When William Franklin Graham Jr. was born Nov. 7, 1918, few would have expected God to use someone with his beginnings to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. So how did Billy Frank, as his family called him, go from a boy who milked cows before dawn on his father’s farm outside Charlotte, N.C., to an evangelist who pointed millions of people to salvation through Jesus Christ?
Billy was the oldest of Frank and Morrow Coffey Graham’s four children. Tall for his age and thin as a reed, he was full of restless energy. He almost never walked anywhere—preferring instead to run. He got black eyes and scraped knees. He played and fought with his siblings. He did chores and went to school. And he loved adventure.
Morrow once recalled that her blond-haired, blue-eyed son spent hours lying on his back with his feet propped up, reading Tarzan books, and then charging outside to act out the exploits on the family’s 300-acre farm.
The Grahams had always been a church-going family, but when the Great Depression caused Frank Graham’s bank to close in 1933—taking with it his $4,000 life’s savings—he and Morrow found themselves leaning more heavily upon God’s Word. Not only did they join a Bible study group, but Frank also joined the Christian Men’s Club, a group that often set up tents or pine “tabernacles” in Charlotte and invited evangelists to hold revival meetings.
In May 1934, the men met on the Graham’s farm to pray about inviting evangelist Mordecai Ham to preach in Charlotte. During the meeting, Charlotte businessman Vernon Patterson prayed that “out of Charlotte God would raise up someone to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth.” In those days Billy spent more time in the principal’s office than the classroom, and was said by his classmates to be a bit of a “back-pew terror” in church.
In fact, by this time, the 15-year-old went to church only out of respect for his parents. He sat through his family’s devotions wishing he could be somewhere else. He had no plans of attending the Mordecai Ham meetings—until one of his dad’s farm workers offered to let him drive his truck.
Billy had always thought himself to be a pretty good person, but Ham’s sermon about God’s standards, and how humans fall short, made him reconsider.
“I could not help but admit to myself that I was purposeless and empty-hearted,” Billy wrote in his autobiography. “Our family Bible reading, praying, psalm-singing and churchgoing—all these had left me restless and resentful … I was spiritually dead.”
Billy did not respond that night, but he continued to go to the revival, and one night just before his 16th birthday, he went forward at Ham’s invitation. His new friends Grady and T.W. Wilson also went forward at the Ham meetings, and the threesome later teamed up to participate in a series of youth revival services at a local church. The services included an outreach to prisons and homes for wayward youth, and the young men were often called on to share their testimonies, something that made Billy incredibly nervous.
After high school, all three enrolled at Bob Jones University. But by the end of the year, Billy had grown weary of the school’s strict rules, so he transferred to Florida Bible Institute. The following spring he was invited to accompany the school’s dean, John Minder, to a conference center. There they met with a local pastor who asked Minder to preach at a Sunday evening service at his church.
Minder asked Billy to preach instead, and soon Billy began to sense God’s call to preach the Gospel, an inkling he fought for an entire year—until one night, while walking along the college’s golf course, he fell facedown on the dewy grass and cried: “O God, if You want me to serve You, I will!” He later wrote, “From that night in 1938 on, my purpose and objectives in life were set. I knew that I would be a preacher of the Gospel.”
Billy completed his studies at Florida Bible Institute, then enrolled at Wheaton College. He preached as often as possible and even served briefly as pastor of the United Gospel Tabernacle while maintaining a full class load. At Wheaton he met slender, hazel-eyed Ruth McCue Bell, who he thought looked like a movie starlet. After a month, he mustered up the courage to ask her out, and they instantly felt God leading them together.
Billy and Ruth graduated in June and were married two months later, on Friday, Aug. 13, in the Gaither Chapel on the grounds of the Presbyterian conference center near her parents’ home in Montreat. They spent a brief honeymoon in the North Carolina mountains before heading back to Chicago, where Billy would serve as pastor at Western Springs Baptist Church in Western Springs, Ill.