While Billy Graham will be remembered around the globe for preaching — in person during his famous stadium crusades as well as by radio, television, books, movies and other media — to more people throughout the world than anyone in history into the 21st century, he leaves special memories in Florida where he had many close ties.
Long term, his impact probably will stem from lesser known activities. All, like his crusades and other well known evangelistic efforts, stemmed from a genuine love of people and commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ that prompted nearly everything undertaken by him and his unusually effective organization.
Having watched Billy (he didn’t like the title “Dr.” Graham given to him by others because he had numerous honorary degrees) and his team up close and personal at work and at play during my nearly four decades as religion editor of The Miami Herald, I, along with others, can testify to the down-to-earth and up-front nature of his faith and personality. To be present at his team’s private, lengthy, pre-service prayer sessions was a revelation.
The lanky North Carolinian got his start preaching at the Florida Bible Institute in Palm Harbor (which relocated in Dunedin and became Trinity College). He frequently returned to the state to preach -- first as part of the Youth for Christ organization and then with his own ministry -- in churches, auditoriums and stadiums from the Panhandle to Miami. He spoke to lay meetings, religious and business conventions, and international gatherings. He vacationed at various South Florida spots and visited daughter Gi Gi Tchvidjian and her family in Coral Springs.
As he grew from a somewhat brash, fast talking, flashy dressing, dogmatic fundamentalist pulpiteer to a more dignified, conservative evangelical but ecumenical religious statesman, Billy hobnobbed with presidents, kings and queens, Communist dictators and business tycoons, often carrying messages back and forth between those who in public were at arm’s length. Yet he retained his common touch.
Billy’s personal integrity, a trait found in all the close associates he chose, spared him from the sexual and financial scandals that plagued some other big-name evangelists. Members of his team held to their rule never to be alone with a woman other than their own wives or female relatives.
The executive committee of his board was made up of prominent businessmen.
Although some family members served on the larger board of directors, none was on that committee. He himself was on a regular pastor’s salary since 1952 and the royalties from his numerous books went into a trust fund that made donations to various ministries, colleges and charities.
His example led to the formation, in 1969, of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) requiring members to provide annual independent audits to the public. That restored some credibility to the genre.
In addition to his headline-making crusades on five continents (even behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains), Billy personally engaged in reconciliation efforts to bring together Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, Christians and Hindus in India, blacks and whites in the United States and South Africa. As part of those latter efforts, early on he included two black men, Howard Jones and Ralph Bell, as associate evangelists in his organization and insisted on integrated crusades wherever he went around the world.
He also placed black ministers Tom Skinner and Ralph Abernathy on the program of the U.S. Congress on Evangelism he financed in Minneapolis in 1969 when 5,000 delegates from 93 denominations took part just as 1,300 evangelists, theologians, and denominational leaders from 104 nations had done in 1966 at the World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin which his group had organized and financed.
Thousands more young evangelists— men and women, up to half of whom had never before been outside their third world countries or had little or no formal theological training — were able to attend similar gatherings, at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s expense, in Amsterdam (that one alone at a cost of $21 million), Bangkok, Manila and various other places of Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America. Altogether, there were nearly 100 such 3 to 10-day gatherings involving some 50,000 evangelists from nearly 100 countries.
Among other little known activities, the BGEA over the years gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to support organizations such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Campus Crusade for Christ, Young Life, and others. The organization’s World Emergency Fund since 1973 gave something like $100,000 a year for disaster relief all over the world.
Billy also had a hand in the establishment of the Fuller Theological Seminary and the creation of the Gordon-Conwell Seminary. He established the School of Evangelism at Wheaton College, his alma mater. His organization founded Christianity Today magazine, the most widely circulated Protestant periodical.
Truly, there is much for which Billy Graham will be remembered.