LOUISVILLE — “America’s pastor,” Billy Graham, went to be with his Savior on Feb. 21. He was 99 years old.
Graham’s 80-year ministry saw untold millions of professions of faith. According to statistics from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, he preached in person to more than 210 million people in 185 countries and in all 50 U.S. states.
During his ministry, he conducted 417 crusades total. Four of those were in Kentucky. But his impact on Kentucky pastors and leaders goes far beyond his crusades, Kentucky or even the nation.
Jim Simmons, pastor at Memorial Baptist Church in Murray for 20 years and now serving as interim pastor at Salem Baptist Church in Lynn Grove, remembers his “first encounter with Billy Graham.”
Simmons attended a crusade in Chicago in 1962. “I went forward at the invitation….my first step on the path God had for me,” Simmons who would later go on to graduate from Southern Seminary, said.
He heard Graham again in Syracuse in 1989. But the last time he heard Graham speak in person was in Moscow, Russia in 1992.
“That night, we saw 25,000 people surge forward at the invitation with more crowding the stands, and 20,000 outside trying to get in. They were lined up 10 deep around our team, trying to get Bibles, tracts, anything we had,” Simmons recounted.
“We will never see another like him,” he added.
“I count it a great privilege to have been a counsellor at the Billy Graham Crusade in 2001 at the Papa Johns Stadium in Louisville,” Charles Frazier, pastor of Zion’s Cause Baptist in Benton and Kentucky Baptist Convention president, said.
He continued, “As a child, I remember laying on the living room floor of my grandparents’ home and watching Billy Graham on television.”
“Billy Graham has been very influential for many generations. His impact will be felt for generations to come,” Frazier added.
Frazier feels “very honored to be a two- time graduate of the only graduate school, Billy Graham ever endorsed with his name: the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Ministry at Southern Seminary.”
“The passing of Billy Graham marks the end of an era in American Christianity,” Adam Greenway, who is now dean of that very school, reflected. “He was incredibly passionate for evangelism and he influenced every level of American life. He was also passionate about theological education and the training of the next generation of evangelists and evangelistic pastors. That’s personified by his support for the creation of the Billy Graham School at Southern.”
Greenway continued, “I think his greatest legacy would not only be those whom he personally impacted through his evangelistic ministry, but the scores of pastors and evangelists who have been trained to preach the same gospel that he so faithfully proclaimed.”
“When I first met Billy Graham in the Fall of 1990, two things stood out, both of which were confirmed in every future interaction I had with him,” Timothy Beougher, Associate Dean, Billy Graham School of Missions, and former associate director of the Institute of Evangelism at the Billy Graham Center, said.
“First was his commitment to prayer. Second was his genuine humility,” he continued. Beougher recounted times where with word and action, Graham made prayer the center of his ministry and embodied humility.
Beougher recalled, “I think one of his team members said it best, ‘Do you want to know Billy Graham’s secret? He doesn’t know he is Billy Graham!'”
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Seminary, and chair of the 2001 Louisville crusade committee, said, “In 1993 when I was elected president, Dr. Graham eagerly encouraged me and the vision that brought me to Southern Seminary by speaking at my inauguration, and by allowing us to establish the Billy Graham School.”
Mohler said that Graham was “directly involved in helping me to begin my presidency” and called him “an active encourager and always a partner in prayer in this task.”
“I was so privileged to know Dr. Graham and to have his personal imprint on my life and on this ministry. We celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Billy Graham and we are thankful to have known one who ran his race and finished his course with such dignity and valor,” Mohler added.
Graham held a four-day crusade in Louisville in June 2001 in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. The last time he had held a major crusade in Louisville was in 1956, when he was a young, 37-year-old evangelist. It lasted four weeks.
By Oct. 22, 1956, more than 350,000 people had already heard Graham during the first three weeks of the campaign. Approximately 6,800 made decisions for Christ. A surge in Bible sales also accompanied the revival.
Graham would return for a one-day crusade in 1964. The youth night with Billy Graham during the annual meeting of the Kentucky Baptist Convention drew at least 33,000 people to Freedom Hall at the Fair and Exposition Center and saw about 1,500 decisions registered publicly.
He also led a four-day crusade in Lexington’s Memorial Coliseum in 1971. The event attracted an estimated 77,500 people.
“It is an enormous honor for the city of Louisville and for this entire area for Dr. Graham to come here,” Mohler, who served as chairman of the 2001 crusade, told Baptist Press. “Dr. Graham said he is coming to Louisville because the Board has laid this city on his heart. We are very glad of that.”
“The reason behind Graham’s popularity is simple,” Mohler added. “Dr. Bill Graham has been a powerful preacher and a figure of world influence because he focuses on the simplicity of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s what his crusades are about. That’s what his message is all about.”
While his health had changed during the interim years, Graham’s essential message of salvation through Jesus Christ hadn’t.
“Is there another away to heaven, except through Jesus Christ?” Graham asked the crowd. “The Bible teaches there’s only one way. Other people will come along and try to tell you there are other ways, but the Bible says there’s only one way, and that way is by the cross. Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No man cometh to the Father but by Me.'”
He preached to more than 191,000 people during that crusade, including a then stadium-record crowd of 57,500 on the final night. That night, an estimated 7,500 people sat outside the stadium and watched Graham’s message on a large video screen. Each night saw nearly 2,300 people make a commitment to Christ.
The 82-year-old Graham joked about his age on the final night, saying that the golden years are anything but golden. “I’ve accepted the fact that I’m old, and I’m proud when they say that I’m old. It’s a great period of life,” he said. “It’s a great period to experience God–to look back over your life and see the hand of God in your life, and to have the assurance that if you die you’re going to heaven. To me, heaven is one glorious place, and I’m going.”
His 2001 visit to Louisville was also special for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which had named its School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth after the internationally renowned evangelist. Approximately 500 Southern students and faculty members served as crusade counselors for the event.
“A Billy Graham crusade comes to a community only once in a generation–if at all. God has given us this opportunity, and we dare not miss it,” Mohler said, urging seminary students to be involved in every possible role. “Our students will gain hands-on experience in the work of a major crusade and will learn evangelism and follow-up by direct participation.”
In 2006, Southern Baptists recognized Graham’s impact on the denomination and the world by dedicating a bronze sculpture of Graham during the final session of the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Greensboro, N.C. At the foot of the sculpture titled “There’s Room at the Cross for you,” which features a 7-foot-tall depiction of Graham standing beside a 17-foot cross, is a stone that displays the words of John 3:16. The sculpture has stood at the front of the LifeWay Christian Resources complex and the SBC Building in Nashville. (WR)
Todd Deaton and Myriah Snyder