What It Was Like to Be Billy Graham’s Pastor

Don Wilton, Graham’s spiritual confidant and preacher at his burial, said the evangelist never stopped striving for God.
What It Was Like to Be Billy Graham’s Pastor
Image: Courtesy of Don Wilton

Billy Graham has prayed for millions. Far fewer can say the famed preacher asked them to pray for him.

Don Wilton had the privilege of being the one Graham turned to for spiritual guidance, fellowship, and prayer in the final years and days of his life.

“He would ask me to pray that God the Spirit would fill him to the extent that he would be totally hidden behind the cross and people would only see Jesus,” said Wilton, who served as Graham’s personal pastor and met with him weekly for the past 15-plus years.

“His entire life was in pursuit that he would decrease so that Christ would increase.”

During his crusades, Graham often ended his messages by urging the audience to get connected with a local church. Once his days of touring the globe came to an end and he lived out the final decades of his life in his home near Asheville, North Carolina, the aging evangelist took his own advice. He tuned into sermon recordings and eventually became a member of Wilton’s congregation, First Baptist Church of Spartanburg, in 2008.

A South Africa-born preacher leading a major Southern Baptist congregation in South Carolina, 64-year-old Wilton is a fitting reflection of the global scope and Southern heritage of Graham’s own ministry.

Wilton joined the Graham family for a week of memorials to the late evangelist and will offer the message at his burial on Friday, March 2, preaching from Galatians 6:14—a passage Graham handpicked several weeks before.

“This is the verse he said he would have liked to use if he preached one more crusade,” he said. It reads (in the NIV): “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

Speaking from The Cove, Graham’s conference center in Asheville, the pastor to “America’s pastor” told Christianity Today about their weekly conversations, which were centered on the Word and always mentioned Graham’s late wife, Ruth, whom he joined in heaven this week.

You met weekly with Billy Graham as his pastor. What were your interactions like and what kinds of things would you talk about?

One could only imagine the deep honor and joy of being able to sit at Billy Graham’s feet, especially in Mr. Graham’s latter years, as he began his wonderful journey to be seated at the right hand of the Father with the Lord Jesus Christ. Our relationship was a very deep and personal one, as his personal pastor and as his friend.

We would talk about the love he had for his wife, Ruth. While she was still alive, she occupied a lot of our discussion, and then after the Lord took her home that conversation became very deep and very meaningful. There wasn’t a day that Mr. Graham did not long for her and love her and talk about her with a deep and abiding confidence that she was just waiting for him to arrive in heaven.

Then, we talked about family—his sons and daughters, their children, and their children’s children, a very large and extended family who had given their lives in service and ministry. I always kidded him that it was hard to keep up with how many children, grandchildren, how the family continued to grow.

We would love watching golf together and talking about baseball, different activities, his immense love for the people of the United States of America, and his passion for the soul of American people. And needless to say, how many months and years we just discussed the Word of God.

What did you see as your role in being a pastor to someone who’s probably the best-known pastor in the world? Were you ever intimidated?

The first thing was being so deeply humbled by the opportunity. … I don’t think it’s something I will get over all the days of my life. Nothing about Mr. Graham, in his demeanor, his touch, his incredible spiritual humility, would in any way cause a feeling of intimidation.

It was the most strange dichotomy. Every time I was ever with Billy Graham, it was as if I was the most important person. Just think about how silly that is. It doesn’t make sense. It was like the roles were reversed. In my heart, I’m sitting at the feet of one of the greatest men I could ever be associated with. In his heart, I really believe Mr. Graham saw it in the opposite way. Only the Spirit of God could do that.

It’s one thing to preach the Word of God in power, but it’s another thing to actually be that, to live that. Mr. Graham didn’t just say what he said, he lived what he said.

I wonder, when you’ve lived and studied the Bible as long as Billy Graham, do you still have questions and struggles, or are you nearer to God than ever? Did he ask you for help or guidance?

Undoubtedly, Mr. Graham considered himself a sinner, saved only by the grace of God, on a journey of life during which time he never stopped searching for significance in his relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Mr. Graham had a profound sense of his own personal weakness and inability before a holy and righteous God.

There were many times where I would look at Mr. Graham or respond to his questions wondering why he—Billy Graham, world-renowned evangelist—would need to ask a question like that. I would consider that he knew the answer, that he had arrived. But not Mr. Graham.

He believed that his strength was only in the Lord, that his weakness was made perfect only through Christ, and that this life is a perennial pursuit after the holiness of God. There was never a time that Mr. Graham laid down the tools of his calling, the striving of his heart, the cry to God to fill him with the power and presence of his Holy Spirit.

At 99, how did his aging and his physical health affect your relationship? Did you know he was coming to the end?

From the time of Mr. Graham’s 95th birthday celebration, which was such a wonderful time together, Mr. Graham’s physical ability began to create more and more limitations, and those of us who were close to him were aware of that.

My last wonderful time with Mr. Graham was one week ago, last Friday, and we spent some time together as we do every week. He was eating his lunch, and then we spent some quality time together. Certainly, Mr. Graham’s physical ability limited his communication and his ability to hear and even to see, which enhanced our relationship. I felt over these last years that the Lord was allowing me the privilege to listen for him and relay messages and share what was going on.

His mind was sharp until the moment God called him on Wednesday morning. Franklin shared with us yesterday, as we began to escort his body from the funeral home to The Cove, where it is right now, that on Sunday he was able to share some things with his father, and his father responded to him, and that’s a precious memory.

What was your reaction when you first heard the news of Graham’s passing?

As word began to reverberate across the world and news bulletins began to break, I was about to get into my motorcar because I was scheduled to go down to Montreat [North Carolina] and have lunch with Mr. Graham. … But you know what happened? The Lord Jesus Christ made a determination that he wanted to have lunch that day with his servant Billy Graham.

In my limited mind, but also born out of so many conversations I’ve had with Mr. Graham, I think Mr. Graham arrived in heaven and standing right there at the gates was none other than Mrs. Graham. I hate to put words in her mouth, but I’m sure she looked at him and said, “Well, it’s about time, Billy.” That reunion must have been so sweet.

I think he heard someone singing and turned around and saw George Beverly Shea, singing, “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” Perhaps right then he would have heard the sound of a heavenly chorus, like he never heard before, and there’s Cliff Barrows, leading this unbelievable choir … people from the four corners of the earth having given their lives to Jesus after listening to this wonderful man of God share the love of Christ.

And then, I think the Lord Jesus Christ himself would have stepped forward and Billy Graham would have gotten so low in the presence of a holy and righteous God, and Jesus lovingly would have put out his hands, picked him up, looked into his face, and said to him, “Billy, well done good and faithful servant. Enter thou into the joy of the Lord.”

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What It Was Like to Be Billy Graham’s Pastor