The Impact of Billy Graham
By Mike McManus
Billy Graham came to prominence in 1949 while preaching a
revival at the “Canvas Cathedral” in Los Angeles. A Texas radio personality who
was a heavy drinker and gambler announced that he had been converted, as did a
convicted felon and wiretapper.
Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst cabled editors with a terse
instruction: “Puff Graham.” Scheduled for 3 weeks, the Crusade was extended to
eight weeks. Some 350,000 heard him deliver one of 65 sermons, and 3,000 people
came forward to make “decisions” for Christ.
The evangelist’s career took off. Many of his early Crusades were extended
including one in London for 12 weeks and a New York City Crusade in Madison
Square Garden for 16 weeks.
He spoke in person to 215 million people in 185 countries. Hundreds of millions
more heard him on radio and TV broadcasts.
In 2006 Billy Graham ranked among Gallup’s list of the top 10 most admired
Americans for a record 50th time and was the only religious figure in the top
What kind of a man was he? What influence did he have?
David Aikman, a former TIME senior correspondent has written the definitive
biography, “Billy Graham: His Life and Influence.” It is packed with vivid
anecdotes and fascinating details of his relationships with U.S. presidents from
Truman to George W. Bush.
Graham lobbied intensively to meet with Truman and asked if they could pray
together. Truman quipped, “I don’t suppose it could do any harm.” Afterward,
Graham made the mistake of telling the press.
“Truman was furious. He later denounced Billy as “one of those counterfeits,”
reports Aikman. “The gaffe taught Billy a hard lesson: never tell the public
about your private meetings with world leaders.”
In December, 1951, Graham wrote a letter to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower encouraging
him to run for President: “Upon this decision could well rest the destiny of the
Western World.” Ike said it was “the damnedest letter” he ever received.
After his election, Graham told Ike Americans would feel more comfortable if he
was a churchgoer. Ike was baptized at National Presbyterian Church two weeks
after his Inauguration.
Graham spoke at the 1963 Presidential Prayer Breakfast attended by President
Kennedy, who invited him to the White House. Suffering from the flu, Graham
During the second week of November, Graham felt “a terrible burden” that
something tragic might happen if Kennedy went to Dallas. Not having Kennedy’s
personal number, he called Sen. George Smathers, to ask him urge the President:
“Don’t go to Texas,” Aikman reports. Smathers didn’t take the call.
Of all the Presidents, Graham was closest to LBJ, spending at least 20 nights at
the White House. They enjoyed each other’s company. In the 1964 election, Billy
received two million telegrams urging him to endorse Goldwater’s candidacy.
Johnson called Graham and drawled, “Now Billy, you stay out of politics.”
Fearing he’d be dropped “like a hot brick,” Graham remained silent.
Graham first met Nixon as a freshman senator in 1951. They played golf often
over the years. After losing the 1960 election for President and his 1962 bid
for governor of California, Graham assured him, “Dick, I believe you will have
another chance at the presidency.”
When Nixon was criticized during the 1968 campaign for being “tricky,” Graham
publicly asserted, “He has a great sense of moral integrity.” Nixon often called
him late at night. Aikman asks, “Why did Graham, almost alone among America’s
public figures, seem to be taken completely by surprise” by Watergate? “He
allowed his affection to eclipse his character judgment.”
Graham was profoundly embarrassed when transcripts of Nixon’s coarse, profane
comments were made public. Nixon complained about the media being controlled by
Jewish journalists. Graham replied, “This stranglehold has got to be broken.”
He later apologized, saying “My remarks did not reflect my love for the Jewish
Graham met Ronald Reagan during his 1950’s movie days, whom he described as “one
of the most winsome men I have ever known.” Graham prayed at his Inauguration.
Reagan later said “It was through Billy Graham that I found myself praying even
more than on a daily basis.”
Ruth Graham and Barbara Bush were particularly close. Both could be witty at
their husband’s expense and were fiercely independent, unafraid to speak their
In 1985 Graham took a long walk with son George W. Bush, who later said the
evangelist “planted a mustard seed in my soul…a beginning of a change” in which
he recommitted “my heart to Jesus Christ.”
The future President was one of 3 million Graham led to commitments to Christ.
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