Billy Graham shared the gospel with millions of people in person and billions on radio and television, but I always got the feeling that he was talking just to me. That’s what made the evangelist so extraordinary. His message went out to the multitudes for decades, but it was designed to stick in the hearts and souls of individuals and it did. It’s not like I had never heard a preacher before. My mother took me to church twice on Sundays and for Wednesday night prayer meetings every week. I had listened to Brother Peyden’s fire and brimstone sermons from as far back as I could remember. Like a lot of other kids in that little Baptist church in the shadows of the paper mill, though, I was usually thinking about something else while Brother Peyden was yelling to save my soul. It was time to tighten the chain on my bicycle, and I needed to work on the pocket in my baseball glove. I wondered if the bream were bedded up yet at the mill ponds.
Most of the preacher’s exhortations seemed to be directed at somebody else anyway. I didn’t drink or gamble and was already being adequately punished by my mother when a cussword would slip out. So Brother Peyden’s sermons would sting a little once in a while when he talked about things I knew were wrong but kept doing. But the pain faded quickly like it did when I got hit with chinaberries in our neighborhood slingshot fights. When Billy Graham would zing me over some sin or another in one of his television crusades, the guilt stuck with me a lot longer. I would lie awake at night thinking about what he said. My mother was usually too busy cooking and sewing and things like that to get involved in what we watched on television. But if a Billy Graham crusade was on, that preempted everything, including my dad’s boxing and wrestling shows. He was raised by a steadfast Baptist deacon father but had strayed a long way from steady church attendance. He blamed it on shift work at the paper mill.
But he watched Billy Graham with the rest of us when my mother switched the TV to the crusades. Graham was the greatest evangelist of all time. He was a Southern Baptist, and his distinctive voice and diction and that regal accent did not seem to match his North Carolina roots. He had grace and class, chiseled facial features, flowing wavy hair, sky blue eyes and a powerful oratorical style and eloquence that simply enthralled massive audiences and captivated the individuals that formed those crowds. Billy Graham never wasted a word in his sermons, and every aspect of the broadcasts reflected the precision and passion that made the crusades so compelling and effective.
Audiences were moved by choir hymns and solos of How Great Thou Art and I’d Rather Have Jesus by George Beverly Shea, whose rich bass-baritone voice echoed through the Billy Graham crusades for a half-century. The electrifying sermons and rousing music moved millions of people over the years to altars at stadiums and arenas around the globe to accept Christ as their savior as the words of Just As I Am reverberated through those venues. But the influence of Billy Graham, who has died at age 99, on the world of Christianity extended far beyond those huge and historic crusades and the media broadcasts that documented them. The impact of his evangelism rippled through rural churches, ladies’ prayer meetings, gospel concerts and tent revivals in little places like Springhill where I grew up. Sermons and songs and the salvation of souls that followed them in the Billy Graham telecasts left me many times in my pre-teen years with chills along my spine and a lump in my throat. Those feelings would resurface at times when Brother Peyden was preaching or Brother Carraway, the Calvary Baptist music director, would sing Old Rugged Cross or Nail Scarred Hand and sound a lot like George Beverly Shea. I could feel the chills and the choking as I sat beside my mother sweating in those tent revivals and an evangelist from some big town like Shreveport said something that reminded me of one of Billy Graham’s sermons.
Countless thousands of people in little churches across the country like the one I attended as a boy were thrust into the aisles toward professions of faith with the words and music of Billy Graham crusades ringing in their ears. They never saw Billy Graham in person, but the force of his ministry had helped pave the way for their salvation.