[Billy Graham died Wednesday morning, February 21, 2018. He was 99 and had preached the gospel to more than 215 million people in 200 countries for almost 70 years. I wrote the following article about him when his autobiography, as well as two other biographies of him, came out in 1997. This article first appeared in Ink, a now-defunct magazine on books and writers.]
In his autobiography Just As I Am (Zondervan), Billy Graham mentioned the blind men who were asked to describe an elephant. Each came up with a wildly different description because they were all touching a different part of the animal. (For trivia buffs, the original source is the poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant” by John Godfrey Saxe.) Now contrast that story with three 1997-released biographies—including his own—of Graham. Although each author, far from blind on his subject, comes at the Graham “elephant” differently, the basic take-away of each book is remarkably similar.
Billy (Crossway Books) was written by Sherwood Wirt, founding editor of Graham’s evangelical magazine, Decision, and author of 25 books. He presents a fast-paced (averaging four pages per year of ministry) loving tribute to the man he called “the most important person that ever entered my life.”
In Billy Graham: Personal Thoughts of a Public Man (Victor Books) Sir David Frost let Graham speak for himself through television interviews he did with him over 30 years. Frost, an internationally known author and television producer, was also a friend of Billy Graham.
And in Just As I Am, Graham with the help of several editors and researchers, squeezed a simple narrative of his life into 750 pages. The book took 10 years to write and involved more questions of what to leave out than what to put in. Several, including his wife Ruth, thought it should be three volumes, but Billy joked that if that happened he might be finished before the book was. The (eventually) finished product has an easy-reading style with touches of humor and the “God is great—I’m not” humility we’ve come to expect of its author.
Each of these three books can stand alone, but together they form a trilogy of what has happened over Graham’s many years of ministry, how the religious world reveres him and—even more amazing—how the secular world admires him.
To See Ourselves
Robert Burns wrote (paraphrased from the Scottish version): “Oh, would some power the gifter give us, to see ourselves as others see us!” Billy Graham didn’t have that gift. Somehow amid acclaim from the religious and secular world, meetings with presidents and kings, and crusades where millions hung on his every word (his face and voice easily among the most recognizable in the world), he didn’t see himself as others saw him. He remained humble.
Unlike the Wirt and Frost books, Billy’s autobiography took us back to before he became a public persona—to the North Carolina farm where he milked cows before dawn and kept pet goats. He recalled some lessons learned early, such as the time he shut a dog and a cat in a closet overnight. They went in enemies and came out friends. Billy wrote, “Maybe that is where the seeds of some of ecumenical convictions got planted, wanting to help people at odds with each other find ways to get along together.”
In the rest of the book, he takes us with him as he is called to the ministry and as he preaches the gospel around the world, including behind the Iron Curtain before it fell. While concentrating on the presence of God in his work, he devoted some space to his absences from home and the strain put on his family that was handled so admirably by Ruth.
Billy never lost the wonder that God chose him to do all that he had done. His is a book—and a life—too big to be condensed in a few sentences here.
As Others Saw Him
Sherwood Wirt—a plain-spoken newspaper man turned preacher—met Billy Graham after helping to promote his crusade in San Francisco in 1958. Billy admired Wirt’s writing and later that year asked him to help start a magazine for his organization.
Wirt recalled, “He took my life, when I was pastoring a church, and turned it upside down by inviting me to become his editor. Instead of preaching to a couple of hundred people every Sunday morning, I was ministering to 5 million people through Decision magazine.
After 17 years as editor of Decision, Wirt retired. Writing a book on Billy was not on his agenda, but a publisher suggested he write one since he’d known Graham so long. Oddly enough, the same publisher turned it down when he submitted the proposal. Wirt submitted it several other places and Crossway jumped on the opportunity. His book, Billy, took one and a half years to complete. Wirt’s wife Ruth, who had also worked for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, helped with the manuscript.
Wirt had a specific goal in mind. “Billy has information in his book about the 10 presidents that he knew,” Wirt says. “That wasn’t what I was interested in. I was trying to get people to understand how Billy and the Lord worked together, how he related to the Lord of the universe, how the Holy Spirit affected his relationship with other people. Those are the things that I wanted to show: qualities of leadership.”
In the introduction Wirt wrote, “By the grace of God, Billy Graham and I are friends. And so I invite you to meet my friend.” He tells us that his friend is a lighthearted individual. The media often miss the love of the Spirit and the joy of the Lord [in him]. Does he have a wild side? “I like occasionally to wear a colorful sport jacket,” the evangelist once told Wirt. “That’s about as wild as I ever get.” He rarely cries. He’s a smiling man who has a wonderful marriage and family, a man who laughs a lot, a man who enjoys meeting people.
Wirt also shows the massive effect the Graham crusades had on countries: “he gave the Gospel credibility in the halls of state and even in the Kremlin. He lit a spark, and the spark caught fire.” The televised crusades also affected individuals. Some chapters open with copies of letters from children [grammar unchanged] to Dr. Graham. For example:
“Dear Mr. Graham, Sir, we have never met but you have done a lot for our family, Mom and Dad nevery went to church until they heard you on T.V. and now they go every Sunday and Wednesda. They try to live right evething is so much better.
In Christian Love, Kitty Wilcox”
What is the secret of the power in the evangelist’s life? Wirt answers, “Billy Graham is filled with the Spirit of God. That is the source of his inner power. His life is not so much controlled as invaded by this unseen Source. No matter where he is . . . he is never more than half a second out of touch with God.”
When I interviewed Sherwood Wirt, he asked me to try to “convey the lovableness of Billy Graham, how he even shows affection for the people who attack him and criticize him. It’s remarkable the way he responds to human beings; this, I take it, is the work of the Holy Spirit.”
Snapshots Here and There
British journalist Sir David Frost cited the reason he wanted to write his book, Billy Graham: Personal Thoughts of a Public Man. “One day I was reviewing the tapes of the shows we have done together and it came to me that they comprised a record that should be put between the covers of a book, because of the permanence it would give his words. Billy Graham’s words need to be repeated now and reheard again and again in generations to come, because they contain the wisdom, love, healing truth, and reconciliation that people everywhere need to hear and embrace.”
Rather than a complete picture of Billy’s life and ministry Frost says it’s “a snapshot here and a snapshot there that together form a fascinating mosaic which helps us appreciate his many gifts for communicating God’s countless gifts.”
The Frost book contains transcribed television interviews from 1964 to 1993 and some printed interviews. As you read, you hear Billy’s voice in extemporaneous conversations. The subjects vary from political to personal. And the responses can be riveting. Especially when Graham admits he doesn’t know, begins a controversial answer with the ultimate disclaimer “the Bible says . . .,” or challenges his friend Frost, a man of apparently undeclared religious persuasion, to a personal faith in Christ. However, even this is done in a characteristically disarming way.
“What is the gift you’ve got?” Frost wondered in a 1969 interview.
Graham: “I believe it’s a gift of the Spirit of God, and when we get to heaven I’m going to reach over and grab David Frost—.”
Frost: “Thank you. Thank you.”
Graham: “—if you’re there—.”
Other bits from the mosaic include: He’s still nervous when he stands up to preach. His children? He believes he shortchanged them by his absences. The presidents? He knew them before they became president. His fellow men? “I’ve never met anyone in the world that I thought was a real atheist . . . I have not met anybody that I didn’t like and didn’t love.”
But not everyone has been as loving to him. He continually got death threats. Acid was thrown in the face of a security guard who answered the door of his hotel room for him. In 1970 he had to have three attack dogs in a fence surrounding his home. (In one week, five people tried to break in.)
Frost asked him if a burglar got into his house but said he’d leave him only one gift that he’d received—what would he want to keep? Graham answered, “My wife. I hope she’s watching.”
Looking Back and Up
Were three Graham biographies too many in one year? Probably not. Christians live in a disappointing world in which some of our greatest disappointments come from each other. For [more than] half a century, Billy Graham has been our most notable exception, the show-and-tell exhibit we can point to with trust. A man with no scandal attached to him. All three books reinforce that trust. Beyond that, they give us a feeling that Billy Graham would be a great friend and that—given time and proximity—he would love to be our friend.
2018 Update: I ended this article in 1997 by saying that in his 78th year Billy was fighting the effects of Parkinson’s disease [he died of cancer and pneumonia]. He was graciously and gradually passing the mantle to his son Franklin, who also heads global charity Samaritan’s Purse, and his daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, a prolific author and speaker
In his preaching, Billy frequently told us that we walk by faith and not by sight and that heaven is nearer than it ever was before. Now his faith has become sight.