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Billy Graham the Preacher

Billy’s nervousness before preaching, how he recovered after preaching, and his utter reliance on prayer to overcome spiritual opposition.
Billy Graham the Preacher
Image: Larry W. Smith/Getty Images

Editor’s Note: If you missed part one of this interview with Leighton Ford, Billy Graham’s brother-in-law, be sure to check it out. In this part Leighton and Matt discuss how Billy found his preaching voice, the nervousness Billy felt before preaching, how Billy recovered after preaching, and his total reliance on prayer for his ministry.

At Preaching Today, we talk sometimes about finding your preaching voice, that God has wired you uniquely for your preaching ministry, and you can learn a lot from other preachers, but ultimately God has a preaching voice for you. How would you describe Billy's preaching voice?

Well, I've already referred the fact that at that beginning they call him God's machine gun, because it was very quick, very dynamic. My wife, Jeannie, remembers the first time she ever heard him preach. She was probably five-years-old and it was in a Presbyterian church in Charlotte. She went with her mother and the maid from their home, and she said Billy was so loud that Jeannie covered her ears up the whole time and it embarrassed her mother to death. So at the beginning it was like that. It was a penetrating voice. I think he was influenced by Walter Winchell, who was one of the radio news people of that day who had a fast cat-like delivery.

His southern accent was something that was an appealing quality. It was never a slow drawl, but there was a warmth to it that I think attracted people. He kept his sentences short, so even in another language it was very easy for his translator to translate those short sentences. He didn't use complicated words, never tried to impress how intelligent he may be, but he had strong declarative sentences. He would make a point and then he would pause and let it sink in.

He had an unusual ability–my son Kevin pointed this out–to create a sense of anticipation in his preaching, because from the very beginning when he stood tall with the Bible in his hand, he would say, "Now, in a few minutes I'm going to talk about this," or "Before long I'm going to ask you to make a decision about Christ, I want you to be thinking about that." So he created a sense of something coming.

He had a dry wit about him. He had about ten jokes that he would tell, pretty standard, and people always laughed at them because it was Billy Graham telling the story. But he also had a sense of spontaneity about reading an audience as he was preaching.

One time we were at Angels Stadium down in southern California, and Billy preached that night, and when he gave the invitation the people started to clap. He was startled, I could tell that, and he stopped and he said, “No, no, no, no, this is not a time to clap.” But they kept clapping. Then he realized what was happening: The various ethnic groups had come together–there were Hispanics and there were Chinese and there were Koreans and so forth–and when he gave the invitation people from those groups would start to go forward and their friends would clap for them. They were applauding, those are our people going down there. And I remember Billy looked very startled and then thinking probably only in California would they clap at the invitation. But then he said, “Oh, we are in Angels Stadium and it says that the angels rejoice over one sinner who repents, so it's okay for people to applaud.” So he was able to feel what was going on. In the university audience he could sense the questions almost before they were asked, and be a little bit more objective, more lecturing when he spoke to an audience like that. So I guess that's the point, he was able to adjust to the different crowds and the different situations where he was speaking.

Was Billy nervous before he preached? You've mentioned the dream he felt after he preached, and sometimes he had a difficult time finding the right text and topic and all that kind of stuff, but did he get nervous? Because he didn't look nervous when he was preaching.

When he stood up he didn't look nervous, no. He was very much in command as he stood, not dominating, but certainly very much in command, he just stood there. But ahead of time, behind the scenes he could be nervous. He could be in the car on the way to a meeting and be going through his notes and changing them. In fact, one of his aides remembers on the way to the Washington Cathedral, when he spoke after 9/11, he was changing paragraphs and adjusting things even to the last moments. He could be relaxed with some folks who met with him before he went up to speak, but he could also be pacing at times, up and down and almost a little bit on edge. So yes, I say there were some nerves and sometimes there was an important occasion, he'd say, “I'll be glad when this is over.” But that nervous energy that was there was useful to him, but sure, he could be nervous.

One interesting thing is that he always wanted thirty to forty minutes of quiet before he would meet people and then go to the platform, because he sensed that God had chosen him, the Holy Spirit had anointed him, that there was a gift from God. In fact when he was in his 70s he said to some of his team one time: “That anointing could go overnight if I try to take the glory for myself.” And that's why he would be there quietly thirty or forty minutes alone in prayer before he would meet people and then go to stand on the platform. Before he got up to speak, I can still remember, he would be bowed over, his chin in his hands, his eyes closed, praying that God would be with him and speak through him.

I'm really moved by that. The fact that he knew God's anointing was on him for reasons he didn't understand, and then it could be lost in a night.

Then when he was through preaching he would be drained.

How did he recover?

He would go off the platform, he wouldn't stay around. He wasn't trying to run from people but he was emotionally and physically drained, particularly perhaps during the time of the invitation. Because when Billy finished preaching the message and he would say, “Now you come and explain what the invitation was to give your life to Christ, the buses will wait, we will wait, you come,” and he would just stand there silently, he would not cajole or plead as some evangelists would do. He would just wait in the quiet. I think there was a great spiritual struggle going on at that time. In fact, he said he felt almost power go out of him, what was in a sense like Jesus felt power go out of him when a woman touched the hem of his garment. He would go back to his room and maybe get a meal at that point and try to relax.

Sometimes he would beat himself up, “I didn't do well tonight,” or “I wasn't as faithful as I should have been tonight.” That's when it was very helpful to him to have a couple of his close associates like Grady Wilson and TW Wilson be there and they would say, “But Billy, remember the look on that woman's face, I saw that woman who came down there, the Lord really was there tonight.” And Grady Wilson was a great jokester; he might tell him a funny story that would make him laugh. But yes, he would feel very drained. And yet it was sometimes during those times of the greatest weakness that the response was amazing.

One of his associates remembers a crusade in Anchorage, Alaska, that Billy had a case of laryngitis, he could barely preach that night. He was nervous, he had his notes, he was rolling them up and unrolling them and rolling them and unrolling them, and he could barely whisper, and when it came time for the invitation he almost had to whisper the invitation. They said the greatest response of the entire crusade was that night. And I think he was conscious that he was God's instrument. And yet physically, emotionally, he could be very wrung out.

I can remember after those 16 1/2 weeks in New York City, at the very end he was so weak that he could barely stand. He almost had to hold on to the pulpit to stand up. Because you can imagine, that long period of time, all the other meetings that he had, the physical, spiritual output of those nights and the weight that he lost during that time, he was a vessel that had been emptied. Then he would take time off. He would come to Charlotte and visit his mother's home. He said he came to Charlotte for food and he went to Montreat for repose. Because he loved his mother's cooking and he especially liked her custard that she made. And he'd come to Charlotte, tell his stories, then he'd go back to the mountains to Ruth and that's where he'd find his rest and repose. Ruth was good for him. Ruth was feisty. She could challenge him in some points, but she could also provide a place where he could go and be quiet for a while.

How did Billy feel, experience, talk about, or deal with spiritual opposition? I'm sure there was demonic resistance to what he was doing, especially in his role as a preacher?

He was very aware of that. That was one of the reasons that early in his evangelistic meetings his little team met, and this is kind of a well-known story in Modesto, California, together and talked about what had caused evangelists to fall in the past, was it temptations regarding money, sex, or pride, and they made a commitment to each other. But that team was very important to him, that core team like Bev Shea, Cliff Barrows, so forth, who would be there with him and be a team to protect him, to have his back almost, spiritually.

There was also, before he went to a city for a crusade, a huge emphasis on prayer, especially in those early days. The churches would be called to pray. There would be prayer meetings held, sometimes all night prayer meetings. I remember going to some of those in London and New York where the churches would give themselves in prayer. So when he was preaching, he would know that there had been great prayer because this was a spiritual battle, and that he specifically was being prayed for.

I remember particularly in Atlanta, Georgia, there was a crusade that was led by a local businessman, a friend of ours Tom Cousins, who had asked Billy to come because he wanted this to draw the churches of Atlanta together. We were at Tom's house the weekend before the crusade started, and Billy said to Tom, “Now, Tom, you've done a grand job organizing this crusade, the best I've ever seen almost in any city, but I want you to know that the devil is going to be at work and you need to keep praying.” Tom told me later that he kind of thought, He believes in the devil? Because Tom was not at that time very biblically aware. He believes in the devil? And he kind of poo-pooed it. But during that crusade, if anything could go wrong it did go wrong. The buses that were to bring the people to the meetings, went on strike. The sound system had great problems in the stadium. After the crusade was over, Tom was asked by his pastor, “What did this crusade mean to you?” And Tom said, “I've come to believe in the devil.” He said, “A lot of people come to believe in Christ through these crusades, I saw that the devil was at work.” So the prayer that Billy thought was necessary was so important.

I also remember very vividly before that 1957 New York Crusade, the team went off to a retreat just north of New York City, and there was a Sunday morning worship service. One of the associate evangelists gave a message and told a story about someone who drew a circle on the floor and knelt down on that floor and said, “God, start a revival and start it in that circle,” and that's how he kind of ended his little message that morning. And this associate said to the Billy Graham team, I want us to pray that prayer, let's get in the circle and say, “God, start it in that circle.” The first person up there was Billy. And not as a show, but he was just on his knees and on his face before God, and so there was that deep sense it was a spiritual struggle. And knowing that if God took his hand off, the anointing would be gone.

I don't think I can say how important it was that he would say the first three things in preparing for an evangelistic crusade are: One–pray. Two–pray. Three–pray. He genuinely believed that.

I'll tell you one other interesting little story. In Birmingham, England, during Mission England, I was outside. There were thousands of people outside and I had spoken to them briefly and welcomed them and said, “I'm sorry, there wasn't room inside, but please listen to the message and respond when the time came.” As I was walking back in the stadium, a man stopped me and said, “Has Billy Graham written anything for bereaved parents?” And I said, “Well, I don't think so, but I have.” I told him I'd lost a son. He said, “Well, I lost a daughter.” And we talked for quite a long time. It turned out he was a dentist whose 21-year-old daughter had died. I still remember his name, and we talked together, then I said, “Would you like to go in and give your life to Christ?” He said, “Yes.” I walked into the stadium with him and he did. A year later, they had a follow-up rally in Birmingham and a woman came up to the speaker afterwards who had told that story and she said, “Were you talking about so and so?” He said, “Yes.” She said, “Well, our little prayer triplet was praying for him for a year that he would come to Christ and we'd had no idea.” So I think when you talk about Billy Graham's preaching you also need to talk about the people praying.

Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.

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