Happy Birthday, Billy

One month ago a movie about Billy Graham opened in theaters across the country: Billy, the Early Years. It told the squeaky clean story of the earnest and charismatic college student struggling to find his way in the world. Neither the early years nor the later years of his journey to stardom contain the sort of material that makes for compelling theater: scandal, tragedy, failure, conflict, crisis, and the like.

No wonder the movie flopped; which is ironic because the world witnessed no larger success than the globe-trotting, Bible-thumping, gospel-preaching career of Billy Graham. He is a best-selling author, an advisor to ten presidents, and the proclaimer of the gospel to perhaps a billion people. Who can measure his influence?

He is ninety years old today, still sturdy of mind but shaky of step. His birthday comes three days after the country elected its first African-American president. Billy would like this, irrespective of party affiliation. After all, Billy caused quite a stir early in his ministry when he insisted that all of his evangelistic crusades—even those in the segregated South—be fully integrated.

He would appreciate the new president for another reason—he shares with Billy the mesmerizing power of public rhetoric. For fifty years Billy held enthralled stadiums full of people—the rich and the poor, the powerful and the helpless, the religious and the seeker. There was that wonderful mixture of verbal technique and spiritual authenticity that makes the orator such a powerful person.

I fell under the sway of that voice and that vision just as I was entering the gospel ministry as a teenager. My first prepared address at a high school speech tournament was taken—almost word for word, I now confess—from Billy’s book, World Aflame. In those days all us young guns wanted to be just like Billy.

My dad took me to hear him in Louisville; and a generation later, I packed my two young sons into the minivan and drove from Pittsburgh to Washington, D. C. to hear Billy preach. I remember the sermon as if it were yesterday. The text was Psalm 102 verse 6: “I am like an owl in the wilderness.” His theme was loneliness. “Loneliness is the number one problem in the United States,” he said, “among the elderly as well as among the young.” 

I honor Billy Graham. He has been a remarkable representative of Jesus Christ: winsome, genuine, capable, eloquent. He has lived with integrity; he will die with dignity; he will receive all the superlatives that the human race can gather. I will not wait until that unknown day. He has been to me a hero and a role model. The world is a better place because of him, and heaven more crowded.

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2 comments so far

  1. Betty Zimmerman on

    I am now 73 years old, but many years ago I Heard you speak, in Greensboro, NC under a tent with the sawdust and all. There God came into my heart. Since that time, I have tried to be a good follower of HIS wishes during my life. Thank you for being the instrument that helped me find Him. Happy Birthday and may the Lord bless you with pleasant years to come.

  2. Camille Haggard on

    I saw Billy Graham here in Lexington while I was a student at UK. He spoke at Memorial Coliseum and we got special seats because we had student IDs. What a great blessing. I always wanted to see him in person as I greatly admired him. He has certainly influenced my life.


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