Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition)
He was a Christian superstar
Tributes pour in for ‘God’s Ambassador’, telly evangelist Billy Graham who died at his North Carolina home at the age of 99, writes Tom Leonard
BILLY Graham says he was called to God on a golf course – at the 18th hole, in fact, of the Temple Terrace Golf and Country Club, in Tampa, Florida. One night in 1939, the young Graham – a student working parttime as a caddy – knelt on the green and “prostrated myself on the dewy turf ”, devoting his life to being a minister of God.
His first congregation, he said, were the alligators and cypress stumps on a nearby island that were treated to his first attempts at preaching the Gospel. It was a humble beginning for a man credited with preaching to more people than anyone in history.
Graham, who had been suffering from cancer and pneumonia, died on Wednesday, aged 99, at his home in Montreat, North Carolina.
He was a Christian superstar. The most influential preacher of the 20th century, he had the ear of countless world leaders, including a string of US presidents and – as viewers of The Crown have seen – Queen Elizabeth, with whom he had a long, warm friendship.
Dubbed “God’s Ambassador”, he was friends with Martin Luther King jr, the Kennedys and Margaret Thatcher.
Almost all who met Graham could attest to his extraordinary charisma and the power of his oratory. Even fervent opponents conceded that he was the acceptable face of Christian evangelism.
Graham delivered converts to the Lord in truly biblical quantities – after his ministry began in 1947, some 210 million people in 185 countries went to see him preach at one of his famous “crusades”.
He would call on wouldbe converts – he called them “inquirers” – to come to the front and make a commitment to God. Broadcasts of his sermons on TV and radio took his estimated total audience to more than 2 billion.
Buckingham Palace said Queen Elizabeth will be sending a private message of condolence to Graham’s family, while President Donald Trump tweeted: “The GREAT Billy Graham is dead. There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man.”
His heyday in the Fifties and Sixties was a more God-fearing era for America and a receptive one for his warnings about the evils of communism, which he said was the work of the devil.
Graham took his ministry to every corner of the world and was even allowed to visit – but not preach in – communist North Korea. In South Korea, more than a million people heard him speak.
By the Sixties he had been nicknamed the Great Legitimator – no matter who was in the White House, they ignored the blessing or support of Graham at their peril.
He gained global attention when he held a two-month ministry in a giant tent in Los Angeles in 1949.
His thundering, rapid-fire speaking style earned him another nickname: God’s Machine Gun.
Graham kicked off his international mission of speaking in large arenas on a visit to London in 1954. The trip was a risk because the British were not nearly such ardent churchgoers as the Americans. But the response was rapturous.
Graham sited his first full-scale UK ‘crusade’ next to a greyhound track at Harringay Arena in North London, filling it every night for three months. For his grand finale at Wembley Stadium, 120 000 people came to listen to him.
Returning to Britain in 1966, he addressed vast crowds at Earls Court, London, where Sir Cliff Richard made his first public commitment to Christianity.
The highest in the land were also moved by Graham’s oratory, he claimed. He met Queen
Elizabeth in 1955 when one of his faith “crusades” in Glasgow was broadcast on the BBC and she watched the programme.
Revealing more about the Queen’s faith than protocol might sanction, Graham attributed her “spiritual interest” to the Queen Mother’s “quiet but firm faith”. He recalled: “After preaching at Windsor one Sunday, I was sitting next to the Queen at lunch. I told her I had been undecided until the last minute about my choice of sermon, and had almost preached on the healing of the crippled man in John 5. Her eyes sparkled and she bubbled over with enthusiasm. ‘I wish you had!’ she exclaimed. ‘That is my favourite story.’”
After decades of inspiring belief and hope around the world, Graham’s final revival meeting took place in New York in June 2005. His last pronouncement was to warn, in 2012, that the Second Coming was approaching, and that the signs of the end of the age are “converging for the first time since Jesus made those predictions”.
He initially preached to racially segregated audiences, but later embraced the civil rights movement wholeheartedly.
His decision to personally take down ropes separating blacks from whites at a gathering in Tennessee in 1953 was seen as a seminal moment in breaking down racial barriers in American churches. It was Graham who bailed Martin Luther King jr out of jail when he was arrested. But the pair fell out when King criticised the Vietnam War, which the patriotic Graham couldn’t tolerate.
In 1994, the preacher was caught out after the publication of White House diaries by a Nixon aide claimed Graham and the president had discussed the “Jewish domination of the media”, and how Graham had said America’s problem lay with left-wing “satanic Jews” pushing pornography.
He denied it but, eight years later, a tape recording proved he had said it. Graham apologised, but insisted he still couldn’t remember saying such things.
Born in 1918 and brought up on a dairy farm in Charlotte, North Carolina, Graham was the son of parents who were members of a socially conservative branch of the Presbyterian Church that was descended from Scotland’s Biblebrandishing Covenanters.
Graham married Ruth Bell, a classmate at theological college, when he was 25. They had five children and were together for 64 years until her death in 2007.
Ruth – as committed a Christian as her husband – accepted that he had to put God first, and she played an integral part in his ministry, according to biographers.
Despite his continual absences, Ruth never considered leaving him. “Divorcing never, but killing – several times,” she joked.
Their daughter, also Ruth, revealed it wasn’t easy living in a family with such a rigid moral compass. When she divorced her first husband for infidelity, it was she who was made to feel guilty, she said. “In our church, adultery’s forgivable. Divorce is not. At least not back then.”
Ruth said recently she hoped her father would meet God in Heaven after his death like “two friends greeting each other, who have known each other for years”.
All Graham wanted to hear from God, she said, were the words “well done”. And “he will”, she added with conviction. – Daily Mail