Next to the Roman Catholic pope, the world's most famous Christian may well be a farmer's son who left the North Carolina mountains to spread the word of God. He has since preached to more than 200 million people, and counseled and prayed with eight U.S. presidents. Along the way, Billy Graham lifted Protestant evangelism out of backwoods revival tents and into the American mainstream.
When he heard a traveling evangelist rail against the moral laxity of America's youth in 1934, 15-year-old Billy Graham was enthralled. Committing his life to Christ, he set out to change the moral climate. For the next 71 years, he spread his message.
After briefly pastoring a church near Chicago, Billy Graham hit the road to preach at Youth for Christ rallies. Soon Graham and his close friend, the powerful bass soloist George Beverly Shea -- whose rendition of How Great Thou Art became a mainstay at Billy Graham crusades, and who would remain with Graham throughout his long career -- were organizing their own rallies. Graham was everywhere, writing newspaper columns, preaching on the radio. Holding high the Holy Bible at his crusades -- one of which, in London in 1954, lasted 12 weeks -- he held millions spellbound in stadiums and on television in 105 countries.
"There is something tragically wrong with the American home," Graham worried at one of the rallies. "Seven hundred-fifty thousand boys and girls were left as orphans of divorce last year. The greatest threat facing America tonight is the breakdown of the American home. And if the home goes, may God have mercy upon America."
In 1960, Graham and seven other notable Americans were asked to discuss the national purpose on a set of phonograph records. Once again, he shook his finger, metaphorically. "The bloodstream is being poisoned with the toxins of modern life," he said. "America is in desperate need of a moral and spiritual transfusion that will cause her to recapture some of the strength and idealism that made us the greatest nation in the world."
Now famous, Billy Graham played golf with President Dwight Eisenhower and gave spiritual counsel to every president thereafter. Graham considered Richard Nixon one of his favorites. He was a righteous man, Billy Graham thought, until Nixon's taped, hate-filled rantings came to light. Graham not only forgave Nixon, he later spoke at his funeral.
"Each man has his failures," Graham said. "None of us are perfect. And Jesus said, 'He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.' And so, I forgive him."
Unlike many other televangelists, Billy Graham has never been tainted by scandal. He accepts only a fixed salary and lives modestly, with Ruth, his wife of 63 years, in his beloved North Carolina hills.
Ill with Parkinson's Disease and prostate cancer in his later years, Billy Graham lost his vocal power but not his erudition. "The greatest need in the world right now is the transformation of human nature, for men and women to be changed and turn to Christ," he said at a Nashville, Tennessee, rally after hobbling to the pulpit with the help of a cane.
To the strains of "Just As I Am "at the end of his riveting sermons, hundreds of people would accept the choral invitation to come forward and accept Christ as their savior. "O Lamb of God, I come! I come!" sang the choir.
After what was described as Billy Graham's final rally in New York last June, tributes poured in. One came from Bono, the activist Irish singer, who called Graham a rare and genuine Christian . . . "part poet, part preacher. A singer of the human spirit, I'd say."
Now 87, Billy Graham says he is not afraid of death but is greatly anticipating it. Some years ago, he told NBC television, "As my wife says, 'The best is yet to be.' To be with Jesus himself is the greatest thing that I'm looking forward to -- to seeing him, to being there with all these marvelous people from all over the world."
Two of Billy Graham's five children -- Franklin Graham and Anne Graham Lotz -- have taken up preaching, and their delivery recalls their father's incisive style. Still, they are quick to point out, there will never be another Billy Graham.