Yesterday’s post discussed Billy Graham’s lying in state and his funeral.

Today’s looks at aspects of his life some of us might not know about.

Church upbringing

Billy Graham’s parents, Morrow (née Coffey) and William Franklin Graham Sr., were members of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. The ARPC still exists today but is a tiny denomination affiliated with the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council as well as the World Reformed Fellowship. The denomination was founded in 1803 in Winnsboro, South Carolina. It emerged from a Scottish Covenanter/Seceder tradition. Theologically, it is Evangelical Calvinist.

Early life

William Franklin Graham Sr was a dairy farmer. The family farm is just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Billy was the eldest of four children. He had two sisters — Catherine Morrow and Jean — and a brother, Melvin Thomas.

Billy enjoyed reading, especially boys’ adventure books. He liked Tarzan so much that when he climbed trees and gave out the famous Tarzan yell, he scared horses and drivers. His father later said imitating Tarzan led him to the ministry.

When Prohibition ended in December 1933, Billy was 15. Graham Sr made all his children drink beer until they were physically ill. None ever touched a drop of alcohol after that.

Despite church and abstinence from drink, Billy was considered ‘too worldly’ for membership in a local youth group. One of the Graham farmhands, Albert McMakin, encouraged Billy to attend a revival given by Mordecai Ham, a Baptist evangelist. Billy duly attended and was born again in 1934.

Further education

Billy graduated from Sharon High School in 1936. He enrolled at Bob Jones College which, at the time, was located in Cleveland, Tennessee.

After his first semester, he found it too legalistic and rule-driven. Although he was advised by Pastor Charley Young from Eastport Bible Church, he was almost expelled. Bob Jones Sr told him:

At best, all you could amount to would be a poor country Baptist preacher somewhere out in the sticks … You have a voice that pulls. God can use that voice of yours. He can use it mightily. [23]

In 1937, Graham transferred to the Florida Bible Institute in Temple Terrace, Florida, near Tampa. That year, he preached his first sermon at Bostwick Baptist Church in Palatka, Florida. While at the Florida Bible Institute, the Temple Terrace Golf and Country Club played a significant role. He later wrote, he got his call to ministry on the 18th green.

Graham practiced preaching to the birds, alligators and cypress stumps across the Hillsborough River directly across from that 18th green. Later, this area was transformed into the Reverend Billy Graham Memorial Park, which still exists today.

In 1939, he was ordained in Palatka, Florida, at the Peniel Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation.

The Revd Graham then moved to northern Illinois to attend Wheaton College. He graduated with a degree in anthropology in 1943.

During his time at Wheaton College, Graham accepted the Bible as the infallible word of God. However, this decision took place in California. He attended Forest Home Christian Camp (now called Forest Home Ministries) in the southern part of the state. Henrietta Mears, an evangelist and Director of Christian Education at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood (yes, that Hollywood), helped him arrive at that decision. A memorial at the ministry camp marks the spot.

Love, marriage and family

Wheaton College can take credit for Graham’s love story with a fellow student, Ruth Bell, a surgeon’s daughter.

The two married in 1943. Their devotion for each other lasted until Ruth’s death in 2007. Interestingly, Ruth remained a Presbyterian her entire life. She never became a Baptist, Graham’s denomination after ordination.

Ruth gave birth to five children:

Virginia Leftwich (Gigi) Graham (b. 1945), an inspirational speaker and author; Anne Graham Lotz (b. 1948), runs AnGeL ministries; Ruth Graham (b. 1950), founder and president of Ruth Graham & Friends, leads conferences throughout the US and Canada; Franklin Graham (b. 1952), serves as president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and as president and CEO of international relief organization, Samaritan’s Purse;[34] and Nelson Edman Graham (b. 1958), a pastor who runs East Gates Ministries International,[35] which distributes Christian literature in China.

The Graham children, in turn, had their own families:

At the time of his death, Graham had 19 grandchildren, including former pastor Tullian Tchividjian, and 41 great-grandchildren.[36]

Notable events in early and middle ministry

Before Graham graduated from Wheaton, he became pastor of the United Gospel Tabernacle. He also took on various speaking engagements.

From 1943 to 1944, he was pastor of the First Baptist Church in Western Springs, in the Chicago suburbs. He left to take over a Christian programme on radio, Songs in the Night, which was about to be cancelled because of lack of money. The church in Western Springs financed the programme. Although Graham left the programme in 1945, it continued for many years afterwards.

In 1947, the first Billy Graham Crusade was held in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at the city’s civic auditorium. Six thousand people attended.

In 1948, at the age of 29, Graham became president of Northwestern Bible College in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was the youngest president of any higher education institution in the United States.  Despite this privileged position, Graham wanted to be a military chaplain. Instead, he came down with the mumps and went to Florida to recuperate.

Whilst in Florida, Graham joined a new ministry, Youth for Christ (YFC), which his friend Torrey Johnson co-founded with a Canadian evangelist, Charles Templeton.

Graham somehow managed to continue as president of Northwestern Bible College and tour the US as well as Europe with YFC.

Graham also held his own revival during this time. In 1949, he held a long-running revival in Los Angeles in a car park equipped with circus tents. The revival was supposed to last three weeks. Instead, it lasted for eight.

In 1950, he founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), which will continue to exist. Initially, it was based in Minneapolis, as that was where Graham worked. Later, it moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, his home city.

Graham resigned from in Northwestern Bible College in 1952.

In 1953, he came out openly against segregation at his own rally in Chattanooga, Tennessee:

Graham tore down the ropes that organizers had erected in order to segregate the audience into racial sections. In his memoirs, he recounted that he told two ushers to leave the barriers down “or you can go on and have the revival without me.”[49] He warned a white audience, “we have been proud and thought we were better than any other race, any other people. Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to stumble into hell because of our pride.”[49]

In 1957, he made friends with black clergymen:

Graham’s stance towards integration became more publicly shown when he allowed black ministers Thomas Kilgore and Gardner C. Taylor to serve as members of his New York Crusade’s executive committee[50] and invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he first met during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955,[50] to join him in the pulpit at his 16-week revival in New York City, where 2.3 million gathered at Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium, and Times Square to hear them.[10] Graham recalled in his autobiography that during this time, he and King developed a close friendship and that he was eventually one of the few people who referred to King as “Mike,” a nickname which King asked only his closest friends to call him.[51] Following King’s assassination in 1968, Graham mourned that the US had lost “a social leader and a prophet”.[50] In private, Graham advised King and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).[52]

In 1974, he co-founded the Lausanne Movement with two Britons, Graham and John Stott. The first meeting was held in Lausanne, Switzerland on July 16–25 that year.


As we know, Billy Graham made countless public appearances, not all of which were in a religious setting.

In 1969, he gave an interview to William F Buckley Jr, who was a devout Roman Catholic. At the time, young people were wondering if God was dead. Buckley’s interview on Firing Line centred on the decline of Christianity.

Here is a short clip, which everyone should watch if only to hear Buckley speak. I’ve never heard better American English, both in vocabulary and tone:

The full interview is here.

Graham told Buckley that 75% of scientists believe in God, a higher percentage, he said, than when he was growing up. He also said that he thinks there is life on other planets (!!), but only on Earth does God face rebellion. He said there has to be a theocracy during Christ’s 1,000 year reign. He said that a theocracy is in the Apostle’s Creed. Buckley, who knew his prayers, said that was a reference to the next life. Yes, indeed!

Graham thought that being born again had to be a deep ‘personal experience’. He thinks that churches intellectualise receiving the Holy Spirit. That was, no doubt, a polite reference to Confirmation classes.

Graham also said that people should go to church as Jesus attended synagogue. He also foresaw that, by 2000, there would be home churches just as there were in the days of the early Church.

People on other websites have found the following Billy Graham videos memorable.

This is his address in the National Cathedral in Washington DC after 9/11. He tells the audience that they mustn’t give up hope or faith:

In the next video, from 2014, Graham discusses death and Heaven:

The last video celebrated his 99th birthday. Those who knew and worked with Graham discuss him and his astounding ministry:

Billy Graham and Steve McQueen

In closing — and saving the most intriguing fact for last — Billy Graham helped the famous actor Steve McQueen to embrace Christianity:

The Charlotte Observer has the story:

Actor Steve McQueen, who personified cool during his nearly two decades as a Hollywood superstar, retreated from the glamor and excesses of the movie scene late in his short life and embraced Christianity.

When he died at age 50, McQueen was clutching a Bible – one given to him by Billy Graham.

In fact, it was Graham’s personal Bible, the one he preached from at crusades. The Charlotte-born evangelist had handed it to the actor, then gravely ill with cancer, during a private meeting Nov. 3, 1980 – just four days before McQueen died after surgery in Mexico …

And though Billy Graham, now 98 and living in his mountain-top Montreat home, doesn’t speak or appear in person in “Steve McQueen: American Icon,” the preacher and his Bible play a major role in its final minutes …

Viewers are told that McQueen took along the Graham Bible – with a prayerful note from the evangelist on an inside page – when he traveled to Juarez, Mexico, for the operation to remove a tumor.

The actor died of a heart attack shortly afterward, on Nov. 7, 1980. And when Grady Ragsdale, the manager of McQueen’s ranch in California, went to retrieve the body, he pulled the sheet back and found that McQueen had died clutching the Bible to his chest.

Laurie puts it this way in the film: “He was holding on to the Bible of Billy Graham as he entered eternity.”

How cool is that?