Preparing to speak at the March 2 interment of the preeminent preacher of the 20th century, Don Wilton admitted a few days before the service he wasn’t sure what he would say.
“I’ve prepared many messages in my life, and I’ve had numerous conversations with Mr. Graham about this moment, but I would be less than honest if I did not say that the privilege to stand over the casket of Dr. Billy Graham and share what I believe would be, in that sense, his last message, is a very humbling thing,” said Wilton, who has served as Graham’s pastor since 2008 and has been a close friend going back 25 years.
“I can only ask the Lord, by His Holy Spirit, to take hold of me and completely and totally hide me behind the cross,” said Wilton. “Nobody taught me that better than the living example of Dr. Billy Graham.”
Wilton served with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s schools of evangelism in the 1980s, but he didn’t meet Graham until 1993. Wilton had just preached his first sermon as pastor of Spartanburg First Baptist Church. The service was televised as part of the church’s TV ministry.
“Following my very first message, my telephone rang, and it was Dr. Billy Graham,” said Wilton. “He was most kind to me. One can only imagine what was going through my mind.”
Graham invited Wilton to visit him and his wife, Ruth, at their home in Montreat, N.C. “When I did, it seemed God forged an instant friendship,” said Wilton. As the Grahams repeatedly invited him to visit, Wilton said their friendship grew over the next several years into a relationship “that went to levels and depths that leave me very humble today.”
In 2008, Graham told Wilton it was his desire, after more than 50 years of membership at Dallas First Baptist Church, to officially unite with Wilton’s congregation at Spartanburg. The church received Graham with joy, said Wilton, and Wilton became Graham’s “personal pastor.”
During his weekly visits with the Grahams (and, after Ruth died, with Graham alone), the two men spent a lot of time together. “There were countless times when we would sit together in the kitchen or on the lawn overlooking the Smoky Mountains,” said Wilton. On other occasions, “we would laugh our heads off.”
The aging evangelist had a hearty appetite for the all-American dietary staples of hotdogs, hamburgers and barbecue. He also enjoyed spending time with his dogs.
Graham, whose family “meant everything to him,” also talked “endlessly” about his love for his wife, children and grandchildren.
Graham’s home, “that little spot on the mountain,” was his favorite retreat, said Wilton. After being absent for weeks or months on his evangelistic crusades, “coming home to his wife and children, eating a hotdog — that was the stuff for him,” said Wilton. “He could be meeting the queen or be at the White House or Camp David, but when he came home — well, now we’re talking.”
As Graham’s health and mobility declined, as did his sight and ability to speak, “so it was that the Lord allowed me the privilege through the years of holding his hand, of being his feet and seeing for him, until the Lord Jesus called him home,” said Wilton. “I feel I am still doing that now, as I speak at his funeral, as an outpouring of love.”
Graham died at his home on Feb. 21. “He could not have gone to heaven from a better place, where his heart was most firmly entrenched,” said Wilton.
When Wilton got word that Billy Graham had passed, he was in the middle of preaching in Boone, N.C., at a worship service at the headquarters of Samaritan’s Purse, the Christian humanitarian relief ministry headed by Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son. Wilton’s plans were to “go down the hill” after the service to have lunch with Billy Graham. “I felt as though the Lord was sending me a little message,” said Wilton. “Jesus Christ made a determination that He wanted to have lunch with His servant Billy Graham.”
Wilton left Boone and drove for an hour and a half through the North Carolina mountain passes to Montreat to be with Graham’s family. On the way, he had time to reflect on the life of his mentor.
“My heart was just so overwhelmingly flooded with thoughts of the incredible gift of Billy Graham to our world,” he said. “I was thinking of how remarkable it was that the Lord Jesus Christ would have touched a boy from a dairy farm in North Carolina — saved him, called him, empowered him, and placed the grace of God upon him — to the extent that people all over the world came to know Christ.”
Wilton also experienced “floods of emotion” at his own personal loss. “In a human sense, I lost a very dear friend and mentor,” he said. “It was an undue privilege to sit at the feet of Billy Graham all these years, to learn from him, to be mentored by him, to be prayed for by him,” he said.
“There is a complex array of emotions that all people go through when we lose someone we love. In the world, we see Billy Graham as a great evangelist, but to many people, we have lost a very deeply precious man.
“I don’t know why he loved me like he did, but I am eternally grateful to the Lord for the privilege to have been touched by his life.”
“Many people today want to know how we can explain Billy Graham,” he said. “In my mind, I’m not sure we can ever fully explain him. Everything about Billy Graham was about Jesus Christ. The Word of God tells us that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. Mr. Graham had an uncommon spiritual humility. His humility was the very expression of the massive outpouring of God’s grace on his life. He was a man full of God’s amazing grace.”
When asked to contemplate a world without the likes of Billy Graham, Wilton expressed confidence that believers can depend upon God. “God’s work comes to us through His Son and by His Spirit, and He chooses to use men and women like Billy Graham,” Wilton said. “Just as He didn’t fail us before Billy Graham, He won’t fail us today.”
“Let us fill [Billy Graham’s] shoes. His heart cry was that we understand that all of us have been called to be witnesses to Christ from our own dairy farms, pharmacies, churches, schoolrooms, courthouses and government buildings.
“The work will go on. This dream will live because Christ is alive and the Holy Spirit is present. God is raising up, testifying to the grace of Jesus.”
Of Wilton’s weekly drives from Spartanburg up the mountain to spend time with his mentor? “I shall miss those times greatly.”