Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans – Billy Graham

Sep 27, 2015 by

billy graham BGEAinK.C.04-56

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans – Billy Graham

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) I can think of no single American so inextricably linked with the religious and spiritual life of America than Billy Graham. When and where was he born, and what were his early years like as a child?

William Franklin Graham, Jr. was born on a dairy farm that his parents owned near Charlotte, North Carolina on November 7, 1918. He was the oldest of four children. Graham attended school in the local area, graduating from Charlotte’s Sharon High School in 1936. From an early age, Graham did chores on the family farm, often waking at 2:30 a.m. to begin his workday. In his autobiography, Graham speculated that his lackluster academic record in high school was in large measure due to the fact that this work regimen allowed for very little sleep.

Indeed, Graham failed French in high school, and had to receive tutoring to get a passing grade in that subject. By all accounts, Graham gave little evidence of his future greatness as a minister while he was growing up. His main ambition at the time was to be a professional baseball player, but his aspirations in that regard ended with him only playing four innings of semi-pro baseball. Although he spoke wistfully of his baseball days in his autobiography, it was evident to his friends and teammates that he would never make his mark on the world through the national pastime.

2) What initially got him started in ministry and preaching? Was there any specific time or place or event?

Graham’s family was a religious one, but during his early years he did not possess what we would call a deep and abiding faith. All that changed when he was sixteen. A minister named Mordecai Ham had come to Charlotte to hold a revival meeting, and Graham decided to attend.

Ham’s preaching had a powerful effect on Graham that night, convincing him that he had hitherto been unaware of his sinfulness. After attending successive meetings, Graham chose to announce to the assembly that he was accepting the fact that Jesus was his savior.

Accordingly, upon graduating from high school Graham decided to attend Bob Jones College, a conservative non-denominational institution then located in Cleveland, Tennessee. After one semester there, however, Graham concluded that the school was too narrow in its focus. Searching for a college more in tune with his outlook, Graham decided to enroll at the Florida Bible Institute in January of 1937. Receiving a degree in Bible Studies in 1940, Graham decided to enroll at Wheaton College to pursue a degree in Anthropology. He graduated from that school with a B.A. in 1943.

A Baptist church in Western Springs, Illinois asked him to become its pastor, and Graham accepted the position. This started him on a career of ministry that would last until his retirement in the early 2000s.

3) When did he start to get national recognition?

From his early days as a minister, Graham had sought to bring his message of salvation to as wide an audience as possible. Initially, this desire led to his involvement with a radio show called Songs in the Night. In 1947, Graham chose to emulate the man who had been responsible for his acceptance of Jesus, deciding to hold a revival meeting in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Approximately 6,000 people attended this meeting (which Graham had called a crusade). Encouraged by the turn-out, Graham began to plan for a bigger event. Two years later, Graham had a huge tent raised in a parking lot in Los Angeles and began a crusade that he hoped would run for three weeks. In fact, so many people attended the crusade that it was extended for five additional weeks. This crusade received highly favorable coverage from the media, and established Graham as the foremost religious leader of the era.

4) I know that he has served many Presidents. Are there any stories about his encounters with our Presidential leaders?

Billy Graham has the distinction of having had an audience with every American president since he met with Harry Truman shortly after the start of the Korean War in 1950. His relationships with the presidents have varied widely. Truman, for example, met with Graham only once, and in the book Plain Speaking the president is quoted as calling the evangelist a “counterfeit.”

Lyndon Johnson, on the other hand, had a great admiration for Graham. Indeed, Graham was a frequent guest of his at the White House, and often prayed with him. By far Graham’s most controversial relationship with a president was the one that he shared with Richard Nixon. As most Americans are aware, Nixon had a taping system in the Oval Office, and over the years quite a few of the transcripts of conversations that he had in that room have been released to the public.
From what we have learned from these tapes, on two occasions Graham and the president had discussions that involved the subject of the Jews. Graham can be heard making comments of an anti-Semitic nature on those tapes, a revelation that Graham has since apologized for.

It is also clear that Graham opposed the presidential candidacy of John Kennedy in 1960 because of Kennedy’s Catholicism. This behavior is in marked contrast to his courageous stance throughout his life on Civil Rights. Unfortunately, the incidents involving Nixon and Kennedy have left a taint on his legacy in the eyes of some observers.

5) It seems that he still is semi-active in religious and spiritual matters and has just written a book as he is approaching the end of his life. Could you summarize his life and the lessons he has left behind?

There have been many religious leaders in our nation’s history who have had a notable influence on our spiritual life, but Graham undoubtedly has had the greatest impact. There were evangelical ministers prior to Graham—he was, after all, brought to his newfound spirituality by one of them—but none of them had the opportunity to influence the nation on the scale that he has. It is estimated, for example, that over three million Americans came forward at a Graham-led crusade to accept a new relationship with Jesus. His pleasant disposition and positive message have caused millions of others to view him favorably.

Because of this, Graham holds a record for having the most years (55) on the Gallup poll for most admired people. It can be therefore argued that much of the evangelistic surge among the nation’s populace can be attributed to his ministry. It is quite likely that Graham’s influence will live long after his eventual demise.

6) What have I neglected to ask?

Although he is a religious leader, Billy Graham shares much in common with many of the other Americans examined in this book. Most of the Americans that we selected have clearly been products of their times in many respects, and such was the case with Graham. His anti-Semitic remarks in conversations with Richard Nixon and his opposition to John Kennedy’s attempt to become the president demonstrate that Graham shared prejudices quite common during his lifetime.

But his story also resonates with those of many of the other figures included in this book in that he rose above other limiting beliefs of his time. His efforts to further the cause of Civil Rights clearly stands as an example an American who looked beyond conventional wisdom of the time to try to make a difference for the nation. Billy Graham truly deserves to be considered as one of the greats of our nation.

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1 Comment

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    Joan Masters

    I kept waiting for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or even Ben Franklin

    This guy needs to go back to school and read a book on America’s Founding Fathers

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