Billy Graham, who preached to millions, dies at 99

Billy Graham, who criss-crossed the globe with the gospel, has died aged 99. He preached to some 215 million people who attended one of his more than 400 Crusades, simulcasts and evangelistic rallies in more than 185 countries and territories, according to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

Billy Graham died at his home in Montreat, North Carolina, USA at 7.46 local time (11.46 at night in eastern Australia).

“I have one message: that Jesus Christ came, he died on a cross, he rose again, and he asked us to repent of our sins and receive him by faith as Lord and Saviour, and if we do, we have forgiveness of all of our sins,” said Graham at his final Crusade in June 2005 at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in New York.

“That’s the biggest crowd that’s ever been at the MCG.” – Geoff Warren

Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the 1959 “Crusades” in Sydney and Melbourne during which an estimated 50 per cent of the Australian population heard the evangelist’s message (Graham’s preaching was broadcast around Australia via ‘landlines’ into churches and other public spaces).

While Graham also prominently preached in Australian cities during 1968, 1969 and 1979, the 1959 rallies remain his most famous visit to Australia.

At the Melbourne Cricket Ground, a crowd of 143,000 came to hear Graham; there were 150,000 at the Sydney Showground and Cricket Ground. According to the Australian Evangelical Alliance, who invited Graham to speak in Australia in 1959, more than 130,000 people made a commitment to Christ during his tour. That’s almost 2 per cent of the Australian population at that time.

Although it was more than half a century ago, Geoff Warren can still picture the week Billy Graham came to Melbourne. It was March 1959, he was 14, and he found himself attending several of the rallies, including the rally in the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

“That’s the biggest crowd that’s ever been at the MCG,” says Warren. “It was an unbelievable experience.” As choirs sang ‘How Great Thou Art’ and ‘Just As I Am’, and Graham pounded the air using his trademark phrase “the Bible says”, Warren says “the Lord really challenged me”.

But when the evangelist made a call for those who wanted to convert to make their way to the front, Warren stayed put. “I was sitting with my parents who were both non-Christians. When I told them I wanted to go down the front they basically told me I was an idiot – that I couldn’t take part in that. So two years later I made a public decision at my own church and I got baptised.”

However a quiet change was birthed in Warren’s life that night when he got home and began reading the Bible by his own initiative for the first time. He saw similar changes all through Melbourne community. “It was a revival,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

One prominent Sydney Anglican who was converted at a 1959 crusade is former Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen.

Two decades later when Graham was in Australia again, 23-year-old Nick Cole, who worked in the Air Force, was there. As an altar call was made, Cole went forward to support a friend but inadvertently found a counsellor leading him through the “sinner’s prayer”. “I felt like I was a bit hoodwinked,” Cole says.

The crusade organisers spoke with an Air Force chaplain, who made contact with Cole the following day. The chaplain said, “What wonderful news that someone was willing to share that salvation message with you. What a great thing God has done to send his own Son into the world.” Though he was “fired up” that someone would convert him when he already believed himself to be a Christian, Cole found himself agreeing with the chaplain’s words. “Had it not been for the crusade, perhaps I wouldn’t have been as receptive to the chaplain,” he says. While there were no ‘penny drop’ moments, Cole dedicated his life to Christ not long after and now works for the Bible Society Australia’s community relations team.

Geoff Warren was Cole’s boss at Bible Society Australia. He believes the effect of the crusades is still felt today. “The Sydney Anglican Diocese, which is huge now,” says Warren, “really came to life after Billy Graham.” When he was General Manager of Bible Society Sydney, Warren found three quarters of Sydney Anglican donors were converted during the Billy Graham crusades.

One prominent Sydney Anglican who was converted at a 1959 crusade is former Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen. He told ABC’s Compass program, “You know, whenever I go to our local churches – and I now travel around – I always ask: [is there] anyone here [who] came to know Christ at the Billy Graham Crusades in the 20th century? And so far there’s always been people sitting in the congregation who came to know Jesus at that time. In other words, yes, our churches had a terrible shock in the 1960s and went through a great revolution. And they were challenged very profoundly, and that challenge continues. But without the Graham crusades I think our churches would be in a far, far worse place than they now are.”

“The Graham crusades were very careful not to induce the wrong emotion. You can’t really become a Christian without some degree of emotion. It’s like saying you could fall in love without feeling emotional.” – Peter Jensen

In determining if the crusades created a legitimate revival, questions have often centred on the emotional state of converts. On both sides of the divide, analysts of the movement wondered: was there too much – or not enough – emotional response among those who gave their hearts to Christ?

Again speaking to Compass, Dr Jensen said, “The Graham crusades were very careful not to induce the wrong emotion. You can’t really become a Christian without some degree of emotion. It’s like saying you could fall in love without feeling emotional.”

From the BGEA official biography:

Preferred Baseball to Religion

Graham, a country boy turned world evangelist, who prayed with every U.S. president from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama, was raised on a dairy farm in Charlotte. Back then, “Billy Frank,” as he was called, preferred baseball to religion. “I detested going to church,” he said when recalling his youth.

But in 1934, that changed. At a revival led by traveling evangelist Mordecai Fowler Ham, 15-year-old Graham committed his life to serving Jesus Christ. No one was more surprised than Graham himself.

“I was opposed to evangelism,” he said. “But finally, I was persuaded by a friend [to go to a meeting]…and the Spirit of God began to speak to me as I went back night after night. One night, when the invitation was given to accept Jesus, I just said, ‘Lord, I’m going.’ I knew I was headed in a new direction.”

Billy Graham held his first official evangelistic Crusade in 1947; but it was his 1949 Los Angeles Crusade that captured the nation’s attention.

Several years later, Graham’s “new direction” led him to the Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College of Florida) and, later, Wheaton College in suburban Chicago, where he met fellow student Ruth McCue Bell, the daughter of medical missionaries in China. The couple graduated and married in the summer of 1943. Mr and Mrs Graham and their five children made their home in the mountains of North Carolina. They were married for 64 years before Ruth’s death in 2007.

After two years of traveling as a speaker for the Youth for Christ organization, Billy Graham held his first official evangelistic Crusade in 1947; but it was his 1949 Los Angeles Crusade that captured the nation’s attention. Originally scheduled to run for three weeks, the “tent meetings” were extended for a total of eight weeks as hundreds of thousands of men, women and children gathered to hear Graham’s messages.

On the heels of this campaign, Graham started the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which was incorporated in 1950. Since 2000, Graham’s son, Franklin, has led the Charlotte-based organization, which employs some 500 people worldwide.

Billy Graham may be best known, however, for his evangelistic missions or “Crusades.” He believed God knew no borders or nationalities. Throughout his career, Graham preached to millions in locations from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Zagorsk, Russia; and from Wellington, New Zealand, to the National Cathedral in Washington. In 1973, Graham addressed more than one million people crowded into Yoido Plaza in Seoul, South Korea — the largest live audience of his Crusades.

Breaking Down Barriers

Preaching in Johannesburg in 1973, Graham said, “Christ belongs to all people. He belongs to the whole world … I reject any creed based on hate … Christianity is not a white man’s religion, and don’t let anybody ever tell you that it’s white or black.”

Graham spoke to people of all ethnicities, creeds and backgrounds. Early in his career, he denounced racism when desegregation was not popular. Before the U.S. Supreme Court banned discrimination on a racial basis, Graham held desegregated Crusades, even in the Deep South. He declined invitations to speak in South Africa for 20 years, choosing instead to wait until the meetings could be integrated. Integration occurred in 1973, and only then did Graham make the trip to South Africa.

A 1977 trip to communist-led Hungary opened doors for Graham to conduct preaching missions in virtually every country of the former Eastern Bloc (including the Soviet Union), as well as China and North Korea.

Graham authored 34 books, including his memoir, ‘Just As I Am’ (Harper Collins, 1997), which remained on The New York Times bestseller list for 18 weeks.

In 1996, Graham and his wife, Ruth, received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award Congress can bestow on a private citizen. He was also listed by Gallup as one of the “Ten Most Admired Men” 61 times—including 55 consecutive years (except 1976, when the question was not asked). Graham was cited by the George Washington Carver Memorial Institute for his contributions to race relations and by the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith.

Throughout his life, Graham was faithful to his calling, which will be captured in the inscription to be placed on his grave marker: Preacher of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.


Some prayer points to help

Pray that many will remember the message that Billy Graham preached throughout his life.