A Life of Praise

A look at the journey of Cliff Barrows: original team member, music leader and friend

“Safe in the arms of Jesus.”

That was the song playing over the speakers in Charlotte, N.C.’s Calvary Church on the morning of Nov. 22. It was a recording sung by Cliff Barrows’ decades-long friend and colleague, the late George Beverly Shea.

After a 93-year, praise-filled journey on earth, Cliff Barrows is at his heavenly home—safe in the arms of Jesus. He passed away Nov. 15, leaving behind his loving wife of more than 20 years, Ann; five children: Bonnie, Bob, Betty Ruth, Bud and Bill; and many other beloved family members and friends. His first wife, Billie, preceded him in death in 1994 after a battle with cancer.

Early Life

Cliff Barrows was born to Charles and Harriet Barrows on April 6, 1923, in Ceres, Calif. He gave his life to Christ as a young boy, and his early adolescence was marked by a call to ministry. Raised on a citrus farm, he learned the value of hard work.

But when he arrived in South Carolina to attend Bob Jones University, he came with more than a strong work ethic and a call to ministry—he had countless hymns written on his heart and a passion for music.

Barrows’ mother was the influence behind his affinity for hymns. When he was a young boy, she encouraged him to memorize these songs—not just for the melodies; but so these God-glorifying words would be etched on his heart. There was deep theology in the lyrics, and it largely shaped who he became—not only as a minister, but as an individual.

Barrows’ college experience was paramount in shaping him as a minister of the Gospel and as a disciple of Christ. He graduated from Bob Jones with a degree in sacred music, and he also studied Shakespearean drama. It was there he developed his program planning skills, which made him the prolific choir director on the platform of the Billy Graham Crusades.

More important, Scripture memorization was drilled into him. This would prove to be one of the hallmarks of his character—even until his last day on earth.

Working with Billy Graham

The year 1945 proved to be pivotal for Cliff Barrows. First, he married his college sweetheart, Billie, and while honeymooning in the North Carolina mountains, they met Billy Graham—the man with whom Cliff would travel the globe over the coming decades, sharing the hope of the Gospel through preaching, Scripture—and of course, song.

Billy Graham was in the mountain town of Asheville to preach at a Youth for Christ rally, but he had a big problem—his song leader didn’t show up. And in God’s providence, Cliff Barrows was in town with his new bride and offered to fill in.

Not knowing whether his soon-to-be friend and ministry partner was up to the task, Graham grabbed both of Barrows’ hands and said, “No time to be choosy!”

As it turned out, it was a match made in Heaven. Barrows, a preacher in his own right, humbly gave up the opportunity to launch his own ministry in order to serve alongside Billy Graham. For more than six decades he led countless choirs all over the globe, hosted the long-running BGEA radio program The Hour of Decision, served as the Crusade program director, and had roles in several BGEA films.

“Cliff was many things to my father: a partner in ministry, a prayer warrior, and adviser,” wrote Franklin Graham, in a letter read at Barrows’ memorial. “He trusted Cliff Barrows. He was a man of great integrity and they enjoyed a lifetime friendship.”

One of the Hallmarks of Barrow’s character—and subsequently, his reputation—was his humble posture toward serving the Lord and encouraging anyone whom he encountered.

Billy Graham once said of his close friend: “When I would begin the invitation and Cliff would lead in singing Just As I Am, he was just as much a part of what the Holy Spirit was doing in people’s hearts. I love this man who has been like a brother to me. But all of that talent is not the secret of Cliff’s effectiveness. It is his humility and his willingness to be a servant. It is his love of Christ that monopolizes his heart, which springs from his devotional life and his daily walk with his Savior.”

It is clear to many, however, that Barrows brought more than humility and sound theology to the platform; he brought vision and excellence.

“Cliff Barrows had the tremendous vision for assembling great evangelistic choirs that have become legendary,” Franklin said. “No one else worked with 700-800 church choirs from one city to assemble 3,000-4,000 voices. He successfully brought harmony in song and in spirit.”

“Music reaches a man’s soul quicker than the spoken word,” Barrows once said in an interview. “Martin Luther said, ‘Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise.’”

Barrows was known for his gift of orchestrating a symphony of praise through unskilled, untrained voices. Once called a “choir wrangler” by a reporter, he said, “I’d rather have 100 volunteers than 200 paid professionals, because you have their hearts, and their spirits are riveted to the commitment of serving the Lord through the message of song.”

One of those choir volunteers was C.L. Handy, who now volunteers at the Billy Graham Library.

“I sang in the choir in the last Crusade Mr. Graham and the team held in Charlotte,” wrote Handy on Barrows’ memorial website. “He was like the sun on a warm day. He never stopped smiling and exuded joy. He could bring those [together]who wanted to lift their voices to Jesus, but [who] had little musical abilities … yet made something so beautiful as a gift in music to Jesus. He could form a choir out of any group and it was perfect, because he dedicated himself entirely to Jesus and bringing the Gospel.”

When Barrows wrapped up his Crusade appearances in the early 2000s, he poured himself into another ministry project during the winter of his life—this time, in Asheville, N.C., where his journey with Billy Graham began.

Barrows led The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove’s first SeniorCelebration—an event geared toward senior adults, which started in 2004. It featured Barrows as the Bible teacher and song leader. He continued to host and lead singing for these events until 2014.

George Beverly Shea would often participate. The guests particularly enjoyed hearing Barrows and Shea tell stories about traveling the world with Billy Graham through the decades.

“Cliff’s humility only got sweeter with age,” said Michele Bachelor, program director for The Cove. “The worship would get started in the green room before the program even began. He would invite musical guests to join him in the green room, where he would sing or pray with them before the program started. He carried with him a 24/7 posture of worship. And that is the mark of a humble spirit.”