Billy Graham, the measure of man

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By Obadiah Mailafia

THE American evangelist Billy Graham passed away peacefully in his sleep on Wednesday 21 February in his home in Montreat, North Carolina, USA, age 99. William Franklin Graham Jr was born on 7 November 1918 on a dairy farm outside Charlotte, North Carolina, of Scottish-Irish Presbyterian stock. Graham was brought up on a diet of rural Calvinistic values.

Late Billy Graham

He had to wake up at 2.30 am to milk the cows and shovel off tons of manure. At a tent revival organised by the travelling evangelist Modercai Ham, the sixteen year Graham made the life-changing decision to commit his life to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.

In 1936, he enrolled at Bob Jones College, a Christian liberal arts institution in Greenville, South Carolina, but soon left because he found the atmosphere rather stifling. The following year he transferred to Florida Bible Institute, where he apparently bloomed. He found in his new academic home “a unity of God’s people who sincerely held Jesus at the centre of their lives”. During a solitary walk in the woods one evening, he knelt down and offered his future and destiny to serve the Lord as pastor and evangelist if this was His will for his life. In February 1939, he was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister.

He later proceeded to the better-known Wheaton College Illinois, where he graduated in 1943, majoring in anthropology — a discipline that broadened his mind and enabled him to see beyond the narrow waspish culture of his forebears. At Wheaton, he also met the woman that would become his wife, Ruth Bell, daughter of medical missionaries in China. It was a marriage made in heaven.

In 1944, Billy Graham began his ministry as a pastor with the Youth for Christ evangelistic mission. In 1950, he founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, BGEA. His style combined the traditional open tent crusades in football stadiums with broadcasting in radio and television in over 140 countries. He ministered directly to more than 200 million people, and, indirectly, 2 billion. Some 3 million people are said to have responded directly to his altar calls.

Billy Graham has won more souls to Christ than any single individual in history. His secret lay in a simple message: “Jesus loves you. Let Him into your life and your sins will be forgiven.” He often startled his audience with a rather unsettling question: “What would happen to you if you died on your way home?” It was an existential question that demanded an existential decision.

For decades his Hour of Decision broadcast, delivered in a uniquely mellifluous voice, haunted listeners throughout the world. A mentor of mine, a brilliant chemical engineer, confessed to me that after listening to the Hour of Decision in his undergraduate dorm room in Ile-Ife in the early seventies, knelt down and tearfully surrendered his life to Christ. As a youth corper serving in ABU Zaria, this same man led me to Christ in my teens. I am, in a way, a grandchild of Billy Graham.

Graham’s secrets lay in the simplicity of his message, his purity of soul and the radiance of a consecration that shone through his persona — a man with no guile. He preached a simple gospel of grace, repentance and holiness. He also avoided the scandals over money and sex that stalked tele-evangelists such as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. He made it a policy never to be found alone in a car or room with another female other than his wife — later to be known as “the Billy Graham Rule”. He also empowered the BGEA board with strong leaders while placing himself on a fixed, modest salary. All the funds from his speaking engagements and books went to God’s work and for humanitarian action. He never boasted of miracles nor did he pitch his faith on prophecy. He preached a simple message of faith, love, repentance, forgiveness and salvation.

How I wish our avaricious and grasping “General Overseers” in Nigeria could learn from this humble pastor who was a Field Marshal in God’s vineyard!

Billy Graham was the moral sentinel of America and easily one of the towering figures of our century. He condemned the debaucheries of our decadent age; objecting to homosexuality and same-sex marriage on moral grounds. A counsellor to presidents and monarchs; he reinvented the Christian faith to meet the worldview demands of a nihilistic age. He was a friend of American presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and the two Bushes. According to Clinton, “When he prays with you in the Oval Office or upstairs in the White House, you feel he’s praying for you, not the president”.

He was particularly close to Queen Elizabeth II of Britain. According to him, “No one in Britain has been more cordial toward us than Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth…I have always found her highly intelligent and knowledgeable about a wide variety of issues, not just politics.” Her Majesty once confided to him, “You do speak with such wonderful clarity and certainty…Above all things, I do think of myself as just a simple Christian.”

Billy Graham was one of the architects of the ecumenical movement. He financed the Lausanne Conferences on World Evangelism; working tirelessly for unity in the body of Christ. A confidante to a succession of popes, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Belmont Abbey College, a conservative catholic institution — the first protestant leader to be so honoured.

He was also close friends with Martin Luther Jr, whom he once bailed out when he was jailed in Alabama. He forbade segregation in all his crusades while ensuring that his evangelistic associates were mixed-race. He once warned white Americans that their racial arrogance will stand in judgement against them at the gates of heaven.

The passing of his beloved Ruth in 2007 was one of the lowest points in his life. He himself was gradually overcome with several geriatric illnesses which necessitated his eventual retirement. The BGEA is currently headed by his son Franklin Graham.

Tributes have come from far and wide. President Donald Trump has tweeted: “The great Billy Graham is dead. There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man.” Vice-President Pence described him as a matchless voice that “changed the lives of millions”.  Barack Obama describes him as “a humble servant who prayed for so many – and who, with wisdom and grace, gave hope and guidance to generations of Americans”. The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby noted that “the debt owed by the global church to him is immeasurable and inexpressible”. Back home in Nigeria, Musa Asake, Publicity Secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria, described Billy Graham as “a faithful preacher who worked for God and has gone to be with the Lord”.

Billy Graham made friends across racial, class and religious barriers. He disagreed with his son Franklin when he made rather uncomplimentary remarks about Islam. The awards and honours showered on him during his lifetime are far too numerous to be recounted here. He leaves behind five children and several grandchildren and great grand children. President Donald Trump has ordered that his simple coffin will lie in state on Capitol Hill before being moved for final interment on 2 March in his hometown of Montreat. His funeral will be graced by present and former American leaders, among other distinguished personalities.

Years ago, he commented on the prospects of his own death: “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now…I will have gone into the presence of God.”

What a fitting epitaph to a remarkable life!

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