This biography was prepared by the staff of the Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College and is intended to provide a basic context for understanding the documents in BGEA and BGEA-related collections.
For more detail on the early years of Graham's ministry, see "I Learned to Look Straight At Them": The Apprenticeship of Billy Graham, 1937-1949
William Franklin Graham, Jr., known as Billy Graham to most of the world, was born on November 7, 1918, near Charlotte, North Carolina, to William Franklin and Morrow Coffey Graham. Billy was the first of four children, followed by Catherine, Melvin, and Jean. In 1919 he was baptized by sprinkling at Chalmers Memorial Church. William Franklin, Sr., was a successful farmer and businessman and Billy had a normal childhood. Both parents were Christians and the family regularly attended the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. In 1934, evangelist Mordecai Fowler Ham began preaching at a series of revival meetings in Charlotte. He stirred up considerable controversy with his charges of moral laxity at the local high school. Billy attended the meetings, partly attracted by the controversy. Graham was led, while listening to Ham's preaching, which heightened Graham's conviction of his own sin, to commit his life to Christ.
In the fall of 1936, the young man began attending the fundamentalist school, Bob Jones College, in Cleveland, Tennessee. He had begun to consider the possibility of becoming some kind of Christian worker. However, he could not adjust to campus life at Bob Jones and left after a few months. He transferred in January of 1937 to Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College) from which he graduated in 1940 with a BTh (Bachelor of Theology degree). While at FBI, he became convinced that he should be baptized by immersion as an adult and Rev. John Minder, vice-president of FBI, presided at the sacrament. He began preaching on street corners and at rescue missions and small churches. In December, 1938, while he was leading a series of meetings at the Peniel Baptist Church in East Palatka, Florida, he was baptized again by the church's pastor, Rev. Cecil Underwood (a Southern Baptist), in Silver Lake. He agreed to the baptism to be acceptable to Southern Baptists and at this time began his life-long membership in the Southern Baptist Convention. In February of the next year, he was ordained by Rev. Underwood and other local pastors as a Southern Baptist minister in the St. John's River Association. While still in Florida, he met members of the family of V. Raymond Edman, the president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. They praised Graham's preaching ability and Christian character to Edman, who then arranged for him to attend Wheaton. Graham attended from 1940 to 1943, when he graduated with a BA in anthropology. He became pastor of the United Gospel Tabernacle in the town of Wheaton while still a student and also had many other preaching engagements, some out of state.
At Wheaton he met fellow student Ruth Bell, his future wife. She was the daughter of the Southern Presbyterian missionary and surgeon, L. Nelson Bell. The Bells had been stationed in China since 1916. It was in that country and in Korea that Ruth spent her childhood. The couple was married on August 13, 1943, after graduation. Graham's first (and last) pastorate after graduation was at the Baptist church in the Chicago suburb of Western Springs, which was soon thereafter named the Village Church. He served a little over a year. During his time in Western Springs, he took over from another Chicago-area pastor, Torrey Johnson, the religious radio program Songs in the Night. Graham preached on the program every Sunday evening and persuaded George Beverly Shea, a popular Christian soloist, to join him.
The program was only a few months old, however, when Graham left it and the church to become vice president of Youth for Christ. YFC had grown out of the enthusiastic, unconventional Christian rallies that were being held all over the country in the mid-forties for servicemen and young people. Torrey Johnson organized the Chicago meetings and asked Graham to speak at some of them. In 1945, the local Youth for Christ organizations that had sprung up around the country joined together to form one organization under the leadership of Johnson. He then hired Graham as the traveling representative. For the next four years, Graham traveled all over the United States, Canada, and Europe, speaking at rallies and organizing YFC chapters. His two trips to Europe in 1946 and 1946-1947 (the latter trip being his first extended work with song leader Cliff Barrows) had a particularly important influence on shaping his thinking about how evangelistic campaigns should be planned and advertised. In YFC, as at Wheaton, Graham created a deep impression on individuals and large groups through his sincerity, personal attractiveness, and vitality. In turn, both YFC and Wheaton introduced him to many individuals who later became leaders of the evangelical community and who would assist Graham in his evangelistic work. Gradually, as Graham began to hold evangelistic rallies on his own, his work for YFC tapered off, and in 1948 he resigned from the staff, although he remained an active friend of the organization and served on its board of directors for a time.
In 1947, William Bell Riley, who was the founder and president of Northwestern Schools in Minneapolis, met with Graham to ask him to be his successor as head of the institution. Graham was reluctant, but Riley persuaded him. Riley died in December of the same year and Graham became president. Several of the staff and faculty at Northwestern later joined the staff of Graham's evangelistic organization.
As mentioned earlier, Graham had begun to hold his own evangelistic rallies across the country. (The first was in his hometown of Charlotte in 1947.) Working with him were soloist George Beverly Shea, choir director and master of ceremonies Cliff Barrows (whom he met in 1945), and associate evangelist Grady Wilson. (Grady and his brother, T. W., were boyhood friends of Graham's.) Within evangelical and fundamentalist communities in America, Graham became quite well known. At the end of 1949, he suddenly came into national prominence. An evangelistic campaign Graham was leading in Los Angeles resulted in the dramatic conversion of a local underworld figure and a prominent disc jockey, among others. The newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, for reasons unknown, ordered his publications to "puff Graham" and other newspapers around the country followed suit. The campaign, planned for three weeks, lasted seven. ( Click here for more information on the Los Angeles meetings, including audio files of Graham's sermons.) Next, Graham went to Boston for a scheduled series of campaigns and again the results were spectacular. He then went on to Columbia, South Carolina, where he met publisher Henry Luce, who was impressed with the evangelist and had articles about him written for his publications, Time and Life magazines.
In the next decade, Graham held evangelistic campaigns in all the major U.S. cities as well as a series of rallies in Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe. He became something of an institution--a symbol for religion in many people's minds. Perhaps the most impressive meetings of his early career were the Greater London Crusade of 1954 and the New York Crusade of 1957.
Graham and his associates were well-aware of the frequent criticism or implied criticism that evangelists were all Elmer Gantry-type con men. Graham, Barrows, Shea, and Grady Wilson had pledged to each other that they would avoid situations in the past which had led to scandals about evangelists, specifically to avoid even any appearance of financial abuse, exercise extreme care to avoid even the appearance of any sexual impropriety (from that point on, Graham made it a point not to travel, meet or eat alone with any woman other than his wife Ruth), to cooperate with any local churches that were willing to participate in united evangelism effort, and to be honest and reliable in their publicity and reporting of results. To order to run his ministry on an orderly, business-like basis, Graham, his wife, Cliff Barrows, Grady Wilson, and George Wilson (a co-worker from YFC and Northwestern Schools) incorporated the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in 1950. At the same time, Graham began his weekly radio program, The Hour of Decision.
The BGEA staff planned and coordinated evangelistic meetings and other activities of Graham and his associate evangelists. The Association eventually would have offices in cities around the world at various times , including Sydney, Buenos Aires, Winnipeg, London, Paris, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Moscow, and Mexico City. It was based in Minneapolis, Minnesota until 2002, when the international office was moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. Besides its work in evangelism, the BGEA or its subsidiaries, including Grason Company and World Wide Pictures, published periodicals (the color tabloid Decision was prepared in six languages and Braille), books, phonograph records, and audio tapes, as well as produced a variety of media programs, including films, videos, radio and television programs, web sites, web casts, etc.
The heart of the work remained the evangelistic meetings. Graham formed a team of workers who assisted each community having a crusade in planning, holding, and following up the meetings. Most of the original BGEA staff members were drawn either from North Carolina, YFC, or Northwestern Schools (where Graham served as President from 1947 until 1952). Besides Barrows, Shea, Grady Wilson, and George Wilson, important figures were public relations director Gerald Beavan, associate evangelists T. W. Wilson, Leighton Ford, Ralph Bell, Joseph Blinco, Akbar Abdul-Haqq, Roy Gustafson, Howard O. Jones, Lane Adams, and John Wesley White; pianist Tedd Smith, organists Don Hustad and Paul Mickelson; crusade directors Willis Haymaker, Walter H. Smyth and Sterling Huston. In the early 1950s, the Navigators, another evangelistic group, developed a system for following up on the Christian nurture of converts at BGEA crusades. At first, Navigator staff members were loaned to the BGEA to supervise counseling and follow-up, but by the late 1950s, BGEA staff had taken over. Charles Riggs left the Navigators to take charge of crusade counseling and follow-up.
After 1957 Graham generally held three to five crusades a year, while the number of meetings held by the associate evangelists varied more widely. Usually the associates led crusades in smaller cities and towns or even in single churches. Some specialized in different parts of the world. Akbar Haqq and Robert Cunville, for example, regularly held meetings in India and Howard Jones in Africa. All the associates, however, also held meetings in the United States and other countries. From 1964 to 1976, the crusade staff, known as the team, was based in Atlanta, Georgia. Before and after that they were at the main office in Minneapolis and later moved on to Charlotte. The name of this department was changed from "Team Office" to "Field Ministries " in the late 1980s. Reports on all of Graham's crusades and some of the associates' regularly appeared in Decision and hour long versions of several services from a major crusade would be broadcast on television usually a few months after the crusade close. In major crusades in large cities, both in the United States and other countries, Graham would preach to hundreds of thousands or even millions of people. The BGEA only held crusades in places where they had been invited by a large number of local pastors and laypersons, although the organization received so many such invitations that the evangelists could virtually pick the place they wanted to go. Staff would investigate each invitation to see if there was wide support for the meeting and then a decision would be made whether to accept the offer or not. For many months ahead of time, a crusade director and other staff people from the BGEA would be working with the local executive committee (incorporated as a separate entity), setting up subordinate committees; recruiting choir members, ushers, counselors, and others; making arrangements for the auditorium or stadium; overseeing publicity; etc. In general, local volunteers prepared for the meetings under the guidance of BGEA staff who followed a procedure developed in hundreds of such crusades. The services themselves consisted of singing by the volunteer choir, a testimony from some well known person, the offering, solos by George Beverly Shea and/or other singers, and the sermon. People who came forward at the evangelist's invitation at the end of services to become Christians or to renew their commitment or to get more information were referred to volunteer counselors who would later refer them to a cooperating pastor in their community. They also received a workbook through the mail to help them as they began Bible study.
In 1962, acting on the suggestions of Lane Adams and businessman Lowell Berry, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association began to investigate the possibility of holding seminars in conjunction with crusades. These seminars would be aimed at seminary students and would provide the future ministers with a theoretical and experimental understanding of the ways and means of mass evangelism. The program was officially organized in the Chicago crusade in 1962 when twenty young men from seven seminaries participated. The trial programs were enthusiastically received and the School of Evangelism became a regular part of major crusades. The aim changed slightly over the years as the main focus moved to pastors, although others could attend as well. A typical school consisted of a series of seminars and lectures on various aspects of practical evangelism. The speakers were members of the BGEA or people closely associated with it. For many years these schools were only held in conjunction with a crusade, but in the 1980's, annual SOE's were held by themselves at the Billy Graham Center and the Cove (see below) and other sites.
As mentioned above, the Hour of Decision radio program was one of the first projects of the BGEA. At first, Cliff Barrows served as announcer, Jerry Beavan reported on Graham's evangelistic campaign, George Beverly Shea sang, and Grady Wilson read Scripture. Then Graham brought a brief message. Although the format and participants varied some over the years, the heart of the program remained Graham's sermon, which often was closely related to or took its starting point from current events. Occasionally, one of Graham's associates, such as Leighton Ford, would give the message. One hundred fifty stations on the ABC network carried the first broadcast. The first year on the air brought in over 178,000 pieces of mail and the number steadily rose year by year. By 1970, over 1200 stations worldwide carried the program to an audience estimated in the tens of millions. Cliff Barrows became the supervisor of the recording of the program, assisted by John Lenning. Lee Fischer helped with the preparation of many of Graham's radio messages in the 1950s and 1960s, followed by Robert Ferm and John Akers.
Besides producing a radio show, the BGEA also was associated with radio stations in North Carolina and in Hawaii. The station in Hawaii, KAIM FM and AM, was started shortly after World War II by the Christian Broadcasting Association. It became affiliated with the BGEA in 1959. The station in North Carolina was begun by the BGEA about the same time and was owned by the Blue Ridge Broadcasting Corporation, a BGEA subsidiary. The call letters for the AM station were WFGW and for the FM station were WMIT. Programming included many religious shows and was aimed at a general audience.
From 1951 to 1954, there was also an Hour of Decision television show. This was produced by Walter F. Bennett and Company and was filmed in a studio, with a format very similar to the radio program. The television program also often had special guests. After taking this program off the air, the BGEA did little with the medium until 1957, when it broadcast one-hour programs of segments of the crusade being held in New York. After that, it became the usual practice for the BGEA to nationally broadcast on consecutive nights three to five programs from the same crusade. These programs were edited tape, not live, and were usually aired several months after the end of the actual crusade. Several of these series were broadcast each year. Apart from a few specials, this was the BGEA's method for using television for mass evangelism. After each program, addresses were given to which viewers could write for more information. Later, telephone numbers were also given which people could call for counseling.
Billy Graham was introduced to Dick Ross, owner of Great Commission Films, in 1949. During Graham's Portland campaign in 1950, Ross produced a documentary film on the crusade and its activities. The film's success led to the Great Commission Films being bought out by the BGEA, and the assets of the company were used to start The Billy Graham Evangelistic Film Ministry, which was incorporated in Maryland in 1952. Dick Ross was the company's first president. The company was generally known as World Wide Pictures (WWP), but this did not become its legal name until 1980. The purpose of WWP was to produce and distribute films about BGEA crusades. Many of these would combine a fictional or true story of a person's conversion with scenes from an actual crusade, including portions of a sermon by Graham.
Mr. Texas was the first World Wide feature film. It was made during the 1951 Fort Worth Crusade and premiered at the conclusion of the Hollywood Bowl Crusade. Other feature films followed, including For Pete's Sake, The Restless Ones, The Hiding Place, and Joni. World Wide acquired a studio and headquarters in Burbank, California. In 1970, William Brown became the company's president, a position he held until 1988. WWP's distribution office for the films was next to the BGEA headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota. From the 1950s on, World Wide Pictures had their production studio in Burbank,California. This was where the studio scenes in the films were shot and where in-house editing and other technical work was done. As mentioned above, this office was closed in 1988 and all WWP operations were consolidated in Minneapolis. BGEA offices in other countries assisted in distributing the films around the world. Most of the films were distributed to churches and other religious groups but sometimes also to theaters for the general public. By the 2000s, production was limited to special projects, although WWP was still distribution of earlier moving image productions around the world.
Decision magazine was another branch of the BGEA. Sherwood Wirt was hired as editor in 1958. His mandate was to prepare a monthly magazine of a few pages aimed at a general audience, which would contain Bible studies, Christian teaching, brief news items, stories from church history and articles about recent crusades. Robert Ferm, Graham's personal assistant, was co-editor of the new publication and helped to represent the evangelist's viewpoint. The first issue came out in November 1960. Eventually, separate editions were prepared in Spanish, French, and German as well as special Australian and British versions. These other versions, except for the Spanish edition, eventually became independent magazines, so that by 1988 Decision was published only in English and Spanish. Roger Palms followed Wirt as editor in 1976. For years the magazine was tabloid size, but in 1985, it went to a smaller format. The circulation in 1988 was approximately two million.
Grason Company (started by Billy Graham and George Wilson) was incorporated shortly after the BGEA itself, in January 1952. Its purpose was to publish and distribute books, records, music and other materials which the BGEA used in its work. It produced much of the material given away at crusades to inquirers (including those who responded by letter or phone to television broadcasts of crusades). Any profits from its retail sales were given to the BGEA. Wholesale sales were handled by another organization, World Wide Publications.
The BGEA had various offices in the United States. Except for the period from 1964 to 1976, when the Team office was separated out to Atlanta, Georgia, the organization's main office was in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Organization executives by the 1980s included a director of foreign crusades, a director for Graham's United States crusades (sometimes the same person) and a director of the associate evangelists crusades. The associate evangelists generally also had an office at their homes. Also located in Minneapolis were Decision, Grason, and Wide Publications offices, as well as the counseling staff which answered the thousands of letters Graham got every year from people seeking advice and comfort. Here too was the staff that handled the BGEA's massive mailing list, its financial operations and public relations. Most of these operations were under the executive vice-president of the BGEA, who was generally in charge of administrative and business matters. The World Wide Pictures distribution office was in Minneapolis as well. For a brief time from 1964 to 1976, the office of the vice president for crusades was in Atlanta. When that office was closed, the staff moved back to Minneapolis. Another BGEA office was opened in Washington, DC in 1956, but closed not long afterwards.
The other major office in the United States was in Montreat, North Carolina, where Graham had his home. The staff there helped him with his appointments, travels, sermons, and other responsibilities. His close advisor and associate evangelist, T. W. Wilson, also had his office in Montreat. The Montreat office had a large reference library on evangelism and preaching.
Outside of the United States, there were a number of BGEA affiliates. They usually coordinated the showing of BGEA films in their country; the broadcast of radio and television programs where appropriate; the production of the national version of Decision, if there was one; arrangements for crusades in that country, etc. At one time, the BGEA had affiliates in Great Britain (1955), Mexico, Canada (1954), Germany (1963), Japan (1967), Argentina, Australia (1959), France, and Hong Kong (1972). In the 1980s many of these offices were closed down or their activities were greatly decreased.
Besides evangelism, radio, television, and films, Graham was involved in many literary endeavors, including the books Calling Youth to Christ (1947), Revival in Our Times (1950), America's Hour of Decision (1951), Peace With God (1953), The Secret of Happiness (1955), World Aflame (1965), The Challenge (1969), The Jesus Generation (1971), Angels: God's Secret Agents (1975), and How To Be Born Again (1977), The Holy Spirit: Activating God's Power in Your Life (1980), Till Armageddon: A Perspective on Suffering (1981), Armageddon Hoof beats: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1983), Facing Death and the Life After (1987), Answers to Life's Problems (1988), Hope for the Troubled Heart (1991), Storm Warning (1992), and Journey: How to Live By Faith in an Uncertain World (2006) In 1997, he published his autobiography, Just As I Am. He was also responsible for a vast number of articles, tracts and similar items and a long-running syndicated newspaper column, "My Answer."
Throughout his career, Graham had critics of varying degrees of intensity. The criticisms generally fell into four different categories. Fundamentalists accused him of "ecumenical evangelism," that is, corrupting his message by accepting help and support from pseudo-Christians. Liberal Christians often wrote that he cared too much for evangelism and not enough for helping to ease the social ills of society. Some also attacked the crusades for being mechanical spectacles which moved people through emotionalism and left little in the way of results. Some evangelists felt he was too close to rulers and men of power who used him to increase their own legitimacy. These criticisms became particularly persistent in the mid-1970s because of Graham's friendship with President Richard Nixon, then enmeshed in the Watergate scandal. Graham rarely answered critics, except to state that he felt his primary task, his calling from God, was to preach the Gospel, and he would accept help from anyone who did not place restrictions on his message. He continued to have cordial relations with U.S. presidents and often gave the prayer at presidential inaugurals.
Graham had always had a deep interest in education and a commitment to training Christians in the methods of evangelism, as illustrated by the Schools of Evangelism. Two other projects of the BGEA illustrate this interest. As early as 1969, Graham and his associates had been thinking about both the preservation of the BGEA's historical materials and an evangelistic training center. Dr. Lois Ferm was involved in this early planning process. In 1974, the BGEA agreed to donate funds to create the Billy Graham Center on the campus of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. The Center, which was dedicated in 1980, included an archives, museum, and library all dedicated to the study of evangelism, as well as an Institute of Evangelism and various institutes intended to assist evangelistic work in different parts of the world and among various ethnic groups. The Center was a part of Wheaton College, but it worked closely with the BGEA and maintained the archives of the Association. The BGEA set up a separate corporation to hold the endowment from which, for many years, it made yearly donations to the Center for the maintenance of its work and for other projects.
One of these other projects was the Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove. The BGEA had acquired this property in western North Carolina near Asheville many years before and the board of the BGEA had long wanted to turn it into a school offering non-credit training in the Bible and evangelism to Christian workers and laypersons. In the early 1980s, the BGEA contracted with Columbia Bible College for CBC to start and run the school. After a few years, Columbia and the BGEA mutually decided to cancel the arrangement. In 1987, the board of directors of the Association announced that the Billy Graham Training Center would be on that site, a training Center, to quote from the Cove's 1988 brochure, "where the laity can study the Bible in depth and be trained to reach the lost for Christ, thereby serving more effectively within the local church." The staff appointed in 1987 included Tom Phillips, a former crusade director, as director of programming; Jerry Miller as director of property development and operations; and Larry Turner as director of the facility. Franklin Graham, son of the evangelist, became chairman of the board of trustees for the center.
The BGEA was one of, if not the, major influence on several twentieth century Evangelical eventssuch as the founding of Christianity Today magazine in 1955, the World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin in 1966, the International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne in 1974, and the three International Conference for Itinerant Evangelsits. Christianity Today was started by Graham, his father-in-law L. Nelson Bell, Howard Pew, and others to present the evangelical viewpoint to theologically liberal Protestant pastors. The journal evolved, however, becoming the leading voice of American evangelicals with the major share of its audience among evangelicals. The two Congresses, which also begat smaller regional congresses and consultations around the world, were meetings of Protestant leaders from around the globe who gathered to plan cooperative strategies for spreading the Gospel and serving the needs of the Church. After the 1974 Congress, the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization was created to coordinate future meetings and continue the work of the Congress. This committee was separate from the BGEA.
In 1983, 1986 and 2000, the BGEA held meetings in Amsterdam for Christian workers particularly involved in preaching the Gospel to non-Christians. The first two meetings were called the International Congress of Itinerant Evangelists 1983, and the International Congress of Itinerant Evangelists 1986 (ICIE); the third event was called Amsterdam 2000. A particular effort was made to bring people from the Third World at the grass roots level, as opposed to leaders of organizations. During the conferences, sessions were held for the encouragement and training of the attenders, as well as plenary sessions addressed by Graham and others. Almost four thousand evangelists attended in 1983, more than eight thousand in 1986, and over ten thousand in 2000. In the 1980s and 90s, television was used to reach increasing larger, populations, culminating in the April 1996 Global World Mission broadcast with an estimated potential audience of 2.5 billion people
Since 1945, Graham and his wife lived in Montreat, North Carolina. The couple
had five children: Virginia Leftwich, Anne Morrow, Ruth Bell, William Franklin,
and Nelson Edman. In 1992 it was announced by the BGEA that Graham had Parkinson's
disease and would be easing back somewhat on his extremely busy schedule. In
1995, Graham's eldest son, William Franklin Graham III, was made vice chairman
of the BGEA board and it was announced he would be his father's successor when
the time came for Billy Graham to leave the ministry. In May of the same year,
Billy and Ruth Graham received the Congressional Medal at a ceremony held at
the Capitol in Washington, DC.
After the terrorists attacks on Oklahoma city in 1995 and on New York City and Washington in 2001, Graham, acting almost as a national pastor, gave moving sermons during memorial services to a nation in mourning.
In late 2000 Franklin Graham was named chief executive officer of the BGEA, while Billy Graham continued his crusade ministry. The following year Franklin Graham succeeded his father as president of the BGEA. Billy Graham, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 1992, had begun hold lest extensive and numerous evangelistic campaigns and in mid-2005 held his last campaign in New York City. Following that, he lived in retirement with his wife in Montreat, although still much involved with the planning and work of the BGEA.
On May 31, 2007, a public exhibit, called the Billy Graham Library, was dedicated on the grounds of the BGEA headquarters in Charlotte. The multi-story, 40,000 square foot building told the story of Graham's life and ministry and made an appeal to visitors to come to Jesus Christ as Savior. Graham's boyhood home was also moved onto the property and opened to visitors. Two weeks later, Ruth Bell Graham died and was buried on the grounds of the Library, next to the site reserved for her husband.