Billy Graham was perhaps the most significant religious figure of the 20th century, and the organizations and the movement he helped spawn continue to shape the 21st.

During his life, Graham preached in person to more than 100 million people and to millions more via television, satellite, and film. Nearly 3 million have responded to his invitation to “accept Jesus into your heart” at the end of his sermons. He proclaimed the gospel to more persons than any other preacher in history. In the process, Graham became “America’s Pastor,” participating in presidential inaugurations and speaking during national crises such as the memorial services following the Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 attacks.

“He became the friend and confidante of popes and presidents, queens and dictators, and yet, even in his 80s, he possesses the boyish charm and unprepossessing demeanor to communicate with the masses,” said Columbia University historian Randall Balmer.

Billy Graham was born in 1918 in Charlotte, North Carolina, attended (briefly) Bob Jones College, graduating from Florida Bible Institute near Tampa, and Wheaton College in Illinois. He was ordained a minister in the Southern Baptist Church (1939) and pastored a small church in suburban Chicago and preached on a weekly radio program. In 1946 he became the first full-time staff member of Youth for Christ and launched his evangelistic campaigns. For four years (1948–1952) he also served as president of Northwestern Schools in Minneapolis. His 1949 evangelistic tent meetings in Los Angeles brought him to national attention, and his 1957 New York meetings, which filled Madison Square Garden for four months, established him as a major presence on the American religious scene.

Graham appeared regularly on the lists of “most admired” people. Between 1950 and 1990 Graham won a spot on the Gallup Organization’s “Most Admired” list more often than any other American. Ladies Home Journal once ranked him second only to God in the category of “achievements in religion.” He received both the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1983) and the Congressional Gold Medal (1996).

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