His North Carolina drawl and homespun style might seem to mark him as an American type – a soapbox evangelist – but Billy Graham’s reach and reputation were global. By one estimate, more than 2 billion people worldwide heard his message of redemption over the airwaves or in person.
Graham, a Southern Baptist, was an advisor to U.S. presidents beginning with Dwight Eisenhower and a pioneer in using radio and television to spread the Gospel. He took his evangelical crusades to every corner of the U.S. and to foreign countries, including China and the Soviet Union. A Gallup Poll of Americans ranked him among the most admired figures of the 20th century, after Franklin D. Roosevelt and ahead of Pope John Paul II.
After graduating from Wheaton College in Illinois in 1943, Graham served briefly as a church pastor in Western Springs, Ill. When a friend and fellow pastor’s radio show ran out of money, Graham took over with financial help from his parishioners. The radio ministry, “Songs in the Night,” gave Graham a taste for broadcast evangelism that never left him.
In 1949, Graham held a series of revival meetings in Los Angeles that helped him gain a national reputation. With support from news baron William Randolph Hearst and publicity in Hearst’s newspapers, Graham’s crusade ran eight weeks, five weeks longer than planned. In 1954, he made the cover of Time magazine.
Graham’s empire grew to include “Hour of Decision,” a weekly radio broadcast; prime-time television specials; a syndicated newspaper column called “My Answer”; a film production company; and a youth-oriented website.
During the Cold War, Graham became the first evangelist of note to speak behind the Iron Curtain, addressing large crowds throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Graham led a prayer and remembrance service at Washington National Cathedral attended by President George W. Bush and other dignitaries.
In 2002, White House tapes were released on which Graham could be heard making derogatory remarks about Jews in conversation with President Nixon three decades earlier. Graham expressed deep regret for the comments, which he said did not reflect his beliefs.