Story by Thomas Moran | Staff Writer, Video by Rylee Seavers| Broadcast Reporter
After humble beginnings growing up on a dairy farm in Charlotte, N.C., no one could have predicted that William “Billy” Franklin Graham Jr. would become the most influential Christian evangelist of the 20th century. Remembered fondly by the Baylor community and millions of followers, Graham passed away Wednesday at the age of 99.
Graham’s health had been declining for several years and he died from natural causes in his home in Montreat, N.C.
Baylor President Dr. Linda Livingstone released a statement, sharing her condolences with Graham’s family members and highlighting the close relationship between the university and the notable religious figure.
“We are deeply grieved to learn that the Rev. Billy Graham has passed away, yet we rejoice that he has been called home as a good and faithful servant of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” Livingstone said. “He spoke of the University’s commitment to faith and learning and to helping our students understand their responsibility to be the hands and feet of Christ and serve others throughout the world, a commitment to which Baylor remains faithful.”
According to his website, Graham first felt called toward evangelism at the age of 15 after attending a series of local revival meetings lead by traveling evangelist. After being ordained a Southern Baptist minister and completing his education, Graham married his wife Ruth, with whom he would have five children. Graham pastored several different communities and began to gain momentum as an evangelist, preaching throughout the United States and in Europe.
In 1949, Graham led a revival in Los Angeles that would launch his ministry toward unprecedented success. Now called “The Los Angeles Crusade,” the meetings were originally scheduled for a span of three weeks but a nightly overflow of crowds filling the tent motivated Graham to continue the revival for a total of eight weeks.
From that point on, his success in spreading the Gospel grew exponentially until the end of his career as an evangelist. Before his retirement, Graham is estimated to have preached live to around 215 million individuals in more than 185 countries and territories around the world. He reached hundreds of millions more through his presence on television and his authorship of countless books and publications.
Dr. Todd Still, a Christian Heritage professor for Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary, said he remembers Graham’s rise to world renown.
“I remember as a young child hearing Billy Graham on television and found his message magnetic,” Still said. “I remember from my earliest days to his dying day thinking how grateful I was for someone who preached the gospel so clearly, so simple, so accessibly, so faithfully and so impactfully.”
In Still’s view, it was Graham’s unmatched accessibility and conviction of speech that made him such an effective preacher and revivalist — a skill that would eventually allow him to influence some of the most powerful individuals in the world.
After his first meeting with President Harry Truman, Graham would go on to counsel and minister to several presidents of the United States, including former Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Graham’s lasting impact on the presidents is reflected in their statements released since his passing.
“Tirelessly spreading a message of fellowship and hope, he shaped the spiritual lives of tens of millions of people worldwide,” Carter said in a press release. “Broad-minded, forgiving, and humble in his treatment of others, he exemplified the life of Jesus Christ by constantly reaching out for opportunities to serve. He had an enormous influence on my own spiritual life, and I was pleased to count Reverend Graham among my advisers and friends.”
President Donald Trump called Graham “God’s Ambassador,” offering his condolences to the Graham family. This is just one of the many titles and labels Graham earned throughout his remarkable life. An impressive 55 times, Gallup Organization counted him among the “Ten Most Admired Men in the World.” Graham earned other unofficial label and titles through his ministry, not the least of which was as an advocate for racial equality.
Graham, who considered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a close friend, was open in his opposition to segregation and racism. Graham lead a series of crusades in Alabama and emphasized the importance of racial equality throughout the meetings. King praised Graham’s anti-racism efforts and credited him with helping reduce racial tension in the South.
“Christianity is not a white man’s religion and don’t let anybody tell you that it’s white or black,” Graham said during the Civil Rights Movement. “Christ belongs to all people; He belongs to the whole world.”
Graham spoke across the globe and filled notable venues like Yankee Stadium. Despite his high demand and colossal following, Baylor University hosted him on multiple occasions, according to a statement released Wednesday.
During his first visit in 1951, Graham spoke to students during Chapel and preached at the First Baptist Church of Waco later that evening.
“A general awakening is occurring on college and university campuses throughout the country,” Graham said during his speech in Waco Hall. “College students are hungry for God.”
He would return to campus three years later to participate in Baylor’s second Conference on American Ideals and received an honorary doctoral degree from Baylor. During that same trip, he recieved honorary membership to the Noze Brotherhood. In 1962, Graham visited Baylor a third time as a featured speaker for “Baylor’s World Emphasis Week.”
In February of 1970, Graham made his last visit to Baylor and addressed 10,000 people for the “125th anniversary convocation.” Graham affirmed Baylor’s Christianity, highlighted Baylor as an exemplary Christian collegiate institution and urged the community toward social advocacy.
“There is no reason for Baylor’s existence as an educational institution without spiritual emphasis.” Graham said during the convocation. “That is one thing we’ve got that makes us unique. That is why there will always be a Baylor … Blessed is the man who stands with the gospel of the Bible in one hand and social concern in the other.”
In his youth, Dr. William Pitts, Baylor professor of religion, had the opportunity to hear Graham speak and remembers his unparalleled ability to connect with the audience, regardless of size.
“There was a clear conviction,” Pitts said. “He conveyed his message urgently. He wanted people to follow Christ. He made his sermons very simple and easy to understand so from a rhetorical point of view, his simplicity was really what allowed him to connect with so many people.”
Graham emphasized the importance of encountering Christ and, unlike other preachers of the time, denominationalism was not his priority, Pitts said. This gained Graham popularity and credibility across many denominations.
However, Graham’s influence is not limited to those who were able to see and hear him during the peak of his life as an evangelist. His conviction has transcended generational boundaries and influenced the current youth generations.
Nash, Okla. freshman William LeForce inherited an affinity for Graham’s sermons and writings from a young age and upholds Graham as a role model.
“He was a big influence on my grandparents’ lives and that of course translated to my parents lives and that then had an impact on me,” LeForce said. “He just opened people’s mind and people accepted what he said. He changed a lot of people’s lives to where they could accept Christ and live their best life. It makes me want to do good things in the world and try to do what he did as much as I can.”
Graham’s connection to Baylor has continued through his daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, who served as a Baylor Regent from 2005-2008, and three of his grandchildren, who graduated from Baylor. The Baylor community mourns the death of the modern day Christian hero.
Graham’s work destroyed racial barriers, surpassed international borders and overcame denominational differences. Graham’s powerful commission remains his legacy and continues to influence Baylor today.
Dr. Burt Burleson, Dean of Spiritual Life and Missions, said the Graham was undoubtedly the most impactful modern day evangelist.
“Billy Graham was a connection to vibrant faith,” Burleson said. “He was someone who introduced millions of people to the gospel.”