William “Billy” Franklin Graham, Jr. died [DATE] in his home at Montreat, North Carolina [HOSPITAL]. He was [? years old]. This private moment has been followed by a most public and massive period of mourning for and evaluation of a most public and massive life. There simply will not be another Billy Graham. For sixty years, his name and countenance have been among the most admired—he made Gallup’s Ten Most Admired Men list a record 41 consecutive times—and recognizable of any person on the planet. His renown is all the more astounding because he was an itinerant evangelist—not a political leader, movie star, or sports hero—who commanded a vast audience that spanned decades and continents with his beguilingly simple message of sin and salvation.

That same message changed Graham’s life in 1934 when at the age of sixteen he had a born-again experience in his native North Carolina. Not long after his commitment to Christ, Graham decided for the ministry and enrolled at the ultraconservative Bob Jones College. Dissatisfied with Jones’s strident version of Christianity, Graham left the college after a semester, a move that foreshadowed his lifelong discontent with extreme fundamentalism. Graham instead trained for the ministry at the Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College) of Tampa. By the time of his graduation in 1940, Graham had been ordained to the ministry under the auspices of the Southern Baptist Convention, mentored by some of the best known evangelists of his day, and had gained considerable preaching experience on street corners, at area revivals, and on local radio. The relatively seasoned if youthful evangelist chose more education over full-time pastoring, and took a degree in Anthropology from Wheaton College in Illinois in 1943.

The intellectually rigorous Wheaton and the reserved Midwestern culture of Illinois leavened the flamboyance of Graham’s Southern evangelical style. Ruth Bell, Graham’s sweetheart at Wheaton, future wife, mother of his five children, and daughter of the well-known Presbyterian missionary L. Nelson Bell, also served, as she would until her death in 2007, as a moderating influence on Graham’s theological pronouncements and preaching methods.

His Ministry and the Crusades Begin

With a degree in hand and a faithful partner at his side, Graham embarked on a whirlwind career. In just four years, Graham accepted the pulpit at First Baptist in Western Springs, Illinois, left the parish for Youth for Christ International, assumed the presidency of Northwestern Schools in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and began holding crusades as an independent evangelist. In 1949, during his “Christ for Greater Los Angeles” crusade, Graham went from a rising star within the evangelical subculture to a rising star within mainline Protestant culture. His overnight transformation into a national phenomenon came after a sympathetic William Randolph Hearst noticed Graham’s campaign in Los Angeles and instructed the editors of his media empire to “puff” the youthful evangelist. The effect was immediate and lasting. Graham, at just thirty-one years of age, became a media darling of the Hearst publications, Henry Luce’s Time-Life, Inc., and a host of other national periodicals.

After Los Angeles, Graham continued to feed the news cycle by hosting a staggering twenty-nine crusades in every region of the country between 1950 and 1953. Early in that national sweep, during a stop in Portland, Oregon in 1950, Graham and his team of supporters formed the Billy Graham Evangelical Association (BGEA) to handle the logistics and financials of his growing ministry. Among other things, the BGEA assisted Graham with his many ventures, including his radio program Hour of Decision (1950), My Answer syndicated newspaper column (1952), Decision magazine (1960), Billy Graham Evangelistic Film Ministry (1952), his dozens of books, beginning with Peace With God (1953) and ending with The Journey (2006). And, of course, for fifty-five years the BGEA managed a dizzying number of crusades that reached some 210 million people in 185 countries on six continents, including his all important New York City crusade of 1957.

Just as there will never be another Billy Graham there will never be another evangelical event like that of his sixteen-week campaign at Madison Square Garden. In that time, Graham preached 96 sermons to a live audience totaling 2 million and a television audience of over 90 million. Apart from becoming the longest-running even in the Garden’s history, Graham drew enormous crowds to Wall Street (20,000), Yankee Stadium (100,000), and Times Square (125,000). Through it all, Graham steadied himself with his consistent message of sin and salvation.

The sheer magnitude of the campaign and the attention it received established Graham as the face of Protestantism in America while also signaling his undisputed leadership of a movement known as neo-evangelicalism. The neo-evangelicals retained the evangelical hallmarks of personal conversion, inspiration of the Bible, and command to spread the gospel but they also hoped to cleave the evangelical tradition of the dogmatism and exclusivity of early twentieth-century Christian fundamentalism. Graham had been a key figure in the founding of the ecumenical and neo-evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary (1947) and the neo-evangelical publication, Christianity Today (1956) but the New York City crusade, specifically Graham’s open collaboration with the liberal Protestant Council of New York, left no doubts about his openness to ecumenism.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus