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His message remained simple for half a century, even as the technology he used to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ grew more complex, and his voice reached more people around the world than any other preacher in the 2,000-year history of his faith.

“First of all, Billy Graham was the most successful evangelist in Christian history. The Apostle Paul was great and significant, but he didn't have the numbers that Billy Graham had,” said William Martin, of the University of Texas and author of “Prophet With Honor,” a biography of Graham. “From biblical times, no one has come close to what he's done.”

Despite the technological advances of the past century and the upheavals that saw great powers rise and fall, the Rev. Billy Graham preached an unchanging message that he firmly believed was meant for all humanity.

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“God has not changed, nor has the nature of the human heart changed,” Graham declared in a 1997 editorial in his Christianity Today magazine. “And that is why the Gospel is relevant to every individual in every culture: beneath all the cultural, ethnic, social, economic and political differences that separate us, the deepest needs and hurts and fears of the human heart are still the same.”

And the Christian Gospel held the answer to those needs. Graham quoted Paul's message in Romans that the Gospel is simply “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.”

The commission of Christ

Graham saw himself and the Christian church on a mission. “But there is one other thing that has not changed — and that is the commission of Christ to the church to ‘Go into the world and preach the good news to all creation,'” Graham wrote, quoting the Great Commission the resurrected Christ gave his followers according to the New Testament.

Graham was a spellbinding presence on the stage, gaining national attention during an eight-week tent crusade in Los Angeles in 1949. The intensity of his lanky, handsome frame, pointing his finger, his arms chopping the air, caught the eye of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. Graham was on the road to become the world's most famous preacher.

From the portable pulpit that accompanied him around the world, Graham talked about a Gospel of grace and forgiveness rather than guilt and judgment. Graham brought the word that “God loves you, no matter what you've done. He can forgive you and give you a new life. There's hope,” according to the late Rev. Calvin Thielman, pastor emeritus of Montreat Presbyterian Church where Graham and his family regularly worship.

Thielman, who died in 2002, had been friends with Graham for nearly 50 years, and he never felt intimidated in the pulpit having the world's most famous preacher sitting in the pews. “I always felt more inspired to preach because he was pulling for me.”


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Finding grace early on

As a child growing up on a dairy farm near Charlotte, Graham attended Chalmers Memorial Associate Reformed Presbyterian Meeting House. At the age of 16, he committed himself to Christ during the singing of “Almost Persuaded, Christ to Believe” at a Charlotte revival featuring the evangelist Mordecai Ham.

After a brief stint at Bob Jones College, then in Tennessee, Graham was not comfortable with the fundamentalist doctrines. Graham transferred to the Florida Bible Institute in Tampa, and was ordained as a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention. He later went on to attend Wheaton College, a staunchly evangelical school where he met Ruth Bell, daughter of a missionary surgeon in China. Marrying Ruth, Graham would move to Montreat, where they would raise their five children.

Graham kept his membership in the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. Thielman said he never urged his friend to join Montreat Presbyterian.

Over the course of his long career, Graham reached across denominational lines and bitter theological divides. At the Amsterdam 2000 conference sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Theilman saw Pentecostals waving their hands in praise and prayer alongside traditional-minded Baptists.

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Passing the torch

Throughout his career of crusading around the world, Graham sponsored three worldwide evangelism conferences, helping to equip and train ministers to carry the Gospel message to their corners of the word.

The late Rev. Jerry Pereira, of Swannanoa First Baptist Church, and the former president of the North Carolina Baptist Convention, was in the audience at Amsterdam. Pereira said after that event Graham's success lay in never veering from his central message into the thickets of theological debate.

“A theologian once said, ‘In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty, but in all things, charity.'” Pereira said.

“Mr. Graham was a Christian essentialist. He stuck to the essentials of the faith,” said Pereira who served on the faculty of Graham's Schools of Evangelism. Graham at one time called Pereira one of the most faithful and dedicated pastors he knew.

Poor health kept Graham from attending the Amsterdam conference, the largest by far, which attracted 10,000 ministers from 200 countries. He did address the evangelists by a satellite hookup, and his theological legacy was confirmed in the “Amsterdam Declaration: A Charter for Evangelism in the 21st Century.”

Graham and evangelists acknowledged the increasing religious pluralism of a world grown smaller thanks to global markets and mass communications. Christians must engage in dialogue with those of other faiths, but never at the expense of their own beliefs, the charter said.

“In this global village of competing faiths and many world religions, it is important that our evangelism be marked both by faithfulness to the good news of Christ and humility in our delivery of it. Because God's general revelation extends to all points of his creation, there may well be traces of truth, beauty and goodness in many non-Christian belief systems. But we have no warrant for regarding any of these as alternative gospels or separate roads to salvation.”

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