Grant Wacker, professor of Christian History at Duke University and a member of the Christian History advisory board, is working on a cultural biography of Graham, titled Billy Graham's America, to be published by Harvard University Press in 2011. He is giving us an advance peek at his research in the following essay—which is a condensed version of an article by the same title published in Church History, September 2009.

In slightly more than two decades—roughly from 1949 to 1971—Billy Graham moved from leader to celebrity to icon, and he retained that iconic status into the new millennium. For millions of Heartland Americans, he functioned very much as a Protestant saint. By the time he retired in 2005, reportedly he had preached to nearly 215 million people in person in more than 185 countries and territories, and to additional hundreds of millions through electronic media. With the possible exception of Pope John Paul II, Graham likely addressed more people face-to-face than anyone in history. Except for elected officials, Graham may have been the only person in the United States who needed no mailing address beyond his name. Just "Billy Graham" scratched on an envelope would do. Of the thousands of letters sent to Graham from children, one, posted in 1971, probably from a first- or second-grader, seemed to speak for all. After requesting a free book, the young author signed off, "Tell Mr. Jesus hi."

The reasons for Graham's ascendency, longevity and, above all, singularity are not obvious. His early years offer few clues. The most remarkable feature of young Billy Frank's childhood and adolescence is how unremarkable they really were. Born in 1918, he grew up near ...

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