The Man. The Legend. “God’s machine gun.”
Billy Graham was an American institution for almost six decades, counseling presidents, world leaders, Hollywood stars, the queen of England, gangsters and the common man alike. To many, he was a modern-day prophet who helped our nation in the most trying of times.
In my new book, “Billy Graham: The Man I Knew,” (Salem Books, April 13, 2021) I unearthed many never-before-told stories and facts about the world’s best-known and beloved evangelists. Here are 10 facts you will discover about Billy Graham.
1. Billy Graham had dreams of playing Major League Baseball
He was a dairyman’s son from North Carolina who wanted nothing more than to become a Major League Baseball player after meeting the legendary Babe Ruth at an exhibition game in his home state. Billy batted lefty and had a fair throwing arm and a decent glove, but showed no signs of superstar potential. He had visions of grandeur: playing in Wrigley Field in Chicago and Yankee Stadium in New York – a place that he would fill to capacity years later, and not because crowds wanted to see him hit home runs.
2. He made his fair share of trouble
The famed evangelist was hyperactive, mischievous and wasn’t born walking on water. He teased his siblings, didn’t have blinders on when it came to pretty girls and got into several scrapes with his schoolmates. He also wasn’t crazy about sitting in the church pew on Sunday mornings. During services, he shot wads of chewing gum paper at women’s hats with a strong rubber band. Much of his unruly behavior was due to the fact that he was fidgety by nature and possessed hyperkinetic energy. Once his parents took him to a physician, who told them their child was “built differently.”
3. He worked as a door-to-door salesman
To earn money for college, Billy Graham took a job with the Fuller Brush Co. in the summer of 1936. The 18-year-old youth sold the brushes door-to-door, combining his selling with his witness for Christ. Once he was doused with a pail of water by a housewife who was bothered by the intrusion. He also encountered a group of roughnecks, and pretended he had a gun in his pocket. The men quickly backed off and ran. Graham said that summer’s experience selling brushes bolstered his self-confidence, helped him gain financial independence and was crucial for his personal and professional development in the years to come.
4. His time on the golf course made significant impacts on his career
While at the Florida Bible Institute in the Tampa Bay community of Temple Terrace, Graham held many odd jobs. He performed housekeeping duties, washed dishes, mowed lawns and later earned a coveted spot as a caddy at the school’s golf course. This gave him access to the era’s most renowned Christian scholars, administrators, preachers and evangelists. He later utilized the sport for developing friendships with future allies, including several U.S. presidents: Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. He once said of golf: “The only time my prayers are not answered are on the golf course.”
5. Billy Graham’s wife was vital to the success of his career and witness
Billy’s wife of 64 years, Ruth Bell Graham, had dreams of becoming a missionary like her parents, Dr. L. Nelson and Virginia Bell. However, Ruth put them aside when she and Billy married and started having children. Billy credited her as the love of his life, his strongest supporter and his most-trusted counselor. She could also be his harshest critic, but that often worked in his favor. Such was the case when Billy penned an op-ed for Ladies’ Home Journal on the Women’s Liberation Movement in the early 1970s. After he wrote the article, he submitted it to Ruth. He recalled, “She handed it back to me all blue-penciled and said, ‘I don’t agree with most of this.’ So I re-wrote it.”
6. Billy and Ruth Bell Graham lived on less than $50 a week prior to the launch of his crusades
Before Billy Graham became a household name in 1949 with his Los Angeles Crusade, he served for 21 months as the pastor of Western Springs Baptist Church (later renamed “The Village”) in a Chicago suburb. When he wasn’t preaching or organizing house-to-house visits to those deemed uncommitted, he launched a successful supper club for businessmen, a Boys Brigade for young men, a 45-minute radio broadcast (“Songs in the Night”), preached twice on Sundays, held a mid-week prayer meeting and he and Ruth taught Child Evangelism classes on Wednesday afternoons. All that in addition to pastoral calls when the need arose. For this, he was paid $48 a week.
Like all of us, he was a complex person with varying skills, emotions and passions.
7. He didn’t always make a great first impression
Known as a “pastor to the presidents,” that did not apply to one commander in chief – Harry Truman. Just beginning in ministry, Graham showed up to the Oval Office in a pistachio green suit, a hand-painted tie and white buck shoes in a not-so-subtle fashion nod to Truman, who was a haberdasher before getting into politics. Graham and his team members showed up dressed to the nines and were given 20 minutes. After he asked Truman about his religious background, in his zeal, he corrected the president on a point. Graham didn’t realize he was doling out unsolicited advice to the world’s most powerful man, who stood up from behind his desk, a clear signal that his time was up. They were, in effect, getting the presidential boot. Afterward, Billy and his team recreated for the press how they knelt in prayer for a picture that appeared in newspapers nationwide. Billy was “persona non grata” at the White House for breaching the details of a private conversation. He later apologized to Truman, who realized he never briefed Graham on protocol.
8. Billy Graham became a missional media mogul
Howard Stern often claims that he is “King of All Media,” but that title truly belongs to Billy Graham. In the 1950s, his ministry surged and he began to branch out into all forms of media. That decade he started a Christian film studio called Billy Graham Evangelistic Films (later named World Wide Pictures ); a radio show called “Hour of Decision,” a syndicated column called “My Answer,” which ran six days a week in newspapers across the United States and reached 20 million people; two monthly magazines (Christianity Today and Decision), and wrote many best-selling books. He was one of the most famous Americans in the world, not for hitting a ball, slugging a villain or smooching a starlet, but for spreading the Word of God.
9. He was a preacher with a genuine appreciation for culture – even psychedelic rock
Billy once attended a music festival featuring the Grateful Dead, Canned Heat, Johnny Winter and Santana in an attempt to understand what was happening with youth culture in the late 1960s. Before he spoke to concertgoers from the stage, he went “undercover” and strolled the straw-covered grounds, eavesdropping on conversations, listening for what was on kids’ minds and hearts, and trying to understand what they were truly searching for. Billy genuinely embraced them, dubbing them the “most exciting and challenging generation in history.” His words at the festival did not fall on deaf ears. More than 350 people made commitments to Christ and close to 2,000 New Testaments were distributed that weekend – all because of Billy’s curiosity and temerity.
10. Billy Graham predicted the Digital Age and new world order
After the new millennium dawned, the world seemed a darker and more dangerous place. The formerly carefree pleasure of getting on an airplane changed dramatically after 9/11. Large metal or concrete barriers appeared in front of government buildings to prevent car bombs. Office buildings now had large security details and check-in processes. A whole list of exotic countries suddenly became too dangerous to visit. Technology advanced inexorably, either leaving people behind or pulling them faster than they ever expected, making it harder for them to get off the merry-go-round. What’s even more mind-boggling is that Billy Graham spoke of this decades ago: “Before He comes again the world is going to go through many convulsions, the Bible teaches,” he said in 1971. “There will be worldwide lawlessness, there will be an overemphasis on sex, there will be an acceleration of technology.”
More than just a preacher, Billy Graham was a committed husband and father, a lover of sports and music and a very down-to-earth man with a keen sense of humor. Billy Graham faced all the challenges and joys typical of his time. Like all of us, he was a complex person with varying skills, emotions and passions.
Because of his love for Jesus Christ and his unwavering faithfulness to the gospel, God used Billy Graham’s unique personality and interests to change the world. God will do the same with you and me if we let him.
This excerpt is adapted from Greg Laurie’s book “Billy Graham: The Man I Knew“, releasing April 13, 2021, via Salem Books.