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How Billy Graham Became a Preacher

'America's Pastor's' preaching was formed by letters, African-American leaders, and listening.
How Billy Graham Became a Preacher
Image: Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

Billy Graham died Wednesday, February 21, 2018, at the age of 99.

Last year, Preaching Today’s editor Matt Woodley editor sat down with Leighton Ford, Presbyterian minister and brother-in-law of Billy Graham to talk about Graham as a preacher.

This is part one of a three part series.

Matt Woodley: Why don't you start with some of your personal memories of Billy Graham. I know you have a few about Billy Graham as a preacher and his role in your life.

My first impressions of Billy as a preacher would go back to when I was about 16 and Billy was with Youth for Christ and he was speaking at the Winona Lake summer Youth for Christ conferences. There were always a lot of very gifted, interesting preachers, but Billy was the one who always stood out. Just the dynamism of it. Of course it was his appearance, those gabardine suits, those flowery ties, that stabbing finger, that southern drawl with a bit of thunder in it. I can still hear "Prepare to meet thy God." Back in those days all of us young aspiring preachers wanted to be just like Billy. As the saying went, he could say: "Psalm 100, come forward" or "John 3:16" and everybody would come. He had that amazing anointing.

Another time, he came to my hometown in Canada when I was in high school to lead a Youth for Christ event and he preached powerfully. At the invitation nobody responded, except for one girl who timidly came forward. I was disappointed, but I remember Billy came over afterwards and put an arm around my shoulder and prayed with me and encouraged me.

After seminary I went to join the Graham team. It was at Wembley Stadium in London. Every night it poured rain on the 80,000 people there. You could barely see them. You could still hear that voice and people would come and stand in eight or ten inches of water at the front.

In the contrast, I can hear him speaking at our son's funeral, when Sandy died. There was a break in his voice.

They used to call him–in Germany–God's machine gun, how quickly he spoke at first. Then I think of him standing after 9/11 at the Washington Cathedral sober, quiet, and steady.

What do you think made people want to listen to Billy? What was it about him that drew people in?

It's interesting, whether he was in a hot medium like on an evangelistic stage or on television or in an interview, there was something that drew them. One of Billy's close associates remembers one of the Graham exhibits in the large exhibit hall. They had a loop with Billy speaking and said people would hear that and it would draw them from the other exhibits to come and listen to what he had to say. There was something in his voice that was God-given.

There was something in his presence: tall, standing up on that platform, the height that he had. There was a dynamism to his personality. All of that was something that God had given to him. He had those chiseled Hollywood good looks that were quite arresting. Hhe was a special man for a special time, particularly in the 50s and 60s after World War II. People were hungry for a new beginning, for a spiritual awakening, and there was the truth that came through him that drew them.

He was one of the few evangelists at that time who were well known. He stood in a very singular way through the press and through the media. People were drawn to him through curiosity.

There was also the fact that he spoke about deep needs that ordinary people had, where they were hurting. Whether it was loneliness, or a problem in the family, his core message was wrapped around those needs that people had: Purpose in life, direction in life. Which is why in Grant Wacker's recent book about Billy Graham he called him "America's Pastor." Not America's Evangelist, but America's Pastor, because of the tens of thousands of letters that came in. Sometimes up to 10,000 a day. So many of them were about questions of loneliness, or my job, or I'm worried about my children, or my husband's been unfaithful. He was a pastor evangelist in that sense.

His message was simple. It was understandable. There was that quiet voice, that powerful voice of the Holy Spirit that took all of those attributes and used them to speak to a generation. When reporters would say, “Where did this power come from?” he'd just say, “Well, God chose me.” They’d ask, “Why did he choose you?” and he'd say, “Well, that's the first question I'm going to ask him.”

After he came off a platform, he would feel very weak. He didn't feel that he was a great preacher. I think he was a great preacher. Maybe not in the technical homiletical sense of the word, but in terms of being able to communicate with people. But he never felt that. He said to Lon Allison, who was head of the Bill Graham Center at Wheaton at one time, a younger guy, “Lon, I've heard you're a wonderful preacher, I'd like to learn from you.”

Most people think of Billy Graham as a great evangelistic preacher. They put that adjective before it. But Billy really preached on a lot of wide variety of texts and topics. How did he choose those topics and how would you say he exposited the text?

A lot of Billy's thoughts and ideas came from his upbringing. His mother was quite a Bible student. For a while she attended one of the Brethren Assemblies and she had books about the Bible, and had Bible teachers come to the home. So he would have imbibed that almost with his grits.

When he went off to Bible school in Florida he was like a sponge. He listened to some of the evangelists of that day, and he drew a lot about the Bible. And as he started to preach on street corners and small churches, he would hear someone else–he got ideas from them and he would build on that. He was all over the map, I would say, in the way he preached.

One night, while he was preaching his first crusade in London, he had an obscure text from the Psalms about an owl in the wilderness. There was a man two or three days later who told Ruth Graham at a bookstore “I am so lonely, I have felt like that. God spoke through that one text.” Other times he would take a story, whether it was Zacchaeus or Belshazzar's feast, and he would tell the story and make an application of it. It wasn't so much that he had three or four different points, it was that he would have a theme for the night, and he kept coming back to that Scripture as he told a story again and again. He'd stop and apply it in simple declarative sentences.

It’s hard to say he was a topical preacher. In some ways he was a thematic preacher. As he read through all of the letters he would receive, he would then apply them to the Scripture text that he had.

He had a hard time deciding which of those he was going to preach on. Up until the last minute he would be changing what illustrations he would use and redoing it.

He steeped himself in Scripture and read biographies widely. He was a great reader. He would get ideas from many people. He would call John Stott, but he would also talk to one of his assistants, maybe nobody would know his name, get their ideas, and go back and forth with them.

I remember, for example, in New York City in 1957, Billy preached there for 16 1/2 weeks, every night except one night a week. So you can think what that was like. He had to have a different message every night, and yet the same message, with John 3:16. But he preached through the Ten Commandments. Every night he would take one of the commandments and preach through it.

Billy also addressed a lot of larger social issues: racism, nuclear armament, and so on. How did he decide which issues to address and how to address them? What was his approach to larger social issues?

It’s interesting. Here's a guy who grows up on a dairy farm in North Carolina in the American South where he was not aware of the racial issues and these other issues. He showed a capacity to grow.

He would encounter these problems, either personally or through his time talking with leaders all over the world, and then his scripturally informed conscience would speak to him. In his early crusade in the south -- in Chattanooga, Jackson, Mississippi -- the seating was segregated. But as the story goes, on one of those crusades he went up in the stands, took the ropes down, and said, “No, when you are here for God we can't be here in a segregated setting.”

He would take actions like that, and he would preach from the Scriptures: God has made one blood, all peoples, the ground is level at the foot of the Cross. He would meet with African-American leaders in these areas. In the case of poverty, Lyndon Johnson called him when he became president and said, “I'm concerned about the poverty in our country, I want to fight a war on poverty, I need your help.” Billy went to the Scriptures and read, as he said, hundreds of references to the poor in Scripture that he really had not read carefully before. Reading those verses then became the basis for his preaching a concern for poverty.

In the case of nuclear war, he suddenly realized that this could cause a global conflict. So he not only spoke about the need for prayer and an end to war, but actually went to a disarmament conference in Russia. He was roundly criticized for doing that. Even against the advice of his wife, he felt God wanted him to go and be there to represent Christ and to have an opening to speak to the people of the Soviet Union about the gospel.

He didn't march, though. He would say that Martin Luther King says, “Billy, you have your way of speaking to people through crusades, I have my way in the streets.” He did, through his crusades, through his preaching, and through his interviews, speak his conscience on those issues. But he never got to the place where he would be a one-issue person. He was always centered on Christ and centered on the gospel.

You have an arrow with a point and a base, and you have a shaft to the arrow. Billy Graham and his preaching has been like that. The tip of it is always Christ. But like the base of an arrow, he saw the implications of that gospel for poverty, for race, for war, for unity among Christians. And then the shaft of the arrow was the power of the Holy Spirit.”

And as some leaders get older, I think they get flatter, and lose that cutting edge. Others get narrower and only have one string they pluck all the time. When I think of Billy's life and his preaching–I tell young leaders to be an arrow leader, sharp at the point, broad in your understanding of the gospel, and then seek and go deeper and deeper into Christ.

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

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