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Why Was Billy Graham's Preaching So Powerful?

Spiritual strength, as the renowned evangelist experienced it, means remaining connected to the Source.
Why Was Billy Graham's Preaching So Powerful?
Image: Mario Tama

Billy Graham's colleagues often speak of the constant pressure Billy has always felt. It's easy to see why. Imagine the pressure of conducting the funeral for the disgraced former President Richard Nixon while the nation skeptically watched and listened for every nuance. Imagine the emotional demands on him when he conducted the memorial service after the Oklahoma City bombing.

The service at the National Cathedral right after the September 11 attacks presented perhaps the greatest pressure of all. The nation was in deep shock; the entire world would be watching on television. Billy's words and tone, both for Americans and for people of all other nations, had to be just right.

That would be challenge enough for a person at the height of his strength. But it was a frail octogenarian with serious health problems who mounted the platform with steady purpose and told the nation, "God is our refuge and strength; an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way, and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea."

With inner strength, Billy declared, "You may be angry at God. I want to assure you that God understands these feelings you have. But God can be trusted, even when life seems at its darkest. From the cross, God declares, 'I love you. I know the heartaches and the sorrows and the pains you feel, but I love you.'

"This has been a terrible week with many tears. But also it's been a week of great faith. … And [remember] the words of that familiar hymn that Andrew Young quoted, 'Fear not, I am with thee. Oh, be not dismayed, for I am thy God and will still give thee aid.'"

Despite his frailty, Billy's presence, poise, and message touched the sorrows and fears and brought hope and a deeply Christian response to his nation and to the world. He found the inner resources to rise to that momentous occasion.

Even in the latter years of his eventful ministry, Billy continued in the nitty-gritty of leading his organization; continued to sweat over the funding of three events in Amsterdam that brought together 10,000 itinerant evangelists, 70 percent of them from poor, developing countries; continued to appear on news shows to represent the gospel; continued to minister to every U.S. president of his era. In the phrase voiced by President George W. Bush when Billy was hospitalized and unable to attend the funeral of Ronald Reagan, Billy was "the nation's pastor"—but he was also the leader of an organization and of a vast movement.

How could he maintain the strength and sense of commitment to do all that for more than sixty years?

Billy has not been impervious to the pressures; his body and psyche have paid a steep price. But he has taken his own advice, so often expressed in his newspaper columns, books, and articles. He has continually plugged himself into the spiritual and psychological voltage that has made this half-century saga possible.

From the beginning, his spiritual power has come from prayer and the Bible. His colleague, T. W. Wilson, called him "the most completely disciplined person I have ever known." The discipline started around 7:00 a.m. each day, when he would read five psalms and one chapter of Proverbs. He started there because, as he often said, the psalms showed him how to relate to God, while Proverbs taught him how to relate to people. After breakfast he would pray and study more Scripture. Even under the pressure of travel schedules moving him from city to city, often through many time zones, he strove to study and pray each morning.

Some close to Billy describe him as more adaptive to circumstances in fitting in study and prayer, but all emphasize his spending large amounts of time connecting with his source of wisdom, cleansing, and power.

As Billy said, "Unless the soul is fed and exercised daily, it becomes weak and shriveled. It remains discontented, confused, restless."

Even in his early days of youthful vigor, he was intensely aware of his need for that power.

We talked about that with Billy's younger brother, Melvin Graham, shortly before Melvin passed away.

When Billy left the family farm at age 20, Melvin had stayed on—back when plowing was done with mules. At nearly 80 years old, Melvin was still active in land development.

We asked, "Where do you think Billy's spiritual growth came from?"

"Billy Frank would interact with just about anybody," he said. "It didn't matter who they were, kings or paupers. He studied a lot. He prayed a lot. He'd get on his knees and flatten out on the ground and call on the Lord. I've seen him."

Melvin suddenly pulled up his chin and said, "Tell you what—there was a fella named Bill Henderson, had a little grocery store in the black section of Charlotte—just a run-down little dump of a place. He was a tiny guy. He had long sleeves that came way down, and he wore a tie that hung down below his waist. But I tell you, that little old man, he knew the Bible!

"This was probably the late forties," Melvin explained, "and Billy had been around a lot of places."

We nodded, remembering this was when Billy was United Airlines' top traveler and had preached in many European cities.

Melvin wagged his head in wonder. "Henderson barely made a living. It was a place people would come to get chewing tobacco and stuff like that. Most people loved him, but that little man got beat up many times, got his store robbed time and time again, but he just loved the Lord. Billy loved to hear Bill Henderson tell him about the Scriptures, because he lived them; it wasn't weekend Christianity. And Henderson could pray. He'd pray for Billy and his young ministry. And he witnessed all the time."

"Did this influence Billy's focus on evangelism?"

"Absolutely," replied Melvin. "In the afternoons Billy would go there and sit on an old crate—I don't think they had a chair in the place—and let Bill teach him."

Melvin's word picture is instructive: young Billy Graham, while traveling widely to address large audiences, taking time to sit on a crate to learn from Bill Henderson. This image was consistent as we interviewed those who knew Billy: he was constantly learning, from self-taught store owners to executives, professors, pastors, presidents—and his candid, well-read wife. We heard over and over again, "He was always learning, always teachable."

When strength fades

When Billy's 1957 New York campaign was so effective that the pastors asked him to stay for another month of meetings, he told his associate Grady Wilson he didn't think he could make it even one more day. "All of my strength has departed from me," he said. "I've preached all the material I can lay my hands on. Yet God wants me here."

In all, he wound up preaching virtually every night for over three months in Madison Square Garden and making additional public appearances and speaking other times during the day. Grady believed it was "the prayers of people all over the world" that gave Billy the needed stamina for the task. Yet he also believed that the grueling time in New York drew down his reserves. "Since that time, I don't believe he's ever regained all his strength."

Cliff Barrows agrees. "Bill was so weary in the latter few weeks, he felt he just couldn't go another day, but the Lord kept giving him strength. But at the end of the meetings, something left him, something came out of him physically that has never been replaced." Until then a highly energetic preacher, afterward the active and rapid-fire delivery began to be replaced by a quieter strength.

Graham cut back on the number of crusades he held. Billy's autobiography lists 19 crusades he held in 1961. For 1962, it lists six.

Significantly, in 1962, while Graham conducted a crusade in Chicago, his media adviser, Walter Bennett, offered advice to some senior aides of Martin Luther King Jr., whom Billy had met and invited to give a prayer at the watershed New York City meetings.

Bennett analyzed the King team's approach to event organization and media relations. He warned that King would burn out if the minister continued his break-neck pace of speaking at small churches before modest audiences. Bennett suggested that King should aim for fewer events but more large-scale.

Perhaps that advice influenced the King team. One year later, King exhibited exceptional media savvy and organizational acumen during his defining moment, the March on Washington, where he made his historic "I have a dream" speech.

Billy had learned that not only is it important to connect to continuous voltage, it's also vital to monitor the way the energy is expended.

Despite a recurring sense of being drained, Billy didn't quit. Pastor Warren Wiersbe said: "When Billy stood up to speak one night, I thought, This guy is not going to make it. You could tell he was not at his best physically; he just didn't look like he was up to it. And then something happened, like you plugged in a computer—that power was there. The minute he stepped into that pulpit and opened his Bible, something happened. I've heard him say that when he gets up to preach, he feels like electricity is going through him."

This is the picture so often described by his colleagues: weakness drawing on the Spirit.

Prayer's quiet intensity

One of Billy's crusade organizers, Rick Marshall, in his first meeting with Billy, was amazed by his being so open about his weakness and by his humble prayers. "I remember thinking to myself, This is Billy Graham? It was such a contrast to the persona I had watched filling the stadium with his booming voice and authority. But when I was actually with the man, I was overwhelmed by the humility, the raw honesty before God about his own inability and physical limitations."

Rick quoted Paul's statement, "When I am weak, then I am strong," as the basis for this strange mixture of strength through weakness. Like Paul, Billy leaned into his weaknesses.

"Now think about it," Rick said. "If anyone could have been confident, it would have been Billy. But I never saw that. I saw only humility and a bowed head. In fact, I made a point for the last twenty campaigns to bring a team of pastors to pray with him every night before he went into the pulpit. That, I think, became for him one of the most important moments. It was his way, too, of saying, 'I don't do this in my own strength.'"

Billy described it this way: "When we come to the end of ourselves, we come to the beginning of God."

"Every time I give an invitation, I am in an attitude of prayer," he says. "I feel emotionally, physically, and spiritually drained. It becomes a spiritual battle of such proportions that sometimes I feel faint. There is an inward groaning and agonizing in prayer that I cannot possibly put into words."

This intensity in prayer was even at the humble beginnings of his ministry. Biographer William Martin recounts the story from Roy Gustafson, one of Billy's groomsmen and a close colleague. Roy, Billy, and two other men were walking out in the hills, talking about an important decision. They agreed to pray. Billy said, "Let's get down on our knees."

Roy was wearing his only good suit, so he got his handkerchief out, laid it down carefully, and knelt on it. As they prayed, Billy's voice sounded muffled to him. Roy opened his eyes and saw that while three of them were gingerly kneeling, Billy was flung out prostrate on the ground, praying fervently, oblivious to the dirt.

Billy's prayer connection was not only unusually fervent, it was also as natural to him as breathing. Perhaps most of the time his prayer life was not overt and conscious but more like a computer application that runs in the background—fully functioning but not seen on the screen.

A. Larry Ross, who served as Billy's director of media and public relations for more than 23 years, told us about his initial discovery of this side of Billy's prayer connection.

"The very first time I set up a network interview for Mr. Graham was with NBC's Today show in 1982. I went in the day before to meet with the producers and ensure everything was set. I assumed Mr. Graham would want to have a time of prayer before he went on national television, so I secured a private room. After we arrived at the studio the following morning, I pulled T. W. Wilson aside and said, 'Just so you know, I have a room down the hall where we can go to have a word of prayer before he goes on TV.'

"T.W. smiled at me and said, 'You know, Larry, Mr. Graham started praying when he got up this morning, he prayed while he was eating his breakfast, he prayed on the way over here in the car they sent for us, and he'll probably be praying all through the interview. Let's just say that Mr. Graham likes to stay "prayed up" all the time.'

"We didn't need to use that room," Ross added. "That was a great lesson for me to learn as a young man."

Trust the power given

Because Billy realized the power didn't come from him but came through him, he didn't feel obligated to overreach with his methods.

Jack Hayford, himself a powerful preacher, observed, "Billy Graham reveals a remarkable absence of the superficial, of hype, or of pandering to the crowd. His communication consistently avoids exaggeration or 'slick' remarks. There's never been anything cutesy or clever about his style. There are no grandiose claims or stunts employed to attract attention. Graham merely bows in prayer while seekers come forward—moved by God, not a manipulative appeal."

That confidence in the power of the message frees the leader from having to work over-hard on presentation techniques to convince the hearers. When a basketball player is not in a position to take a shot but puts it up anyway, coaches call it "forcing the shot."

Forced shots are usually ineffective. Coaches will tell players to wait until they're in a good position, then the shot has a better chance of success. Likewise, people can sense that efforts are forced when a leader isn't convinced his message has spiritual power.

Because Billy was well connected to his continuous voltage, he knew where the power came from. He simply made himself available to receive it.

Harold Myra was named publisher of Christianity Today by Graham in 1975. Myra retired as executive chairman in 2007 and the coauthor of The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham(Zondervan).

Marshall Shelley was the editor of Leadership Journal and the coauthor of The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham(Zondervan). He is currently the director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Denver Seminary.

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