“An epic era of evangelical history has come to an end. Billy Graham was not only a titanic figure in evangelicalism, but in world history and perhaps represents the last of a kind,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in a statement. “He dominated 20th century American evangelicalism and remained a major figure on the world stage throughout most of the 20th century in a way that we can envision no evangelical leader in our times. He was a man of deep conviction whose passionate heartbeat was for the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Dean of Southern Seminary’s Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Ministry Adam W. Greenway in a statement:
“The passing of Billy Graham marks the end of an era in American Christianity,” said Greenway. “He was incredibly passionate for evangelism and he influenced every level of American life. He was also passionate about theological education and the training of the next generation of evangelists and evangelistic pastors. That’s personified by his support for the creation of the Billy Graham School at Southern Seminary — the only graduate school ever allowed to carry his name. I think his greatest legacy would not only be those whom he personally impacted through his evangelistic ministry, but the scores of pastors and evangelists who have been trained to preach the same gospel that he so faithfully proclaimed.”
Following his evangelistic crusade in Los Angeles in 1949, Graham was a staple in American public life. Through Graham’s ministry, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, innumerable people have heard and responded to the gospel message of Jesus Christ.
“In many ways, Billy Graham did not pioneer mass evangelism and crusade evangelism; he perfected it,” said Mohler. “What others had done on a smaller scale and infrequent regularity, he began to do in a way I do not think can be replicated or equaled. He was one of the first to recognize the importance of the media — first in radio and in print media, then with television and even film. By the end of his life, his organization was pioneering new ways to reach people with the gospel by digital and social media.”
Graham was born to Morrow and William “Frank” Graham, Nov. 7, 1918, near Charlotte, N.C., four days before the armistice that led to the end of the First World War and exactly one year after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
When Graham was six years old, his father took him to hear the former Chicago White Stockings center-fielder-turned-evangelist Billy Sunday. The young Graham absorbed the entire experience. The energetic Sunday would leave a lasting impact on Graham. But no one could have guessed how far this impact would reach.
In college, while walking around an empty golf course near Tampa, Fla., Graham committed to becoming a gospel preacher. Following this first college experience at the Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College) in Temple Terrace, Fla., Graham enrolled at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. There he met his future wife, Ruth Bell. Following a long, uncertain engagement, Graham and Ruth married during the summer of 1943, two months after they both graduated from Wheaton.
During the early days of his marriage, Graham pastored a small church in Western Springs, Ill. While there, an area pastor who preached over the radio asked Graham to assume his radio preaching. He immediately saw the vast potential of mass media evangelism and he readily accepted the offer. In the interest of finding a musician who could add a worship dynamic to the program, Graham extended an invitation to radio singer George Beverly Shea to join him in broadcast evangelism. Graham and Shea formed a long-lasting ministry relationship.
In 1949, while Graham was the president of Northwestern College in Minnesota, and following his widely noticed work with Youth for Christ, a group known as “Christ for Greater Los Angeles” asked Graham to come preach at a series of evangelistic rallies. He accepted.
At various points during his ministry, from casual visits due to nearby crusades, formal engagements for Missionary Day, several chapel addresses and alumni events, Graham appeared many times on the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Just as he did for the rest of American evangelicalism, Graham left a mark on Southern Seminary.
Indirectly, Graham’s behind-the-scenes work promoting Christian intellectual and moral engagement in broader culture, and his prodding of men like Carl F.H. Henry to defend a Christianity heavily affects the mission that Southern Seminary attempts to continue in the training of pastors, scholars, missionaries and counselors who will defend truth in a secular age.
Indeed, “Graham was the organizing center of evangelicalism in the 20th century, playing a significant role in the formation of key evangelical institutions. In addition to his Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Graham founded an entire constellation of evangelical ministries, most notably, Christianity Today magazine,” Mohler said.
“Surveying the list of major evangelical organizations, it’s difficult to imagine what many of them would be today — if indeed they would exist today — without the human agency of Billy Graham,” Mohler said.
A long-time Southern Baptist, Graham was for more than 50 years a member of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, where W.A. Criswell served as pastor nearly five decades.
Throughout his ministry Graham maintained strong ties to Southern Seminary, dating back to the 1950s. His personal friendship with Duke K. McCall, the institution’s seventh president, brought him frequently to Southern Seminary as a chapel speaker. McCall lead in establishing the Billy Graham chair of evangelism in 1965, which still features an evangelism scholar on the seminary faculty; the current Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth is Timothy K. Beougher.
In 1960, the seminary established the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism and dedicated its Billy Graham Room in the James P. Boyce Centennial Library, where the seminary’s Archives and Special Collections houses its Billy Graham Collection. The collection, recording approximately 30 years of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s crusade efforts around the world, contains information not readily found in books and other resources. In the Billy Graham Room hangs a painting of the evangelist by Alton J. Shea, the sister-in-law of George Beverly Shea, the music leader and soloist for the Graham association.
In October of 1993, Graham returned to the seminary and spoke at a worship service held the evening before Mohler’s inauguration as president of Southern Seminary. And during his inauguration, Mohler announced the establishment of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth in order to increase academic training of missions and evangelism at the seminary.
“In 1993 when I was elected president, Dr. Graham eagerly encouraged me and the vision that brought me to Southern Seminary by speaking at my inauguration, and by allowing us to establish the Billy Graham School,” Mohler said. “Dr. Graham was very directly involved in helping me to begin my presidency, and throughout my presidency he was an active encourager and always a partner in prayer in this task.”
And during his 2001 crusade in Louisville, the Graham named Mohler as chairmen of the crusade. In the years following, Graham and Mohler maintained a close relationship.
In October of 2013, Mohler reported to the evangelist about the progress of the Billy Graham School at the 20-year anniversary of its establishment and introduced him to the school’s new dean, Greenway.
Greenway is the first dean of the school the since it expanded as the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Ministry, combining the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism and the School of Church Ministries. The new Graham School serves students of both international and domestic missions, church planting, worship leadership and both local church and educational leadership.
Also in the meeting, Mohler asked Graham to offer advice for the students at Southern Seminary. In reply, according to Mohler, Graham spoke about the necessity of faithful devotional life in ministry.
“His advice on the importance of their devotional life and to ‘study more and speak less’ takes on incredible new poignancy these days,” Mohler said. “I had the very strong awareness that would be the last time I saw Dr. Graham on this earth. Over and over again he said, ‘I’m ready to be with Jesus.’ He missed his wife, Ruth, horribly, and knew he had run his race. It was a marvelous thing to see a man who knew he had finished his task. He was not eager to die, but was eager to see his Lord. He knew, even as he was dependent on oxygen at that time, at nearly 95, he was near his earthly end.”
Mohler noted particularly that throughout Graham’s ministry, he protected the moral integrity of his ministry “from the beginning to the end.” Graham’s name never encountered a “hint of moral scandal.” Because of this, Mohler said, observers must recognize that Graham “finished the race” in a manner that should inspire the current and future generations of ministers.
“On behalf of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary we extend our deepest condolences and prayers to the family of Dr. Billy Graham and to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association upon the death of that great ambassador for the gospel,” Mohler said. “I was so privileged to know Dr. Graham and to have his personal imprint on my life and on this ministry. We celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Billy Graham and we are thankful to have known one who ran his race and finished his course with such dignity and valor.”
Graham leaves behind his children Virginia, Anne Morrow, Ruth Bell, William Franklin III, Nelson Edman, as well as 19 grandchildren and many great-grandchildren. Graham’s wife of 63 years, Ruth Bell Graham, died in 2007.
All biographical information taken from Billy Graham: A Biography (Greenwood Press, 2004). Information about the Billy Graham Collection at Southern Seminary provided by staff of the Archives and Special Collections at the James P. Boyce Centennial Library.