Billy Graham at 96: what we can learn from the great evangelist

Billy Graham in 1966.

On November 7, 1918, the Great War was coming to an end. The Allies and the German High Command were discussing the terms of an armistice. The toll of the war had been grievous and thoughts of death were everywhere. However, on that day a new life was beginning, one that would change hearts and minds all over the world: Billy Graham was born, and today marks his 96th birthday. 

William Franklin Graham, known to his family as Billy Frank, was born on a dairy farm near Charlotte in North Carolina, into an ordinary God-fearing family. He was to become an internationally-recognised speaker and Bible teacher who preached the Gospel to millions, a wise counsellor who walked with kings and presidents and the founder of an evangelistic association which continues his work. Billy Graham retired from public ministry in 2005, though even now he continues to witness: he is featured on a 30-minute video programme, Heaven, released this month.

On this, his 96th birthday, here are five things that mark his ministry out as unique.

1. Integrity. As early as 1947, he and his campaign team met in a motel in the Californian town of Modesto to discuss the pitfalls faced by revivalists. They identified four issues: misuse of money, sexual immorality, exaggeration of results and criticism of other clergy. They resolved that they would conduct regular financial audits, that they would never travel or dine alone with a woman outside their families, rely on independent confirmation of attendance at their meetings, and emphasise areas of agreement rather than disagreement. When so many other pastors and teachers have been ruined because they failed to keep their financial, sexual and spiritual integrity, Graham kept to the Modesto principles all his life.

2. Courage. Growing up in the South, like others of his generation he regarded racial segregation as normal. But Graham gradually transcended his background and made brave gestures in favour of integration. On a famous occasion in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1953, he told the organisers of a crusade that he would not preach if the audience was segregated. Arriving to find that blacks and whites were separated by a rope, he personally tore it down, causing the head usher to stomp out in a rage. In 1957 he invited Martin Luther King to pray at his Madison Square Garden crusade and praised him for leading a "great social revolution". He led a mixed-race crusade in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1959, against opposition from the Ku Klux Klan. As Grant Wacker says in his biography America's Pastor, "Though he was not always as forthright as he might have been, even by the standards of his time and place, he made it difficult for millions of people publically to resist racial justice and still call themselves Christian."

3. Innovation. Graham is much more than just a preacher. His "crusades", as they became known, were highly organised affairs. More than this, though, he embraced new technology, developing a radio station, television programmes, a magazine and a film production company. He even, in 1998, Graham spoke at a TED conference to a crowd of scientists and philosophers. As of 2008, his estimated lifetime audience, including radio and television broadcasts, was more than 2.2 billion. In many ways, Graham blazed the trial which was followed, not always successfully, by many of his successors.

4. Grace. Billy Graham grew up in a fundamentalist home and attended two fundamentalist colleges – Bob Jones and Wheaton. However, while he has never lost his evangelistic edge and has always looked to the Bible as his supreme authority, he has always worked with people from across the Christian spectrum. Criticised for working with theological liberals he told the National Association of Evangelicals in 1955, "I intend to go anywhere, sponsored by anybody, to preach the Gospel of Christ, if there are no strings attached to my message." He was criticised by fundamentalists for associating with liberals and by liberals for being too simplistic in his preaching. But he has never allowed his critics to distract him from the message he had been called to preach.

5. Humility. For many decades Graham was the highest-profile religion figure in the US, and one of the highest-profile in the world. He has been the spiritual adviser to American presidents and knows the media game intimately. Though he has usually tried to steer clear of political entanglements, at times he was drawn beyond his evangelistic remit, usually regretting it. However, his personal humility has saved him from the excesses shown by his evangelistic co-labourers. His memoirs and other writings "brimmed with regrets", says Wacker. But he quotes Graham's photographer, Russ Busby, who said: "The biggest asset Billy has is his honest humility. He has an ego, like the rest of us. Sometimes it takes off, but he brings it back under control. It takes a big ego to be a big preacher, but the difference between Billy and the others is that when God wants to speak to him, at least he can get his attention."

Billy Graham is not a once-in-a-generation servant of God; he has been a once-in-a-lifetime blessing to the Church. Now very frail and suffering from Parkinson's disease, he waits to meet his maker in quiet confidence – not in any reward he might have earned, but in what Christ has done for him.