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Just as I am: Billy Graham

30 November, 1999

Reluctant to go to church as a youth, Billy Graham had the prototypical “born-again” experience as a teenager and by eighteen felt called to be a full-time evangeliser. He has had some Catholic evangelisers as his friends – Bishop Fulton Sheen and Pope John Paul II. John Murray tell his story.

The face of Billy Graham is probably one of the best known of the modern era. He is associated with Bible-based Christianity, and is capable of filling big stadiums with people who want to hear his stirring message. Through the decades, Graham became chaplain, as it were, to the American nation, and confidante of virtually every President from Eisenhower to Clinton.


The story of Billy Graham has humble beginnings, however. He was born on a farm in Charlotte, North Carolina, on 7 November 1918, the eldest of four children, to parents who were of ‘God-fearing, Scottish Presbyterian stock’.


Religious awakening

Billy was not particularly religious in his early youth. His father knew that, at that stage in his life, he accompanied the family to church each week ‘grudgingly or out of necessity’. Things were to change, however, when Billy heard the preaching of a visiting evangelist, Mordecai Ham.


‘His words grabbed my mind and gripped my heart,’ he would later claim. ‘What was slowly dawning on me during those weeks was the miserable realisation that I did not know Jesus Christ for myself. I could not depend on my parents’ faith. Faith could not be passed on as an inheritance, like the family silver. It had to be exercised by each individual. ‘


And so, one night, after the sermon, Billy decided to put himself forward and commit himself to Christ. As he did so, the soloist led the congregation in the song Just as I am. This was the title Graham was to use many years later for his own autobiography. About that occasion he wrote, ‘No bells went off inside me. No signs across the ceiling. I simply felt at peace.’


Seeds of openness

By the time he was eighteen, Billy felt called to full-time ministry. He pursued that aim by attending college and then the Florida Bible Institute from 1937-40. The latter helped to broaden his view of the Church and, although his exposure was still only to evangelical Christianity, it served as a basis for that later openness and ecumenical spirit which have marked Graham’s ministry through the decades.


One night, in 1938, during his evening walk of a local golf course, Billy made a commitment to full-time service of the Lord. The following year he was ordained a Baptist minister. ‘I read Ephesians again and again,’ he later wrote, ‘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. It was time to take up what the Lord called me to do – evangelism.’


The apostolate of evangelism in huge stadiums and civic centres across the globe did not begin immediately. He preached wherever he was invited. In this way, he came to host a Christian radio show as well as begin a youth ministry, ‘Youth for Christ’. Graham and others organised Saturday night youth rallies in several cities, drawing large crowds.


Constant features

Gradually a pattern developed. Billy and his team of able workers would arrive in a town or city. A hall or large tent would be booked, and there the team would set up base. A rally would begin with several gospel songs, and then Billy would preach, concluding always by inviting people to come forward to accept Christ as their Lord and Saviour. It is with this ‘altarcall’ that many have come to associate the name of Billy Graham.


There were two key features of these rallies, however, that were important and that never varied over the years. The first was that Billy always enlisted a small army of people to pray for the ministry. These forty or fifty people sat together in front of the stage or platform, with ‘their faces full of expectant faith that God was about to work again’.


Secondly, Graham was no evangelical ‘sheep-stealer’. Prior to arriving in a city or country, he would enlist the support of the local clergy, and it was to these that the people who responded to the ‘altarcall’ were referred for follow-up. He well knew that many who might respond to the Spirit’s prompting at a rally needed local support in order to grow and be sustained. Among those he contacted were local Catholic priests.


Word of God

Graham’s message was simple and direct, varying little from place to place and rally to rally. ‘I have had the privilege of preaching the gospel on every continent in most of the countries of the world. And I have found that when I present the simple message of the gospel of Jesus Christ with authority, quoting from the very Word of God, he takes that message and drives it supernaturally into the human heart.’


Pope John Paul II

Although Billy Graham comes from a typical Southern Baptist background, which traditionally has not been sympathetic to Catholicism, he has broken that mould. Billy has always respected people for what they are. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that he had a great respect for Pope John Paul II.


Their contact began in 1978, when Cardinal Wojtyla invited Graham to preach in Krakow cathedral. They didn’t actually meet on that occasion, however. Pope John Paul I had died suddenly, and the Cardinal had to leave for Rome and the consistory which would eventually elect him to the See of Peter. Graham preached also at the great Marian shrine of Czestochowa, and is on record as being deeply impressed by the faith of Catholic Poland.


Three years later, Billy did indeed meet the Pope, this time in Rome. He found him extremely cordial and very interested in his ministry. ‘After only a few minutes,’ he wrote, ‘I felt as if we had known each other for many years.’ The two men of God exchanged gifts. Graham gave the Pope a woodcarving of a shepherd with his sheep, crafted by a North Carolina artist.


They recalled together the words of Jesus: ‘I am the Good Shepherd; I know my own and my sheep know me… There are other sheep I have that are not of this fold, and I must lead these too’ (Jn 10:14-16). In turn, the Pope gave Graham a medallion of his papacy and several beautifully bound volumes.


Fulton Sheen

There was another great Catholic leader to whom Billy had a strong affinity, not least because they shared a common zeal for God’s Word and because both were blessed by God with the skills of oratory. Fulton Sheen, now deceased, was Bishop of Rochester in his time, but was more known throughout America as one of the earliest ‘televangelists’.


Graham recalled the first time they met. ‘One night on a train from Washington to New York,’ he wrote, ‘I was just drifting off to sleep when a knock came on my apartment door. I was too tired to answer it. In daytime I would have happily obliged, but this was the middle of the night. The knocker persisted. I finally unlocked the compartment door and opened it a crack. There, greeting me, was one of the most familiar faces in America, not just to Roman Catholics, but to everyone else. It was Bishop Sheen.


“Billy, I know it is late, but may I come in for a chat and a prayer?” I was in my pyjamas, but I was delighted to see him and invited him in. We talked about our ministries and our common commitment to evangelism, and I told him how grateful I was for his ministry and his focus on Christ. We talked further and we prayed; and by the time he left I felt as if I had known him all my life. We became good friends.’


Billy was all too easily aware of another accusation that was sometimes made: that his message was all too much ‘pie in the sky’. Yet he believed that the gospel was a word for a broken world. In a 1952 crusade in Jackson, Mississippi, ropes had been put up to segregate blacks and whites. Billy physically took the ropes down, saying, ‘We’re all equal before God’. He did not allow them to be put up again.


Basic message

So what is Billy Graham about? What has he been about for fifty years around the world? Above all, it is a yearning for people to hear the message of Christ, and to accept it as their own. Billy would claim that ‘people are searching for something today, and if they don’t believe in God they must have a substitute for God. Among young people there is a great identity crisis today. Who am I? What is the purpose of life? Where did I come from? Where am I going? The Bible has a direct answer to these great questions, and unless God seals the vacuum in people, and especially the young today, then some other ideology will, because people must believe in something to find fulfilment in their lives.’


This article first appeared in The Messenger (June 2006), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.