DR BILLY GRAHAM, the American evangelist, celebrates his 90th birthday today. He has been preaching for more than 60 years, and has addressed an estimated 215 million people at rallies all over the world. Countless millions have heard him on radio and watched him on television.
The success of an eight-week tent mission in Los Angeles in 1949 led to the foundation of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in 1950. Of the 41 crusades the evangelist subsequently led all over the world, 20 were to the UK, beginning with a landmark event at Harringay Stadium in 1954.
Maurice Rowlandson, an Englishman who met Dr Graham at a Youth for Christ rally in Westminster Chapel in 1948, was invited to become a BGEA associate, as part of what was simply known as “The Team”. He was involved in organising all 20 UK rallies. He is still in almost daily touch with the evangelist. It was Dr Graham’s dynamism that marked him out, he remembers.
“He wasn’t flamboyant like so many of them were. He and two of his colleagues had spent six months in England from 1946 to ’47, lived in private homes and preached in small churches, and got to understand the English people,” he said on Tuesday. “I often get asked by people: ‘Is he genuine?’ I never had any doubts about that at all.”
Quintessential humility, graciousness, and a threefold loyalty had been the enduring factors, Mr Rowlandson said. “He is very loyal to all his staff, and every single member of his team is still with him now. Likewise our loyalty to him, and, third, the loyalty of both him and us to the Lord. He never diversified into other areas of doctrine or theology. He never preached on healing or tongues. He just preached the gospel.”
Mr Graham, who was married for 64 years to his late wife, Ruth, had never been discredited by the type of personal scandal that had brought down other notable preachers, because he had set out the ground rules right at the start of his ministry, Mr Rowlandson said.
“He would never allow himself to be in a car or anywhere with a lady who was not his wife,” he said. He recalled how even when his own American-born wife, Marilyn, had driven to London Airport to meet Dr Graham in her husband’s stead, he allowed her only to take the bags, while he himself took a taxi.
Mr Rowlandson, chief steward at Harringay, said that for 12 weeks, the first crusade had become a way of life every night except Sundays. “Harringay seated 13,000 people. When they discovered we were a reliable crowd, they allowed us to sit people on the steps; and then they allowed people to sit on both sides of the steps, and then to stand around the back — so, by the time the end came, we were getting 15,000 in,” he remembered. “There was never an empty seat.”
The impact was the same 30 years later in 1984, at a crusade in Bristol held after a gap of more than ten years. “We didn’t know whether anybody would come, or, if they did, whether anybody would respond to his invitation,” Mr Rowlandson remembered. “But it was amazing. Every seat was full. It was really unbelievable. When he got to the invitation, there was a deathly hush, and silence, and no one moved. And then the stream suddenly started, and it just poured down.”
Dr Graham has had Parkinson’s disease for the past 15 years, and is very frail, Mr Rowlandson says, though Dr Graham’s mind is still alert. “He hasn’t been well for most of his life.”
Mr Rowlandson recalled Dr Graham’s arrival in Bristol with a bout of laryngitis. There had been a dilemma about a preaching engagement and an operation.
“The surgeon came down, and said he could operate on Saturday morning at the Royal Masonic Hospital. ‘No, please,’ I said. ‘Anywhere but that.’ The surgeon said: ‘Sorry, that’s the only hospital I work at.’ I said: ‘Do you know, that’ll be good for 300 letters . . .’ and it was. People went round saying Billy Graham was a Mason. It was crazy.”
American colleagues at BGEA told Mr Rowlandson, who spoke to the Church Times this week from hospital: “When you work with us, we employ you 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, and any time that’s left over is your own.” Such is Dr Graham’s continuing inspiration that Mr Rowlandson says, with an undimmed enthusiasm: “I’ve lived my whole life like that.”
BGEA has received a large response to an invitation to those whose lives have been touched by Dr Graham to send in personal stories and birthday greetings. These are being combined into books, which are to be presented to him at a tribute dinner with family and friends later this month.
“My father is a humble man, who would never expect to be honoured,” said his son, Franklin Graham, president and chief executive of BGEA. “We urge all those who made a commitment to Jesus through my father’s ministry to share your story or simple greeting, as nothing could uplift him more on this special day.”