Three generations of preachers: Will Graham follows his father, Franklin, and grandfather, Billy, into the ministry of evangelism
He reveals the surprising final words of his grandmother, Ruth Graham, shortly before her passing. The tall, willowy figure of William Franklin Graham IV (Will) is the third generation of Grahams to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ under the banner of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA).
Will is the grandson of Billy Graham and the elder son of Franklin Graham.
The oldest of the four children of Franklin Graham and wife Jane Graham, Will grew up in a farm house in the mountains of Boone, North Carolina, along with his two brothers and one sister.
He converted to Christianity at the age of seven one Sunday after a church service.
Since second grade, Will Graham has felt the call to ministry. He later surrendered to God’s call on his life at 15, during a youth camp at the Billy Graham Training Center near Asheville, N.C.
After attending Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Va., he enrolled in Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Wake Forest, N.C., during which time he was called to pastor a church near Raleigh.
In 2004, Will started holding one-day youth events in Canada. In April 2006, Will’s first three-day Celebration was held in Leduc, Alberta, and later that year his first ever three-day Celebration on American soil took place in Gastonia, N.C. Since beginning his North American evangelistic ministry he has spoken to more than 50,000 during his Will Graham Celebrations. Over 1,600 have made personal commitments to Christ during these multi-day outreaches.
I caught up with Will Graham, who had just returned from an outreach in India, at the recent NRB 2011 convention in Nashville, where he agreed to talk about his life, and what is has been like growing up as a Graham.
I began by asking him when he first realized how famous his grandfather was and he replied, “It wasn’t until I was about five years old I went to Kindergarten and one of my teachers, while talking to someone else, pointed to me and said, ‘This is Billy Graham’s grandson.’ I wondered how on earth they knew who my granddaddy was.
“Then, when I went to public school no one there really cared who he was. All they wanted to know was if you had the latest Nintendo Sega game.
“I probably didn’t realize the influence my granddaddy until later. I knew that he was famous and did lots of crusades and that he had met many presidents and kings and queens of countries, but it probably wasn’t until I went to Liberty University, a Christian school here in the United States, that I saw the impact that my granddaddy had on the Christian world and that it was a lot bigger than I imagined.
“So my perception of my granddaddy changed and I love him dearly; he’s a wonderful man.”
I pointed out that his father, Franklin Graham, had been quite a rebel while growing up, and so I wondered if Will had followed in his footsteps.
“No, growing up I was never like my father,” he said. “I never rebelled against authority or my parents or even the church. When I was seven years old I gave my life to Christ.”
How did that happen?
“My father led me to the Lord at church one day,” said Will. “We went to Christian Missionary Alliance church and it was communion Sunday and I had no idea what communion was. I imagined that if adults were good they got a little bread and some juice and that sufficed. So when it came by, I thought I would take some bread and juice because I’ve been a good boy and dad said, ‘No, you can’t have any.’ I thought he had told me ‘no’ because I was going to spill it or something.
“So my father took me home and we went up to my room and he explained to me why I couldn’t have it. He said it was because I didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. So the weird thing is I look at communion as the way God brought me to Christ using my dad to tell me about it.”
Did he have a strict upbringing?
“Yes, oh yes,” said Will. “My parents were extremely strict. As a matter of fact when I went to Liberty University, which at the time was considered very legalistic in the sense that I had to wear a tie and a college shirt, nice jeans and you had to stay in the guy’s dorms. You had to be dressed up to even go and eat.
“But because my parents were so strict that when I got to Liberty I thought I had freedom,” he laughed. “Whereas most students thought they were being restricted. It was like I got freedom there.”
What are your earliest memories of going over to Montreat (the North Carolina home of Billy and Ruth Graham)?
“The earliest time I can remember was when I was probably about three or four years old,” he said. “My parents were living on their property. They had another house it’s no longer there. When I say a shack, it was just that. I remember waking up and I had a snake skin right beside me. When I slept a snake had shed its skin. This was no dream vacation home!”
Will went on to say, “They were always part of my life so I’m not sure that there’s one time that sticks out more than any other but for being my first memory, I have a lot of fond memories being with my grandparents. They were always there for us grandkids. We called my grandmother ‘TeTe’, which is Chinese for old lady and was a sign of respect in China, where she was born. We called my granddaddy ‘Daddy Bill.’ So to me they were not Billy Graham or Ruth Graham they, ‘TeTe’ and ‘Daddy Bill.’ They loved on us just like any normal grandparents with their grandchildren and they were always very gracious, hospitable and patient.”
Will then spoke about the long periods that Billy Graham was away from home, conducting his crusades around the world.
“When I was growing up my granddaddy was never home very much. It was very rare for him to be home,” he said. “Now, on the other hand, my grandmother Ruth was home very much. She did not like to travel and she loved Montreat so I got to see her a lot more than my granddaddy growing up.
“She would tell stories on my dad and she loved him very much. In fact she loved all the children, but she really loved my dad even when he was rebellious. She loved all her children regardless of their faults or anything like that. That’s one of the things I loved about my grandmother. She could take a princess and a prostitute and put them in the same room and make them both feel warm and invited and very comfortable with each other. My grandmother had the ability to talk to the lowest people to the highest people. She was very kind.”
Will then talked about how his grandmother coped with her pain during the last years of her life before she passed away on June 14, 2007 at the age of 87.
“Her health deteriorated over the years, but she never ever once complained,” he said. “You could see her grit her teeth once in a while, but she would never say anything and the reason was because in her bedroom wall she had a crown of Jerusalem thorns, the same that were put on Christ’s head, not literally, but ones like it. She would look at those thorns every time she felt like complaining, and would say, ‘If He could endure that, there’s no way I’m going to complain about what I’m going through right now.’
“My grandmother was a very spiritual lady, but very practical in her theology and that’s one of the ways she reminded herself that the sufferings of this world in all respects are temporal.
“She had a number of health issues and one was a deteriorating spine and she was in a lot of pain even to the point where she couldn’t walk anymore and was bed ridden for years,” he continued. “She also had macular degeneration that was taking place, so she couldn’t see in front of her and was going blind. So she suffered from chronic pain and what happened was when she was a little bit younger, she was putting up a swing for her grandchildren and the tree limb broke and she fell out of the tree and broke her back. So from that point on her spine was always an issue.”
“My grandfather did anything he could to help her, but at the end of the day, there was nothing that he or anybody else could do. Then just by chance her feeding tube had come out and we believe that was God’s way of saying, ‘It’s time to come home,’ so we as a family, and she too, decided she had been looking for heaven for a long time. By now she couldn’t eat on her own and so we decided that every family member would come in to just say ‘goodbye’ and love with her. She was very lucid till the day she went home to be with the Lord.”
Will then recalled the rather unusual final words his grandmother said to him.
“The last thing she told me was actually somewhat kind of funny,” he said. “It was probably about four days before she died and she said, “Don’t shoot my animals.” The reason for this was I’m a hunter and her place was like a sanctuary for animals and she was afraid that when she left, I would go hunting. She got the last word in.
“To this day people say, ‘Well that’s not real spiritual,’ but for me it’s a memory that goes beyond not just the words. I know what she meant and that was my grandmother always had wit and she was very spunky and I loved her dearly. So they were really great fitting words for a grandson like me.”
He then said that Mr. Graham was actually coping much better than many thought he was after losing his beloved Ruth.
“My grandmother died in the year 2007 so that’s been almost four years ago. We honestly thought my granddaddy would be dead before my grandmother because my granddaddy lived such a hard life being on the road and everything. We see a lot of couples that die early such as June and Johnny Cash. They died very close to each other. But my granddaddy, because of the change in medicine and everything else, he’s gotten a new lease on life and he feels that God hasn’t taken him home so that must mean God still has work for him to do on earth and he wants to be busy at it.”
Now that he has followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and father, I wondered how he got into evangelism.
He first of all explained that he had been a pastor for a while and then one day got a phone call from the Billy Graham office in Canada in the Fall of 2004.
“The person on the line said, ‘Will, we want you to start doing evangelism and we’ve got some things for young people. Would you think about doing that? I said, ‘I’m not sure. I like being a pastor and I don’t want to do it just because I’m Billy Graham’s grandson.” But the caller pressed me and asked if I could come up to Canada and they would support him ‘every step of the way.’”
So he decided to accept the invitation. “It was the first thing I ever did publically for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
How did it go? Was he very nervous?
“Oh, I’m always nervous even until today. I get nervous when I preach the gospel and this first time I was very nervous, but I preached, gave an invitation and we had a tremendous response. We even used rock music.”
The rest, as they say, is history, as he has continued preaching all over the world.
Could you ever see yourself being as big as Billy Graham?
“Oh, I don’t think so,” he said. “I don’t think there will ever be another Billy Graham. That shouldn’t be our goal in life. We should be content in what God’s called us to be. I think when we’re faithful unto what God’s called us to be it doesn’t matter about our publicity or our fame or anything like that. I just want to be what God wants me to be and to be used of Him.”
Note: I would like to thank Robin Frost for transcribing this interview.