What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Remembering Billy Graham, evangelical leader whose preaching felt personal to millions

Billy Graham, one of the most significant American evangelical voices and religious leaders of the past century, died Wednesday at the age of 99. Graham carried his message of peace and equality to millions around the world and on TV, while ministering to world leaders and acting as confidant to U.S. presidents. Hari Sreenivasan discusses Graham’s legacy with Randall Balmer of Dartmouth College.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of the country's most significant evangelical voices and religious leaders of the past century died today.

    Billy Graham, who preached to hundreds of millions of people around the world over decades and was a counselor to presidents, died at the age of 99.

    Hari Sreenivasan returns with this look back at his life.

  • Rev. Billy Graham:

    And God warns every man and every woman and every boy, outside of Jesus Christ, to prepare to meet almighty God.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Billy Graham, the evangelist who became known as America's pastor, first attracted national notice in 1949, when thousands flocked to his revival meetings in Los Angeles.

  • Rev. Billy Graham:

    No prophet ever stood up and said, I forgive your sins. But Jesus did.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This scene was repeated again and again over the next half-century, as the faithful thronged events dubbed crusades.

  • Man:

    Welcome to Madison Square Garden.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    His were the first religious services to be televised nationally, raising millions of dollars that helped spread his brand of evangelism.

  • Rev. Billy Graham:

    Wherever you are, God is giving you an opportunity once again.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Billy Graham was born on a dairy farm in North Carolina in 1918 to Presbyterian parents. He began preaching while attending Florida Bible College, and a few years later in Illinois, he met his wife, Ruth Bell. Their marriage lasted 64 years, until her death in 2007.

    During the tumultuous early days of the civil rights movement, Graham demanded his audiences be physically integrated, once removing a rope barrier that separated the worshipers by color.

  • Rev. Billy Graham:

    When God looks at you, he doesn't look on the outward appearance. The Bible says he looks upon the heart.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And he carried his message of peace and equality to millions around the world, traveling to 185 countries.

  • Narrator:

    At Sydney Airport, evangelist Dr. Billy Graham arrives to begin an Australia-wide crusade.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Over the years, Graham ministered to popular world leaders, as well as those reviled by many, such as North Korea's Kim Il-Sung.

    Though a lifelong Democrat, he said he never favored one party over the other, and that gave him credibility with both Democratic and Republican presidents.

  • Rev. Billy Graham:

    If I said things publicly and preached to the president from some pulpit somewhere, I would never get another opportunity to talk to them privately.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In 1991, as the first Gulf War got under way, Graham was in the White House with President George H.W. Bush and his family.

  • Rev. Billy Graham:

    And I turned to her and I said, "Barbara," I said, "Is this the beginning of the war?" And she didn't say anything, but I could sense by the way she looked that she knew something that I didn't know, that this was the beginning.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But his relationships with the powerful also drew criticism.

    In 2002, tapes recorded in the Nixon White House revealed a conversation between Graham and President Nixon in which both made disparaging remarks about Jewish people. Graham apologized.

    In his later years, he said he was less concerned with political matters and more with spirituality.

  • Rev. Billy Graham:

    You say, why do you ask people to come forward? Because every person Jesus called in the New Testament, he called publicly.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Millions of ordinary Americans also felt personally connected with Graham through his regular television appearances, as when he consoled the nation after the attacks of September 11.

  • Rev. Billy Graham:

    As a Christian, I have hope, not just for this life, but for heaven and the life to come. There is hope for eternal life, for Christ has conquered evil and death and hell. Yes, there is hope.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Graham continued his crusades late into life, drawing thousands to his final one in New York City in June 2005.

  • Rev. Billy Graham:

    I want to say, it is great to be back in New York.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    At the 2007 dedication of his library in Charlotte, North Carolina, followers, friends, family and three former presidents paid tribute.

  • President Jimmy Carter:

    He was the first evangelist of any stature that penetrated the Iron Curtain.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In a 1992 interview on the NewsHour, Graham offered his own explanation of his enduring appeal.

  • Rev. Billy Graham:

    It took me a long time to learn that there are certain elements true in every audience I speak to. There's always those people who are lonely. There's a sense of guilt. And then there's also a fear of death. It's unconscious, maybe, but it's there.

    And those are elements that one can touch on and speak to in the services. And I try to bring that into every sermon that I preach, that Christ is the answer. He's the hope.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The Reverend Billy Graham lived out his final years at his longtime home in Montreat, North Carolina, outside Asheville.

    And for more on the life of Billy Graham and his influence, we turn to Randall Balmer, a historian and professor of religion at Dartmouth College. He is the author of numerous books on American religion, including "Evangelicalism in America," and producer of the PBS documentary "Crusade-The Life of Billy Graham."

    So, tell me, what's the legacy of Billy Graham going to be?

  • Randall Balmer:

    I think he will go down in history as certainly the towering religious figure of the 20th century, certainly in American religion.

    I suppose some people would argue that various popes might contend for that. But I think he's also very important for two reasons. First of all, he brought evangelicalism out of the shadows in the middle of the 20th century.

    In the early decades of the 20th century, evangelicals were feeling quite battered, as though the larger culture had turned against them. And Billy Graham, beginning around 1949-1950, begins to bring them into the public spotlight and begins to make evangelicalism acceptable to a larger public.

    Part of that had to do with his personality, the force of his personality, but part of it was that he used media quite successfully and brilliantly in many ways to bring that message to the larger public.

    I think that the second legacy of Billy Graham is — and this is really quite remarkable — that, over the course of a career that spanned more than half-a-century, he was never seriously charged with any scandal. It's not to say he didn't misstep from time to time. He certainly did.

    But, in comparison with other televangelists, for example, Billy Graham emerged with his integrity and his character intact.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You mentioned that he largely lived scandal-free.

    One of the few things that we mentioned in the obituary was the recorded conversations that he had with President Nixon, which he later apologized for, in siding with some of the anti-Semitic views that the president had held.

  • Randall Balmer:

    He did.

    And I think Mr. Graham was genuinely shocked by this, because he had no recollection of the conversation.

    Richard Nixon had a way of kind of bringing — pulling people into his orbit, into the maw of his dark personality, I think, in some ways. That's not to excuse Mr. Graham at all. I think what he said was unforgivable, as he acknowledged. But it's one of the dark marks on his life and on his career, yes.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Do you think that he was aware of how politically powerful evangelicalism had become in America or has become in America?

  • Randall Balmer:

    He was, and he wasn't happy about that.

    When the religious right emerged in the late 1970s in opposition to desegregation, Billy Graham was uneasy about that. And he made several statements to the fact that he was afraid that those on the far right would try to co-opt evangelicalism for their political ends.

    And he wasn't happy about that.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And you also bring out the important point that he did this barnstorming and evangelizing in an era pre-YouTube, you know, in an era unlike the evangelical ministers that we see today, who are using television and the Internet to reach these wide audiences.

    He actually physically went to all these countries.

  • Randall Balmer:

    He did.

    He was a very peripatetic evangelist, and — but he used media along the way in order to amplify his influence and to make himself really into a religious celebrity in the 20th century.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Do you think that there is an heir apparent to — is anybody doing what Billy Graham is able to do, or is that even possible in this era?

  • Randall Balmer:

    I don't think so.

    I think there really will be only one Billy Graham. And I say that because I think he came to prominence at a unique moment in history, when there are various new media technologies reaching the public.

    Radio had been around for several years, certainly, and other evangelists had used radio, but Graham seized on television. He seized on publication with his magazine, "The Hour of Decision" — or "Decision" magazine, rather.

    And he exploited media brilliantly in order to make himself into a household name and, as I said earlier, a religious celebrity, probably without peer in the 20th century.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, Randall Balmer, Dartmouth College, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Randall Balmer:

    My pleasure.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest