“Occasionally I’ve seen children become heavy-handed and insensitive when dealing with their aging parents, and it only caused resentment and hard feelings.”
Farm Boy: How Billy Graham Became a Preacher
A boyhood in rural North Carolina shaped the evangelist his entire life.
By Lauren F. Winner
If you go to Charlotte, North Carolina, you will find that the farmland where Billy Graham grew up has been transformed. The rolling fields of the early-20th-century agricultural South have morphed into the strip malls, office buildings, and subdivisions of the New South. But Charlotte of 1918, the year of Graham’s birth, was a sleepier town. Its first streetcars, creating new suburban residences, had just been built, and it wasn’t until Billy was three years old that one of the nation’s first radio stations graced Charlotte’s airwaves. A year later, Efird’s Department Store, which described itself as “the only store south of Philadelphia with escalators,” opened. It was in this Charlotte—straddling rural and urban, and experiencing the first pangs of transition into the world-class city people know today—that Graham was born.
Frank and Morrow Graham built, and reared their four children on, a thriving dairy farm. The children grew up in a colonial-style house with indoor plumbing. The family was close-knit. Indeed, Billy and two younger siblings, Catherine and Melvin, shared a bedroom until Catherine was 13. Jean Graham Ford—the youngest Graham sibling, born almost 14 years after Billy and his only surviving sibling today—recalls the special bond shared by Billy and his mother. Billy was always doing little things to please her, like going out into the fields and bringing her wildflowers. Jean also recalls that young Billy loved Morrow’s cooking and had a seemingly insatiable appetite: “When you walked in the back door during the spring and summer months, Mother would always have tomatoes on the shelf in the back porch. He would pick up the tomato and eat it just like he would an apple.” Billy especially enjoyed a boiled custard that only his mother could make. She would fix it by the quart, and he would drink it down.
The Graham children’s early years were quiet but full. Morrow Graham recalled it as “just a quiet country life.” Billy and Melvin helped in the dairy farm from a young age, and they played ball. “Billy always loved his ball,” his mother recalled.
The story of Billy Graham’s conversion is well known. In the fall of 1934, Mordecai Ham, a Kentucky-born Baptist revivalist, came to Charlotte and preached a powerful sermon. The revival stretched over weeks, and for the first week or so, the Grahams didn’t attend. Billy was persuaded to check out Ham by Albert McKain, one of his father’s most trusted employees. There, in response to Ham’s powerful teachings about sin, Billy famously made a decision for Christ. Later that night, standing in the Grahams’ breakfast room with fixings for a sandwich, Billy shared his experience with his family: Putting down his sandwich, he turned to Morrow and said, “Oh, Mother, I’ve been saved tonight.” In a 1976 interview, Billy’s sister Catherine recalled some of the subtle ways his conversion changed him: He no longer wanted to go to the movies, and he was nicer to his siblings. Doubtless, Billy’s sense that stirring preaching could inspire a dramatic personal commitment to Christ inspired his own lifelong ministry.
And yet it is worth remembering that, as decisive as this experience was, it wasn’t the beginning of Graham’s Christian life. To the contrary, by the time Graham found his way to Ham’s revival, he had already experienced nearly two decades of powerful formation in his local Presbyterian church and at home. Both of Graham’s parents were raised in the Presbyterian Church, although Morrow was more active than her husband before they married. As children, Jean recalls, the Graham family was at church every time the doors opened, and prayer was part of their daily life. “From the time Mother and Daddy were married, they had family devotions. They prayed together and read Scripture together—even on their honeymoon they knelt together.”
Throughout Billy’s childhood, the family had devotions, usually at night, in which Frank or Morrow would read a Bible passage and then family members would take turns praying. Sabbath was a special day in the Graham household. Morrow cooked all of Sunday’s food on Saturday so that no more work than necessary (cows do always have to be milked) would be undertaken on Sunday. This was the strong foundation on which Billy’s decisive moment at the Ham revival was built.
From Bob Jones to Florida Bible
But Billy’s early Christian formation was not the only aspect of his life in Charlotte that made an impact. His experiences at various schools would shape his intellectual life, and his understanding of Christian institutions, for decades. Scholarship was not Billy’s great strength; indeed, at first it was not clear to anyone that he would graduate from high school. His sister Jean recalls the day his homeroom teacher came to the house and warned Morrow that her eldest son wouldn’t pass his senior year. (He graduated from Sharon High School in 1936.) His lackadaisical attitude toward schoolwork may have been more of a comment on his desire to follow his own intellectual interests than anything else. He loved to read and read what he wanted to, even if it meant letting some of his assignments fall by the wayside. Jean remembers Billy often sitting cross-legged in a chair, “biting his fingernails and reading, letting the rest of the world go by.”
That Morrow Graham’s children would attend college was a given, but before matriculating came Billy’s storied stint as a Fuller brush salesman. He surprised his friends—who thought he was not the most hardworking person on the planet, and that he would be a flop—by selling brushes throughout the Carolinas. Is it any coincidence that America’s most famous and successful proponent of the gospel had his first career success persuading people that they needed a Fuller brush? Though Billy never exactly “sold” the gospel, it’s not too much of a leap to imagine that the charm and persuasiveness he used to sell brushes were part of the same powers of persuasion that God used to awaken people to the gospel through Billy’s preaching.
Box item: Putting down his sandwich, he turned to Morrow and said, “Oh, Mother, I've been saved tonight.”
Then came college. Where should a lanky farmer’s son from North Carolina study? Morrow had her heart set on her children attending Wheaton, but Bob Jones College (then located in Cleveland, Tennessee) came to seem a better option because it was close to home and less pricey. Yet Billy struggled at Bob Jones from the moment he arrived. As he recalled in his memoir, Just As I Am, students’ social life and intellectual life were strictly regulated; students’ mail was even checked to make sure nothing untoward got through the postal service. Perhaps foreshadowing the showdown he and Jones would have years later, Billy chafed against the regulations. Indeed, Billy and his friend Wendell Phillips both broke enough rules to rack up about 149 demerits—one more, and they’d be out. His schoolwork suffered, as did his health and, not surprisingly, his spiritual life. “I can’t seem to get anywhere in prayer,” he wrote to his mother. “I don’t feel anything.”
So in 1937, Billy transferred to Florida Bible Institute, which he found much more congenial. There, he learned a framework for thinking about critical issues that would stay with him for life: “We were encouraged to think things through for ourselves, but always with the unique authority of Scripture as our guide. … I could stretch my mind without feeling that I was doing violence to my soul.”
It was also in Florida that Billy started preaching. His mentor, academic dean John Minder, brought Billy with him on an Easter jaunt to a Baptist conference center in Palatka, Florida. Their hosts invited Minder to preach that evening at a small Baptist church. Minder, perhaps determined to get his young friend into the pulpit (but perhaps unable to imagine the awesome ministry that would result), declined the invitation, saying that Billy would be happy to take the service. What could Billy do but agree? So that evening, in a small room where a potbellied stove warded off the chill, Billy stood up before a small group of Baptist preachers and recited not one but four sermons he had memorized from a Moody Press book. This was, Billy later recalled, an “awkward debut,” to say the least. “Whatever glimmer of talent Dr. Minder might have thought he saw in me was Raw, with a capital R.”
That night in Palatka was, of course, just the beginning. Before long, the rough edges of Billy’s earliest sermons were burnished through prayer and practice, and he grew from a tyro into a masterful preacher. The seeds of his phenomenal work for Christ were clearly evident in his early years. His love of reading and his willingness to think about challenging issues, always in a biblical framework, would find new direction when he finally matriculated at Wheaton. And his understanding that powerful preaching could help lead even an ordinary North Carolina farm boy to make a decision for Christ would yield copious fruit in decades of evangelism around the world.
Credit- Christianity Today
Lauren F. Winner is associate professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School and author most recently of Wearing God.