America’s pastor Billy Graham

Published 4:35 pm Tuesday, February 27, 2018

It was Easter 1937 and a college president in central Florida took a few of his students to a small church near Palatka, Florida. The college president was asked by a lay leader at the church to preach the Easter morning sermon. He declined, but offered one of his students, an 18 year old, skinny boy from North Carolina as his substitute.

The young man was stunned and his knees were knocking. As a student, he had only prepared four sermons and he gave all four to the small congregation of about 40 people, one right after the other. It only took eight minutes to give them all! Thus began the preaching career of one Billy Graham.

Knowing what we know now, we might assume the thunder rolled and the lightning flashed. Not exactly.

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One man came up to the young teen Graham and told him, “Boy, you better go back to school and get a lot more education because you’re not gonna make it.”

To keep a short column short, the young teen made it and, along the way, became the most iconic and influential preacher the world knew in the twentieth century. He also became known as America’s pastor.

He was humble from the get-go as he was born and raised on a dairy farm in North Carolina. His parents taught him the value of hard work and the value of a dollar. In a century when a few world-renowned preachers took advantage of their status and opportunities to gain wealth and privilege, Billy Graham never had the taint of scandal around him. That is simply amazing.

Those of us of a particular age remember those crusades of Graham’s. How meticulously and diligently they had to be planned. Graham never sought to take all the credit. In fact, he made sure that it was his team who received the credit. And what a team God gave him.

Who can ever forget the great George Beverly Shea? Or the song leader, Cliff Barrows? And the special guest list would read like a “who’s who” of the century’s mainline musical entertainers. I particularly remember Johnny and June Cash and the great Ethel Waters.

But it wasn’t the guest list that brought millions to the stadiums and arenas. As much as they expected to hear George Beverly Shea sing “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” it was the dynamic, charismatic, Bible-toting preacher who could point his finger right at the heart of listeners, whether they sat on the front row or the nose-bleed section of the venue.

A friend and I were talking about unique voices the other day. Singers, television personalities, even parents can be recognized very easily by their voices. It wouldn’t take two seconds of hearing Billy Graham’s preaching to recognize that America’s greatest preacher was shucking and shelling the corn.

Today, as you read this in our newspaper, the body of Billy Graham will be lying in repose in our nation’s capital, in The Capitol Rotunda. The honor is usually saved for military and government officials. Billy Graham will be the fourth “regular” citizen to be afforded this honor. Of course, he is not a “regular” citizen.

He earned the title America’s Preacher by crisscrossing this nation countless times and, in addition, going all over the world with his simple message of God’s love through Jesus, the Son of God. Graham, if he had his druthers, would eschew all these trappings and honors.

He would probably prefer his Bible to be set on a table for all to see and, in the background have a continuous loop of the song “Just As I Am.”