Perhaps no Christian leader other than the pope has had more prominence in American culture in the 20th century and beyond than Billy Graham, who celebrated his 95th birthday last week.
Over the course of 60 years, Graham has spoken to 285 million people in 185 countries and on radio and television to millions more.
Graham’s popularity dovetailed with a new religious consciousness in post-World War II America. In the 1950s, church attendance swelled, and people swarmed to Graham’s crusades, where hundreds of thousands responded to his invitation to accept salvation. One such appearance was at Bell Auditorium in Augusta, where he spoke in 1967 in celebration of First Baptist Church’s 150th anniversary.
Although he now remains largely confined to his home in North Carolina, having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1992, Graham continues to speak out.
“Our country’s in great need of a spiritual awakening,” he says in The Cross, a video released by his ministry on his birthday as part of his My Hope America series. “There’ve been times that I’ve wept as I’ve gone from city to city and I’ve seen how far people have wandered from God.”
But Graham’s message has been and remains positive. It is profoundly simple, delivered in his distinctive North Carolina accent with clarity, boldness and conviction: God loves you, despite your rebellion and rejection of him; that same love led to his son’s agonizing death on a cross in atonement for your sins; all you have to do is accept that, acknowledge your sinfulness and, with God’s help, change your life.
That cross, Graham says, is “not the cross hanging on the wall or around someone’s neck.” The cross of Jesus, he says, is an offense because it confronts us and demands that we acknowledge our own sin and vow to change.
“There are many things about the cross and about salvation that I do not understand,” he has said, “and I’m not told that I have to understand it all. I’m told that I’m to believe. And anybody can believe.”
That has been the ordained Southern Baptist minister’s core message since he began preaching in the late 1940s, a few years after his graduation from Wheaton College in Illinois.
In 1949 a group of Los Angeles businessmen invited him to preach a three-week revival in that city. As the revival neared its end and attendance began to dwindle, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst attended one of Graham’s meetings. Moved by the evangelist’s words, Hearst ordered his newspapers to cover all of Graham’s meetings. The Los Angeles revival lasted another five weeks.
National and international acclaim followed, reinforced by television and by Graham’s association with American presidents and other world leaders. As his fame spread, he took up Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples of all nations.”
“As I look back over my life, it’s full of surprises,” Graham said in his recent video. “When I began preaching many years ago it was not with any thought that I’d be preaching to large audiences.
“God has done this.”
Billy Graham’s voice may be softened by age and infirmity, but his words still carry the power of the Christian message.