
Mr. Graham's Cincinnati mission continues at Paul Brown Stadium today with a special “Kidz Gig” from 10:30 to noon, followed by the regular service at 6:30 p.m. with musical guests Kirk Franklin and dc Talk; tomorrow's mission starts at 7 p.m. with guests Third Day, the Gaither Vocal Band, and football star Shaun Alexander.