Today marks the one-year anniversary of Rev. Billy Graham’s transition from earth to heaven. This marker leads me to consider again this man of God and his immeasurable impact on me, our nation, and our world.
I remember a story Graham’s hand-picked biographer, William Martin, shared with us at AFA Journal last March (afajournal.org). Martin first penned a 1985 Graham bio, A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story, and the 2018 update by the same title was released last spring with fresh insights into the evangelist’s heart and humility.
A widow’s mite
During a visit to a leprosarium in Nigeria, Martin said Graham was approached by a patient whose hands had already been eaten away by the disease. She approached Billy Graham extending an envelope clutched between her short arms.
“This is just a little love gift for you and your team,” she said. Graham grasped her arms, accepted the small envelope, and thanked her. As she walked away, he opened the envelope to find Nigerian currency worth about $5.60 U.S.
A note with the gift read, “Wherever you go from now on, we want you to know we have invested in some small way in your ministry and given, in a sense, our widow’s mite. We send our love and prayers with you around the world.”
Graham gazed out across the vast brushland, then turned to face his team, tears trickling down his face.
“Boys,” he said, “that’s the secret of our ministry.”
A personal impact
Upon Graham’s death, I wrote on The Stand, “No applause is adequate, no superlative sufficient. So I won’t even try to articulate the immeasurable global impact of William Franklin Graham Jr., aka Billy Graham (1918-2018), the pre-eminent Christian evangelist of the past century.”
I won’t even try? What was I thinking? Even at that moment, I was already trying to find words to explain his impact – from his early televised crusades to his cover photos on countless Christian magazines and America’s biggest secular news magazines, to his reach around the world, and to his unmatched connections to the oval office in our nation’s capital.
I only saw the man in person one time, and it was an unforgettable experience. When I attended a March 2010 seniors seminar at The Cove, the Billy Graham Training Center in Asheville, North Carolina, we had been blessed with worship led by Cliff Barrows, long-time minister of music for Graham’s crusades. And we had been teased with the hint that George Beverly Shea, a decades-long crusade soloist might come and sing for us if his health permitted. He was 101 years old that year.
During the last evening session, I had pretty much given up on Shea when the auditorium doors – just three rows down in front of me – opened as Barrows led us in singing the old hymns, and in walked Shea. Then I became aware that someone was following Shea.
Yes. It was the man. Billy Graham moving slowly, carefully using his walker. The two latecomers joined Barrows on stage, and for 20 minutes or more, the three reminisced about their extensive ministry together, crusades of note, numbers in some crusades, funny anecdotes of happenings along the way.
I was later told that was the last time the three men appeared in public together. What an extraordinary blessing to hear firsthand of their challenges, their fears, their failures, their victories, and more.
A world and national impact
Worldwide impact? The reliable factsandtrends.net/2018/02/21, estimates 2.2 billion people heard him preach, 215 million of them at live events. He preached in an estimated 185 nations and territories, and newspapers regularly carried his column “My Answers” to 5 million subscribers around the globe. That’s quite an audience for one man to reach.
Stateside, Gallup polls found him to be among the nation’s top 10 most admired men year after year after…well, 61 years to be exact, every year the question was asked (ca. 1955-2017). Two-thirds of U.S. churchgoers had contact with his ministry through either his sermons or his writing. He wrote 33 books, and his 1953 bestseller, Peace With God, has sold more than 2 million copies.
There is no greater evidence of Billy Graham’s impact on our nation than to understand that he was dubbed “the Presidents’ Pastor” – and rightly so. In William Martin’s latest book, All the Presidents’ Man, the author explores the unlikely but unquestioned relationships Graham established with U.S. presidents beginning in 1950 when he was granted a short audience with President Harry Truman. In 2013, he was seated at the table with then president-to-be Donald Trump to celebrate with Billy Graham on his 95th birthday.
From Truman to Obama, Graham advised and counseled with every president who sat in the Oval Office. Discussion of policy decisions. Prayers for safety. Wisdom on issues of state. Counsel for personal lives. Chat about family. Graham was a confidant whom 13 U.S. presidents regarded with high esteem. That’s almost 30% of the men who have sat in that office throughout our nation’s history.
Billy Graham. Preacher. Friend. Soul winner. Counselor. Patriarch. Citizen of tiny Montreat, North Carolina, of the U.S. and citizen of the world. And, as of late, a citizen of heaven. I look forward to meeting him one day and trying to tell him how much his life and ministry touches me still.