WHO AMONG THE SONS OF THE MIGHTY
CAN BE LIKENED TO THE LORD?
PSALM 89:6 (KJV)
Growing up in Christian home on the outskirts of Charlotte, North Carolina, and attending a Bible-centered church with his parents, William Franklin Graham II began his life well instructed from God's Word. Both before and after his decision as a teenager to commit his life to Jesus Christ, godly people surrounded him, and he drank deeply from many springs. We will look at some of them.
Contrary to what one might expect, theological seminary is absent from the list of shaping forces in Billy's life. He never attended seminary. I remember when he came to San Francisco in 1958 and was invited to address students from several seminaries gathered at Berkeley Baptist Divinity School. He was nearing forty, but he told them frankly that they knew a lot more than he did about Christianity. He said he felt "totally inadequate" in their midst. A packed roomful of people did not share the feeling.
I admit that I have not known all the tributaries to Billy's spiritual makeup. For example I did not have the honor of meeting Billy's godly father, W. Frank Graham, whom Billy has called "the finest man I ever knew."
Perhaps foremost in influencing young Graham was his mother, Morrow Graham a woman of great sweetness of spirit. Brought up
on a small vegetable farm outside Charlotte, she was reared to be a Christian and a classic southern lady. She married a dairy farmer and was a devoted wife and a mother of four outstanding children, of whom Billy was the eldest, born November 7, 1918. "Mother" Graham was a dedicated Presbyterian churchwoman and a lot more. Billy often tells how she taught him John 3:16 while she bathed the small boy in a galvanized tub in the family kitchen. In middle life Morrow Graham was introduced by her sister to local Plymouth Brethren views of the Bible, which seem to have added zest, depth, and a touch of glory to her testimony.1 She became a sought - after Bible instructor and often traveled throughout North Carolina teaching "the branch life" (based on John 15) to groups of praying Christian women.
Ruth Bell Graham, Billy's wife for over half a century, is one of America's favorite role models of womanhood. Her effect on her husband's ministry has been immeasurable. The daughter of a Presbyterian missionary surgeon, she was born in North China and grew up speaking Chinese in several dialects. After attending high school in North Korea, Ruth enrolled at Wheaton College in Illinois, where she met Billy Graham. Marriage two years later in 1943 diverted her from her intended career as a missionary to China or Tibet. As a gracious wife an warmhearted mother of five, she has set an example for the whole world, carrying a heavy load during her husband's extended absences.
Through five decades of marriage Ruth, a dear friend of my late wife, Winola, and myself, has reflected the basic message of Holy Scripture and the principles and values of her father and mother, Dr. and Mrs. Nelson Bell, as well as her own classic southern Presbyterian heritage. Many books have been written about this attractive, charming woman a poet, author, Bible student and teacher, benefactor, housewife, mother, grandmother, and even humorist.
Dr. Lemuel Nelson Bell, Ruth's distinguished father, served in North China for twenty-five years, until forced to leave his hospital by invading Communists. Returning home to North Carolina, he practiced medicine in Asheville and became executive editor of Christianity Today, the magazine his son-in-law founded. An eloquent
Bible teacher and fine writer, Dr. Bell was elected moderator of the Presbyterian Church of the U.S. in 1972. He died a year later, shortly after completing his term of office. (More than once this man reminded me that he prayed for me by name each morning.)
Two men at the Florida Bible Institute outside of a Tampa where Billy attended for three and a half years also had a great impact on the young student Dr. W.T. Watson and the Reverend John Minder. Dr. Watson, founder of the Institute, was a Christian and Missionary Alliance preacher with a great vision. Rev. John Minder, the rangy, gentle, godly pastor of the Tampa Gospel Tabernacle, was also an Alliance preacher and served as dean of the Institute. He gave Billy his first preaching opportunities and became a beloved spiritual father to him. Billy ranks him among the strongest influences in his life.
When Billy enrolled in Wheaton College at the age of twenty-one, Dr. V. Raymond Edman was president. Both Billy and Ruth became close friends of Dr. Edman, who was known as "Prexy" to his students. Later when Graham had launched his evangelistic ministry, Dr. Edman often traveled with the team. Billy said of Edman at his homegoing in 1967, "From the day I walked on this campus, his advice and counsel have been a part of my ministry. I never made a major decision without consulting him."
Miss Henrietta Mears, director of Christian education at Hollywood First Presbyterian Church for many years, is credited with sending 400 young men and women into the Christian ministry. In 1949 she invited Billy Graham to address hundreds of students at her August College Briefing Conference. Her friendship and spiritual understanding at that time guided Billy in his decision to build his ministry solely on the Bible. He has called Miss Mears one of the most remarkable Christian women he ever met.
Dr. John Alexander Mackay, president of Princeton Theological Seminary, was one of Billy Graham's strong supporters. He invited Billy to address the seminary's student body and faculty but dissuaded him from taking graduate study. He told Billy he "had already enough intellectual understanding for the work of an evangelist, and if enrolled as a student, he would find his time being filled in counselling other students."
During his All-Scotland Crusade in 1955, Billy Graham consulted with the Very Reverend James Stuart Stewart, professor of New Testament at New College, University of Edinburgh. The British Broadcasting Corporation had invited Billy to address the entire United Kingdom by television from Kelvin Hall, Glasgow. The subject was to be "The Cross." It would be the first time anywhere in the world to attempt a live telecast of one of his large crusade services.
Professor Stewart's reputation was international. His books of sermons were studied by theologues all over Britain ad America. He preached in the great churches of both countries and Canada. On Palm Sunday, at Billy's request , the two men spent a quiet day together discussing the Cross and the Atonement. The professor assured Billy that his position was scriptural, his doctrine was sound and historic, and his understanding of the atonement of Jesus Christ was authentic.
On Good Friday all Britain heard John 3:16 expounded by the American visitor, with people watching in pubs, in tenements, in Buckingham Palace. It was, wrote John Pollock, "the vastest audience addressed by a preacher in Britain ... second only to the coronation of the Queen." From the Shetland and Orkney Islands in the north to the Isle of Wight, the reception was overwhelmingly positive. An Anglican vicar in Yorkshire wrote Billy that he had been ordained for twenty years and had finally, after a lifetime of searching, found Christ during the telecast. One year later an invitation came to the American evangelist from Windsor Castle.
In this chapter we have been speaking of reservoirs or influence in human terms. The plain fact is that the ministry of Billy Graham defies all attempts at explanation on a human level. Billy is God's man. He is neither mystic nor ascetic "holy man" nor minor divinity, as the world understands such terms. There is nothing either magical or purely psychological in the way people respond to his preaching.
The reservoirs we have described were deep. They helped Billy Graham build in our lifetime ministry a that has changed the way Christians look at evangelism. They also enabled him to bring a whiff of divinity into the second half of the twentieth century.
1. William Martin, A Prophet with Honor (New York: William Morrow, 1991), 62.
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