A Biographical Sketch: Billy Graham

By Steve Wolfgang

Without question, America’s “best known Protestant churchman” is, and for years has been, Billy Graham. Born November 7, 1918 on a farm outside Charlotte, North Carolina, William Franklin Graham grew to adolescence with the daily regimen of dairy farming punctuated by revivalism and church services. He was sixteen when, in May, 1934, his father loaned a pasture to Mordecai Fowler Hain, a fiery revivalist from Louisville, KY. Along with Grady Wilson, a boyhood friend who would remain a close associate through the years, Graham responded to Ham’s “altar call.”

After spending the following summers as a Fuller Brush salesman and playing baseball, Billy enrolled in perhaps the best-known Fundamentalist school of that day – Bob Jones College, then located in Cleveland, TN. Described as “an evangelical boot camp” replete with “grim barracks . . . and posted notifications like Griping Not Tolerated,” the school seems not to have suited Billy, who left after one semester.

Graham transferred to the Florida Bible Institute at Temple Terrace, located on the campus of what is now Florida College. He had learned of the Institute through friends, one of whom would later recall that “after Bob Jones, Billy landed on that campus like he’d just been let out of jail, ‘I and, according to one biographer, “He will still mention now and then as he muses back over the years, ‘That time down there, that’s when I was the happiest.”‘ The story of his emotional experience on the eighteenth green, dedicating his life to preaching, is well known.

W.T. Watson, founder and president of the Institute, recalled later that Billy “got down to business and started preaching to tree stumps along the Hillsborough River.” Remaining in Florida for three and a half years after his arrival in February 1937, Graham met many leading lights of Fundamentalism for whom Temple Terrace and the Institute became something of a mecca. One day Graham found himself caddying for a group of golfers from Chicago, which included the brother of the president of Wheaton College, a reputable evangelical school in suburban Chicago. Accepting an offer of a year’s tuition and board, Graham enrolled at Wheaton in 1940.

At Wheaton, Graham met his future wife, Ruth Bell (daughter of a Presbyterian surgeon who had founded “missionary hospital” in China), and began regular preaching duties at the Western Springs Baptist church. (Graham had changed religious affiliations in Florida when it was discovered, while he was preaching in a Baptist church, that he was a Presbyterian). After taking over the radio broadcast “Songs in the Night” with Canadian George Beverly Shea, Graham served for a while with Youth For Christ in England and the United States. While in Minneapolis for a “crusade,” Graham was heard by William Bell Riley, one of the leaders of the Fundamentalist movement, who recalled hearing Graham a decade before in Florida. In 1947, Riley persuaded Graham to take over as president of his organization of three schools in Minneapolis.

Being administrator of several schools proved not to suit Graham, however, and he soon turned to citywide 44campaigns,” involving several who had worked with him in the Youth For Christ organization. Perhaps the single biggest step to the platform of popularity came during Graham’s Los Angeles campaign in September, 1949, where he was able to attract attention from the press. When William Randolph Hearst cabled his editors (“Puff Graham”) during the fourth week of the campaign, resulting in Henry Luce’s visit to his campaign in Columbia, South Carolina a few weeks later. Graham had achieved entree into media stardom.

This sketch cannot report in detail Graham’s achievements since that time, but an historian currently at work on a “definitive” biography of Graham chronicled some of his achievements as of the late 1970’s, before his place in the evangelical galaxy began to be eclipsed by other televangelism supernovas: Graham’s weekly “Hour of Decision” radio broadcast was heard on over 900 stations around the world; his “crusades” being broadcast into over 300 TV “markets”; his syndicated column was carried by over 200 daily newspapers with a circulation of nearly 30 million readers; his Decision magazine, published in six languages and Braille, had a circulation of almost 4 million; several of his books, published in dozens of languages, have sold over 2 million copies each; the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, headquartered in Minneapolis with more than 500 employees, includes his own film-production company located in California, and his branch offices in London, Paris, Sydney, Hong Kong, Kyoto, and Winnipeg; he has even been TIME Magazine’s “Man of the Year.”

Graham has achieved all this by adopting a “generic” Protestant theology (many would say by “soft-pedaling” many Bible doctrines unpalatable to popular culture), by molding a relatively inoffensive message to his own style and personality and by cultivating such an efficient organization. Although Graham certainly lives comfortably and has many “perks” as result of his position, he seems not to have unduly enriched himself financially (although the Charlotte Observer, for whom Graham served as a favorite religious object of “investigative journalism” before Jim Bakker came along, did uncover a “secret” $22.9 million fund in the BGEA in 1977). There has never been a whiff of sexual impropriety in his life (unlike some other popular “televangelists”), and he still stands today, although challenged by rising stars such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Jimmy Swaggart, as “the high priest of the American civil religion.”


James Morris, The Preachers (1973); Jeffrey K. Hadden, Prime- Time Preachers (1981); William G. McLoughlin Billy Graham: Revivalist in a Secular Age (1960); John Pollock, Billy Graham: The Authorized Biography (1966) and Billy Graham: Evangelist To The World (1979); Marshall Frady, Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness (1979); C. Allyn Russell, Yokes of American Fundamentalism: Seven Biographical Studies (1976); William Martin, “Billy Graham,” in David E. Harrell, ed., Varieties of Southern Evangelicalism (1981).

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 12, pp. 388-389
June 18, 1987