Memories of Billy Graham

Billy Graham walking to Duke Chapel to deliver a sermon in 1973. Photo courtesy Duke University Archives.Sharing

Billy Graham accepted my invitation to preach in Duke Chapel my first year, and, to my surprise, is the nicest evangelical famous preacher one could hope to meet.  Billy is so admired by so many for so long because Billy never stopped preaching God’s converting gift of a second chance.  One of Billy’s best-selling books was How to be Born Again. 

His sermon in Duke Chapel was a muddle—set pieces from Billy’s work over the years, little biblical content, no discernable theme. Nobody noticed.  Just being among the crowd as Billy preaches is sermon enough.

We mainline, non-evangelical, non-invasive preachers pat a congregation on the head as we murmur, “There, there, God loves you just the way you are.  Promise me you won’t change a thing.”  Billy consistently preached the Gospel of the Second Chance.  Those in desperate need of a second or third chance (for whom buttoned-down mainline Christianity is giving aspirin to someone in need of massive chemotherapy) require more than “progressive” sermons — bourgeois conformity with a spiritual tint.

“You will have a wonderful ministry here,” Billy reassured me as we stood in my study after service.  “Many of these students and faculty are unaware that Jesus Christ is eager to have them.”

I’m sorry that my friend Karl Barth disapproved of Billy’s preaching.  And I wish Billy had not been cynically snookered by Nixon. Sometimes we evangelists, in an effort to love someone for Christ, get seduced.  Besides, Tricky Dick and I need all the second chances God’s got.  Shortly after Billy’s sermon in Duke Chapel, Margie Velma Barfield fed her North Carolina preacher husband tapioca laced with ant poison, thus provoking his gut-wrenching death.  When the state medical examiner suspected foul play, the man’s body was dug up.  The sheriff supervising the exhumation was asked if an autopsy would confirm murder.  “All I know is that there ain’t a damn ant within a mile of this cemetery.”

Velma, who probably murdered many, some by poison, others by arson, was easily convicted and ordered to be executed.  While I led protests, Billy’s helpmate, Ruth Bell Graham, began corresponding with Velma on death row. Velma took the Graham cure, repented, asked Christ into her heart, and was redeemed.  Ruth pled with the (liberal Methodist) governor to spare Velma.  The governor, believing in equal rights for women more than he believed in the God of the Second Chance—refused, making Velma the first woman to be executed in North Carolina in decades.

Back when I served as Junior High rep to the Official Board of Buncombe Street Church, Billy announced that he would lead a city-wide crusade in Greenville.  The whole town mobilized for the biggest event ever to hit town.  At the Board meeting grownups debated our congregation’s participation.

“It’s a bunch of Baptists trying to get a leg up on us,” said one.

“Graham says that there will be no separation of the races during the meetings,” gasped another.  That did it. The Board voted to protect our church from Graham’s miscegenation.

After the meeting, I went out the side door closest to the bus stop.  Down a dark church hallway I heard weeping.  I crept down the hall.  Light shown from an open door.  I peeked in.  Our pastor, Dr. Dubose, was sobbing, holding his head in his hands.

9 thoughts on “Memories of Billy Graham

  1. Dear Dr. Willimon, Sometimes you aggravate the hell out of me. And then there are times like this. Thank you for this post, and for placing your lamp on the table. God Bless and carry on. Dave Martin

    On Thu, Feb 22, 2018 at 8:35 AM, A Peculiar Prophet wrote:

    > willwillimon posted: ” Billy Graham accepted my invitation to preach in > Duke Chapel my first year, and, to my surprise, is the nicest evangelical > famous preacher one could hope to meet. Billy is so admired by so many for > so long because Billy never stopped preaching God’s co” >


  2. So am I. Willimon reminds me of the Methodist lock step, party line opposition here in St. Louis. My Dad and the congregation Shaw UMC were the Mavericks.

    Sent from my iPad



  3. Thank you, Dr. Willimon, for your sensitive tribute to Billy Graham, and to his wife Ruth Bell Graham. I admire them both.
    Simple, but towering figures. Our nation is better because of them.
    Billy Graham leaves a place hard to fill. Neither academically proud or rhetorically-inclined, or steeped in deep theology, he embodied a goodness hard to resist.

    Cynthia Cockerham


  4. Yes, I was a classmate of yours in junior high at Buncombe St. Church. As soon as possible, I shook the dust off my feet as I fled, and became a Presbyterian far, far away.


  5. Thanks Will. Well said. I have a soft spot for Billy. Wish his son Franklin was more like him.
    Grace and Peace,


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