Billy Club

A simple, happy message helped him become the nation's favorite preacher. Thanks to a Popsicle-slick PR machine and a talent for dodging tough questions, we've forgotten what Billy Graham is really all about.

He also liked seeing people in temporary peril. "When we'd jump into the hay near the pitchfork, he would just laugh — that would tickle him if someone came near danger," one of his cousins told biographer Marshall Frady, adding that Billy never seemed to get hurt himself. His behavior was tightly controlled: "I learned to obey without questioning," he writes proudly in his 1997 autobiography, Just As I Am. When his mom talked to Frady, though, she sounded contrite: "Perhaps we whipped them more than we should have. But it was just that we had to work so hard then, we had little time for anything else, we had too little patience. We thought that little disobediences, you know, were terrible things."

At 15, handsome, earnest Billy took to going every evening to hear the revival preaching of Dr. Mordecai Ham, later famous for his anti-Semitism. Billy waited and waited for the Spirit to move him. Finally, one of the town merchants said, "Billy Frank, wouldn't you like to be a Christian?" and urged him forward.

It was a calm conversion — no fireworks or thunderclaps, just a quiet decision whose tone he would later carry into Decision magazine; the Hour of Decision radio show; and his famously pensive, patient altar call. The fruit of this sort of conversion was not euphoria but the abiding smug comfort that comes with knowing the password. On the way home, he happily told his friend, "Now I've gotten saved. Now whatever I do can't unsave me. Even if I ever killed somebody, I can't ever be unsaved now."

Bob Daniel of the Ferguson Church of the Nazarene with Billy Graham paraphernalia
Jennifer Silverberg
Bob Daniel of the Ferguson Church of the Nazarene with Billy Graham paraphernalia

Later, when he looked for reasons beneath his own behavior, he'd slide from coincidence or character straight to God or Satan. Of his sexual purity, for example, he once said, "I was just shy, actually. It probably wasn't so much morality at all. According to my friends, I simply didn't know what to do. But I was just held back by a force that I don't understand. I never touched a girl in the wrong way, and I thank God for it."

Graham's greatest temptation must have been lively, sensuous Pauline, the one girlfriend he didn't introduce to his mom. She described his early evangelism to Frady: "Can you imagine — there he was, he'd gone down there and was just preaching away all by himself on that sidewalk in front of Belk's Department Store to all those people going by, all of them totally ignoring him, businessmen just wanting to get on home and have a cocktail before dinner, and there he stood raving away at them. It was awful — "

It was awful, and then it got good. Even in his brief college stint as a Fuller Brush salesman, young Graham outsold everybody else: "Selling those little brushes became a cause to me," he said later. "I felt that every family ought to have a Fuller Brush as a matter of principle."

When Graham turned this eloquence to the Bible, his absolute proof of God's love and Jesus' saving grace, there was no stopping him. Even early on, when strident political and social criticism spilled like lava from his pulpit, Graham glowed with sincerity, warmth and untroubled righteousness.

But he didn't sell himself quite as effectively as he sold God. Pauline dumped him, and so did his next true love. Graham was devastated. Finally, at Wheaton College, he met Ruth Bell, daughter of a famous missionary. This courtship was more idealistic than impetuous; both believed God meant them to be together. And God, to Graham's great relief, had never let him down.

Puffed Graham

After a brief, unsatisfactory stint as a pastor, Graham began traveling the country as an evangelist, drawing larger and larger audiences, using bolder and bolder strategies. He didn't want to preach to the choir; he wanted to fill secular stadiums. In 1947, when ministers invited him to save the fallen angels of Los Angeles, Graham held out for $25,000, five times what they'd suggested. He was determined to buy enough publicity to splash the Word all over town.

At first, it looked like a waste of cash. Reporters weren't covering the campaign, and the "buzz" he'd intended was about as obvious as white noise. Then William Randolph Hearst heard the young evangelist denouncing communism as the special project of Satan. Delighted, Hearst issued a two-word command to his media empire: "Puff Graham."

Puff they did. The gust blew into the arena that night, filling the seats with quote-hungry reporters and TV crews. The campaign was picked up by the wire services, and Billy Graham hit the pages of Time, then Newsweek, then Life. Soon Henry Luce, founder of his own Time-Life empire, showed up for a personal visit, followed by another spate of national publicity.

It's not often that the media are accused of doing God's work. But Graham believes to this day that "God may have used Mr. Hearst to promote the meetings." Mr. Hearst certainly used Billy to oppose communism — with dramatic results. "What I said was being quoted all of a sudden, and I knew I wasn't really all that qualified," Graham later told Frady. "I didn't really have the experience yet to say the right things, but the people expected me to speak with authority.... I was terrified."

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