In 1949, at the Los Angeles revival that made Billy Graham a household name, an Episcopal clergyman accused the evangelist of setting religion back 100 years.
“I did indeed want to set religion back, not just 100 years but 1,900 years, to the Book of Acts, when first century followers of Christ were accused of turning the Roman Empire upside down,” Billy said in response.
Almost 60 years later, no one remembers the name of the Episcopal clergyman, but Billy’s booming voice and God-given ability to simplify the Gospel of Jesus Christ will never be forgotten.
“Come to Jesus just as you are,” is the message he has brought to the ends of the earth for more than half a century – with little scandal to deter from his soul-winning speeches, books and live broadcasts.
The evangelist, who turns 90 on Nov. 7, is one of the most influential religious leaders in American history, having shared the Gospel with more than 215 million people at events in more than 185 countries, not to mention millions more through radio and television broadcasts. He has also advised every sitting president since Harry S. Truman, who took office in 1945 – with the exception of John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic. The first President Bush even dubbed Billy “America’s Pastor.”
Second to One
According to The Cincinnati Post, “When Ladies Home Journal magazine compiled a survey rating leaders in various disciplines, Graham ranked second in the category ‘achievements in religion.’ First place went to God. For a North Carolina farm boy who has been called the ‘Protestant Pope’ and ‘God’s ambassador,’ the lofty company is as humbling as it is well-deserved.”
Although he has rubbed noses with some of the most famous, infamous and extraordinary people of the last century, Billy has never considered equality with God something to be grasped, let alone placing anywhere near Him on the religiosity scale. In fact, Billy is perhaps most well-known for his ability to relate with ordinary, everyday men and women.
“He loves the simple things of life. He’d rather go to a cafeteria than a fancy restaurant,” says Basyle Tchividjian, professor at Liberty University School of Law and Billy’s grandson. “He’d really rather sit and talk with one of his grandkids about how things are going at school than talk to the president. His normalcy surprises people.”
Perhaps it was his quaint upbringing on a dairy farm in Charlotte, N.C., that made Billy think he was nothing special.
Billy has been described by The Los Angeles Times as “a humble man who never saw a need to upgrade his cheap suits or his modest mountaintop home,” which was designed by his beloved wife Ruth, who passed away June 14, 2007.
The Los Angeles Times also noted that after touring The Billy Graham Library, a museum in the shape of the barn at his boyhood home, Billy gruffly replied the homage to his Life was “too much Billy Graham.”
A movie depicting his childhood years spent on the farm and his later decision to follow Christ at a Mordecai Ham revival, called “Billy: The Early Years,” was released in theaters Oct. 10 just in time for his birthday.
Basyle and Aram Tchividjian, Graham’s grandsons, recently released a book to commemorate the impact God has had on the lives of men and women through their grandfather’s Life .
“Beyond the magazine covers, best-selling books, White House visits and Gallup polls are the masses of everyday people who have been forever changed by God through a man we’ve known simply as ‘Daddy Bill,'” the two wrote in their book, “Invitation.”
In fact, Aram says he thought his grandfather was no different than anyone else’s during his childhood years.
“I thought everybody’s grandfather was on the cover of Newsweek from time to time. I didn’t realize he was famous. …” says Aram, owner of a web design company in West Palm Beach. “As you get older you realize, and I think I’ll always be realizing the impact of his Life .”
In an effort to capture the full scope of Billy’s Life, Basyle and Aram created ThankYouBilly.com, a website where visitors can browse stories of how Billy has touched someone’s life, or they can share their own.
In just a few months, hundreds of stories poured in from all over the world. Yet, it was no shock to Basyle or Aram, who’ve had people stop by to tell them stories about their “Daddy Bill” for years.
One story shared on the site was from a woman who planned to commit suicide before God changed her life at the push of a button.
“She got up from her couch to go kill herself – she said she was going to drive her car off the bridge,” Aram shares. “As she stood up, she accidentally stepped on the remote, and it flipped the channel to a Billy Graham crusade. And for the first time she heard … that there’s a God who loves you and has a plan for your life. …
“Long story short, she didn’t kill herself, she gave her life to Christ, and she turned her whole life around,” he adds. “You can’t make this stuff up.”
But, perhaps Billy’s most notable influence has been on his own family.
“I can’t think of a member of our family who’s not a Christian, which is an amazing blessing when you just consider how many of us there are,” says Aram. “But that does not mean by any means that we have not gone through hard times. Throughout our family, we have divorce, arrests and all sorts of stuff. … We’re far from perfect.”
Along with his wife and college sweetheart, Ruth – who in and of herself was a pillar of the Christian faith – Billy raised five children. The first three were girls: Virginia, most commonly known as Gigi, Anne and Ruth, known as “Bunny.” All three are published authors and speakers.
Their sons are William Franklin, who is the president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse and Nelson, called “Ned,” who serves as president of East Gates International, an organization that serves the Church in China.
Tullian Tchividjian, another grandson, and pastor at New City Church in Margate, Fla., adds, “There are 19 of us grandkids, and some of us have gone off the deep end. And some of us have come back by God’s grace.”
Yet, even when their children or grandchildren rejected their family and their faith, like Tullian did as a teenager, he says his grandparents were nothing but gracious.
“They have always been great cheerleaders for the underdog, and because of the way I chose to live my life for seven, eight or nine years, I was the underdog,” he says. “… Never, never once did they wave a finger at me and say I better get my act right or that I was tarnishing the family name. Never. … If anything, what they would grieve over most was the devastation my sin was causing me … the fact that my choices were shrinking my soul.”
He says Billy and Ruth knew their own sinful nature very well, but they knew their God better. And their knowledge of sweet salvation available through Jesus Christ allowed them to welcome sinners into the family of God — at home and on the international stage.
As Billy once said, "The human heart is the same the world over. Only Christ can meet the deepest needs of our world and our hearts. Christ alone can bring lasting peace – peace with God, peace among men and nations."
To share your story of how God touched your life through Billy Graham, visit ThankYouBilly.com.