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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in 2005 as Charisma magazine's cover story. At that time, Billy Graham was about to make his last stadium appearance. On his 95th birthday, Charisma looks back to honor America's favorite evangelist.
The all-night prayer meeting was heating up. People poured out their hearts before God. "It seemed we had a hotline to heaven," remembers one participant. "Wave after wave of prayer flooded our hearts."
It was 3 a.m., July 13, 1949, and prayer had been going on for the last five hours in the Rainbow Room of the Westminster Hotel in Winona Lake, Indiana. Between 40 and 50 Youth for Christ leaders were present, including a young Billy Graham.
Armin Gesswein, the prayer leader, addressed the group: "You know, our brother Billy Graham is coming out to Los Angeles for a crusade this fall. Why don't we gather around this man and lay our hands on him and pray for him? Let's ask God for a fresh touch to anoint him for this work."
Cliff Barrows, a longtime friend and co-worker of Graham's, remembers that night as if it were yesterday. "We were on our faces before the Lord. Some of us were under the piano praying," Barrows told Charisma. "The Spirit of God moved in our hearts, breaking us and revealing our pride."
Afterward, Graham opened his Bible to Joel 3:13 and with deep conviction read aloud the words, "Put in [your] sickle, for the harvest is ripe" (NKJV).
A few months later, Graham's first Los Angeles Crusade became front-page news. William Randolph Hearst sent a telegram to his editors: "Puff Graham." His order to give plenty of space to reporting on Graham may have launched the evangelist into the national public eye, but those who were in the Rainbow Room that night would tell you that prayer was and still is the real power behind Graham's success.
For half a century since that night of prayer, Graham has preached the gospel to more than 210 million people. His 416 crusades have taken him all across the United States and to 185 countries and have earned him the title of the world's most famous preacher.
He's been on the Gallup organization's list of Ten Most Admired Men in the World 45 times, more than any other person. He is a friend of monarchs, popes, prime ministers and other world leaders. Yet first and foremost, Graham is "America's Preacher," a confidant of presidents and commoners alike, a man who reaches across denominational lines and racial barriers with the good news of God's love, and who brings consolation and hope in times of national tragedy.
For the tall, gangly farm boy from Charlotte, North Carolina, who was once told he'd "never amount to more than a poor, country Baptist preacher somewhere out in the sticks," this notoriety can only be attributed to God's blessing.
"There are better preachers and better teachers, yet the Lord has chosen to use an ordinary man in an extraordinary way," says Stephan Tchividjian, Graham's eldest grandson.
From his earliest days in Bible college, Graham struggled with his inadequacies. He believed he would never be a preacher because he was too poorly educated. And yet he has admitted that the Holy Spirit showed him he would touch many. "I used to have the strangest glimpses of the crowds that I now preach to," he says.
At the age of 19, after a long battle in prayer, Graham says he got down on his knees and told God, "If you want me to preach, I will do it." Since that evening, Graham has had one focus and one passion in his life: to save souls. "It has been the motive and focus of his entire life," says his eldest son, Franklin Graham.
"His focus wasn't to become famous. It wasn't to make money. It was to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, and God has honored it," Franklin adds.
During the course of Graham's life he has had many opportunities to be sidetracked. Barrows, who has served as music and program director with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) since it was founded, says Graham "has had opportunities to build an institution, establish a university, or become the president of this or that organization and he's turned them all down. He always said: "I've been called to be an evangelist; I wouldn't stoop to be a king.'"
All who know Graham say he is one of the most humble men they have ever known. "His total lack of self-promotion, competitiveness and jealousy has freed him up to keep his eyes on God, promote others, and let God promote him," says daughter Anne Graham Lotz.
"Billy always encouraged us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought," Barrows says. "He warned us not to reach up and touch the glory of God."
Millions of people know Billy Graham for his simple, straightforward biblical preaching, punctuated over and over with the phrases "the Bible says" and "God loves you." An insatiable reader of history and politics, he likes to interject current events into his sermons, making them culturally relevant to his audience. But his basic message of salvation through Christ has never changed.
Just before his November 2004 Los Angeles Crusade at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Graham told reporters, "I intend to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ as simple as I know how and trust the Holy Spirit to apply it to every individual life." That strategy has worked for him since that first crusade in Los Angeles 56 years ago.
Graham has always attributed the success of his evangelistic crusades to prayer. "He always said that the three most important things in any crusade are prayer, prayer and more prayer," Barrows says.
If the Graham team had anything close to a personal intercessor it was Pearl Goode of Pasadena. For many years she prayed in secret for Graham until he heard about her and made provision for her to attend his crusades so she could pray on-site. Goode lived to be 90, and at her funeral, Graham's wife, Ruth, paid her this tribute: "Here lie the mortal remains of much of the secret of Bill's ministry."
Graham has always viewed himself not so much as a preacher or an evangelist, but primarily as a "doorkeeper in the house of God," helping people to enter. And he admits feeling a spiritual anointing for that task. In one of his many biographies, the 2003 book The Billy Graham Story, he says: "When I come to my invitation I sense God come on me, and I feel a power at that invitation that's peculiar."
During the 1957 New York Crusade, Robert Walker of Christian Life magazine captured Graham's passion about the giving of an invitation to the audience.
"This is the most dramatic moment of the evening," Walker wrote in one of the first articles about Graham. "Here is the point on which the prayers of the world have been concentrated. All the preparations will have been in vain if the Spirit of God does not convict men and women of their need of the Savior."
Barrows says that the response to his invitations, which is consistently overwhelming, has been one of the most amazing facets of Graham's ministry.
"Oftentimes Billy has been so weary physically and has felt like he has been in the boxing ring with the devil himself, but he always felt that when the invitation was given there would be a response, if he was faithful. And this has been so true."
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