On a cool Tuesday night in October 1958, the Rev. Billy Graham walked onto a stage at the Charlotte Coliseum for the 26th sermon of a five-week Charlotte crusade. “Tonight,” he began, “I want to talk on how to live the Christian life.”
More than 13,000 people had jammed the arena to see the young North Carolina preacher just a decade into his public ministry. By then, Graham had already become one of the most well-known figures in evangelical Christianity; for two years running, he had appeared on Gallup’s list of most admired men and women.
He would appear on it 53 more times.
Billy Graham died Wednesday at age 99 – a man who grew up on a family farm in Charlotte, enjoyed friendships with U.S. presidents and world leaders, and perhaps has delivered the Word to more people than anyone who has held up a Bible.
His message – the grace and saving power of Jesus – has reached millions across the globe, but it resonated not just because Billy Graham spoke the words. It’s because he lived them.
“A Christian is more than a person who is living up to a system of ethics. A Christian is more than a person living a good moral life. A Christian is a person in whom Christ dwells.” — Billy Graham, 1958, Charlotte
How do you measure the reach of a person? You can start with numbers, of course. Billy Graham preached to more than 215 million people at crusades, missions and rallies. His Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, based in Charlotte, puts out a magazine that reaches 425,000 readers. It broadcasts a one-minute radio message that airs on more than 660 stations.
That message is the same as it ever was – Jesus died for your sins; repent and give your life to him – but the man who delivered it changed through the years. Graham was a fiery Southern Baptist preacher early on – a blend of Bible and brimstone common in evangelical churches then. The man and his message softened, however, as Graham grew older and Christianity shifted its emphasis from God’s judgment to God’s love. Still, the preacher’s purpose endured: He led people to Christ with a message and an example they could follow.
In the high-profile evangelical world, he was an exception – a leader who valued integrity over ego, a husband who lived in a full and thriving marriage, a man who offered not only words to learn by, but a life to admire.
“Then our tongue – this little bit of muscle in our mouth that causes so much trouble, that splits churches and divides homes and ruins lives and damns characters and slanders people – these tongues now are to be disciplined.” — Graham, 1958
Graham was not perfect. Some, including Harry Truman, thought he was too eager for publicity. Women were stung by dismissive comments he made in 1970 about feminism.
But this is also true about Billy Graham: He embraced integration and the Civil Rights movement at a time it might have alienated his core supporters. In 1953, he told ushers not to erect barriers that separated whites and blacks in his audience, and he warned a white audience against feeling superior to blacks. In 1957, he invited black ministers to serve on his New York crusade’s executive committee, and he welcomed Martin Luther King, Jr., to join him in the pulpit in New York City.
Later, he told a Ku Klux Klan member: “It touches my heart when I see whites standing shoulder to shoulder with blacks at the cross.”
What does that tell us? That all of us have sinned, and all of us are forgiven, and all of it, according to the Rev. Graham, “is only a beginning. It is a lifetime of problems, troubles and difficulties. But you are meeting them with the help of Christ and the Holy Spirit who lives in your heart.”
And so he did. He grew and he learned and he erred and he endured. Through it all, Billy Graham not only brought Christ to millions and millions to Christ. He was the man he called on so many to be on that Charlotte stage almost 60 years ago. A man who lived a Christian life.