Chapter OneSunshine in the South
William Crook Graham, a Confederate veteran with
a bullet in his leg, died in 1910 at the age of sixty. He had a
patriarchal beard and a large family, but nothing else biblical about
him. He drank, he swore, and he neglected his farm and would not
pay his debts.
He was born at Fort Mill in York District and after the Civil
War bought the land a few miles away near Charlotte, North Carolina,
which he left to two of his sons, William Franklin and Clyde.
Together the sons built up a three-hundred-acre dairy farm of rich
red soil, with woods and streams and gently rolling contours, and
delivered milk in the city.
William Franklin Graham married Morrow Coffey of Steele
Creek near Charlotte in 1916. Their eldest son, William Franklin
Graham Jr., Billy Frank to his family, was born in the frame farmhouse
on November 7, 1918, three days before his father's thirtieth
birthday and four before the Armistice.
All four of Billy Graham's grandparents were descended from
the Scots-Irish pioneers who settled in the Carolinas before the
Revolution. His mother's father, Ben Coffey, had fair hair and blue
eyes (like his grandson) and the tall, clean-limbed, strong-jawed
physique immortalized in the North Carolina monument at Gettysburg,
where he fell badly wounded. A one-legged, one-eyed veteran,
he was a farmer of intelligence, spirit, and sterling honesty,
with a tenacious memory and a love for Scripture and literature,
which he imparted to his daughters.
In the frame farmhouse and then in the red brick home nearby,
which the Grahams built when Billy was ten, with its pillared porch,
paved paths, and shade of oaks and cedars, Morrow Coffey Graham
kept the books, did the cooking and housework, and chopped the
wood with the aid of Suzie, her black maid. A blend of determination
with gentleness and affection won for Morrow the complete
devotion of her two sons and two daughters: Billy Frank,
Catherine, Melvin, and Jean, who was fourteen years younger than
Frank Graham was an equally strong character. At six foot
two, with dark hair and a fine bass voice, he was a farmer through
and through. In early manhood he had experienced a religious conversion,
but his faith had lost urgency though it remained the foundation
of his integrity. Straight as his back in business dealings, he
was adored and a little feared by the farm hands and his children.
His scanty education was offset by shrewdness and a lively curiosity.
He had a dry wit and a warm and generous nature, kept in close
control because agricultural bankruptcies were frequent in the Carolinas.
His one indulgence was the smoking of large cigars. He
scorned relaxation and hated travel. His world was the South - placid,
sunny, but smarting from the Civil War and the economic
depression and poverty that it had left.
The Graham farm was comparatively prosperous. Billy Frank's
hero was the black foreman, Reese Brown, an army sergeant in
World War I. He was a splendid person who could hold down a
bull to be dehorned, had a wide range of skills, and was tireless,
efficient, and trustworthy. Billy crammed down Mrs. Brown's delicious
buttermilk bread, the Brown children were his playmates,
and Reese taught him to milk and herd.
Billy was a bit too prankish to be of much use at first. High
spirits and a love of adventure frequently cost him a taste of his
father's belt or his mother's long hickory switch - such discipline
was normal and expected. "Billy was rowdy, mischievous," recalls
an older cousin, "but on the other hand - he was soft and gentle and
loving and understanding. He was a very sweet, likeable person."
His parents were strict but fair, and the house was full of laughter.
Billy Graham's early education was almost as poor as Abraham
Lincoln's, a primary reason being the low level of teaching.
Yet even if the teaching had been better, he would have made little
use of it. By the age of eleven, he thought "horse sense" was enough
education for a farmer, an attitude slightly encouraged by his father
and stoutly resisted by his mother.
Billy's main interest was baseball. He had been taught the game
early by the McMakins, three sons of the sharecropper on his
father's farm. Mr. McMakins was a redheaded man of high temper
but strict Christian principles, who had once been a southern champion
bicycle racer. Billy's fondness for baseball was not matched by
his skill. He barely made the Sharon High School team as a first
baseman, and though he dreamed of being a professional, the dream
died before he left high school. Baseball influenced him most by
interfering with his studies. The one redeeming feature of Billy's
early intellectual life was an exceptional love of reading history
books. By the time he was fourteen, he had read about a hundred.
When Billy was young, Sunday was rather like an old Scottish
Sabbath. Its highlights included the five-mile drive by car to the
small Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, which sang only
metrical psalms, in Charlotte, a city then rated the most church-going
Billy never thought of his parents as particularly religious.
Then, when he was about fifteen, his mother joined a Bible class at
the urging of her sister. Her husband remained indifferent. His
energies were absorbed by the farm, especially since he had recently
lost his savings in the bank failures of 1933.
Three weeks after she joined the Bible class, Frank Graham's
head was smashed by a piece of wood that shot out from the
mechanical saw. The surgeons believed he would die. Mrs. Graham,
after calling her Christian friends to pray, went up to her bedroom
to pray. When she finished, she had the assurance that God heard
her prayer. Both the Grahams believed that the Lord really spoke
to them in Frank's accident and full recovery. They spent more time
in Bible study and prayer, and Mrs. Graham read devotional books
to the children.
The adolescent Billy Frank thought it was all "hogwash." He
was in a mild rebellion, though his chief wildness was to borrow his
father's car and drive it as fast as it could go, turning curves on two
wheels, and racing other boys on the near-empty roads of North
Carolina. As Billy recalls, "Once I got the car stuck in the mud,
and I had to call my father. He was more angry than I had ever seen
him. He had to get mules to come and pull it out."
Physically Billy Graham developed fast, like most southern
country boys. At high school he was much the ladies' man, with his
height, wavy blond hair, blue eyes, tanned skin, neat clothes, and
fancy ties. He was in and out of love, sometimes dating two girls
successively in the same night. But Billy remembers, "[Our parents
expected us] to be clean and never doubted that we would be. They
trusted us and made us want to live up to their confidence."
Farm labor gave Billy the needed release of physical energy.
Every day he was milking before dawn, fast and smoothly; then he
helped pour the Holstein, Guernsey, and Jersey milk into the big
mixer before bottling. From school he hurried back to the afternoon
milking. He reveled in sweat and exertion, whether cleaning
out cow stalls, forking manure, or pitching hay.
In May 1934, Frank Graham lent a pasture to some thirty local
businessmen who wanted to devote a day of prayer for Charlotte,
having planned an evangelistic campaign despite the indifference
of the ministers. During that day of prayer on the Graham land,
their leader prayed - as Frank Graham would often recall between
Billy's rise to fame in 1949 and his own death in 1962 - that "out
of Charlotte the Lord would raise up someone to preach the
Gospel to the ends of the earth."
The businessmen next erected in the city a large "tabernacle" of
raw pine on a steel frame, where for eleven weeks from September
1934 a renowned, fiery southern evangelist named Mordecai
Fowler Ham, and his song leader, Walter Ramsay, shattered the
complacency of church-going Charlotte.
Ham, who was then pastor of First Baptist Church in Oklahoma
City, charged scandals and prejudices and was a mighty protagonist
for Prohibition. Despite his old southern courtesy, he
tended to "skin the ministers," as his phrase was, and cared not at
all that Charlotte's most powerful clergy opposed, or that newspapers
attacked him. His passionate preaching left hearers with an
overwhelming realization that Christ was alive.
The Grahams did not attend Ham's campaign for at least the
first week - possibly because of the tabernacle's distance and their
minister's guarded neutrality toward Ham. Some neighbors then
took them. After that they claimed they couldn't stay away.
Billy, too old to be ordered to attend, was "definitely antagonistic,"
until the Ham-Ramsey campaign exploded new controversy
when Ham flung at his audience a charge of fornication
among the students at Central High School. Infuriated students
marched on the tabernacle, the newspapers featured the sensation,
and Billy was intrigued.
Albert McMakin, the second of the sharecropper's sons, now
twenty-four and newly married, had been attending the campaign
regularly because a few months earlier, at one of the small preparatory
meetings, he had discovered that an upright life was not
enough. He filled his old truck with people from the neighborhood,
both whites and blacks, and telling Billy that Ham was no
"sissy" but a fighting preacher, he invited him to drive it to the
Albert's party sat at the back of the largest crowd Billy had ever
seen. Far away up the "sawdust trail" of wood shavings sat the choir,
and when vigorous, white-haired Mordecai Ham began to preach,
Billy was "spellbound," as he wrote thirty years later. "Each listener
became deeply involved with the evangelist, who had an almost
embarrassing way of describing your sins and shortcomings and of
demanding, on pain of divine judgment, that you mend your ways.
As I listened, I began to have thoughts I had never known before."
That night in the room he shared with Melvin, Billy gazed at
the full moon. As he recalls, I felt "a kind of stirring in my breast
that was both pleasant and scary. Next night all my father's mules
and horses could not have kept me away from the meetings."
Billy's sixteenth birthday passed. Albert McMakin detected
that Billy's self-righteousness was crumbling. Ham had a habit of
pointing his finger. His analysis cut so close to the bone that once
Billy ducked behind the hat of the woman in front, and to escape
the accusing finger applied for a place in the choir, though he could
not carry a tune and his vocal efforts in the bath were a merriment
to all the Grahams. He was accepted and found himself next to
Grady Wilson, a casual acquaintance from another school.
The maneuver was futile. By now, as Billy remembers, "[I had]
a tremendous conviction that I must commit myself. I'm sure the
Lord did speak to me about certain things in my life. I'm certain
of that. But I cannot remember what they were. But I do remember
a great sense of burden that I was a sinner before God and had
a great fear of hell and judgment."
The more he struggled to assert his own goodness, the heavier
his burden grew. He now had no doubt in his mind that Christ had
died on the cross to bear Billy's sins, and each night the conviction
grew that Christ, whose resurrection Billy had never doubted in
theory, was actually alive, wanting to take away that burden. If only
Billy would commit himself unreservedly, Christ would be his Savior
and Friend. Billy was far less conscious of Mordecai Ham than
of Christ. Yet the price of Christ's friendship would be total surrender
for a lifelong discipleship - Billy would no longer be his own
master. A price he was not yet prepared to pay. When Ham invited
those who would accept Christ to move toward the pulpit in an act
of witness and definition, Billy Graham stayed in his seat.
The inward struggle continued, at school in his desk, in the gym
playing basketball, in the barn milking. He did not tell his parents
(who suspected and were hoping and praying), but talked with his
cousin Crook Stafford, who encouraged him to go forward
although Crook had not yet done so himself. Billy moved again the
next night and sat near the front. Ham's smile seemed consciously
directed. Billy, quite wrongly, was certain Ham knew about him and
quoted specially for him, "God commendeth his love toward us in
that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."
Ham made the appeal. Billy heard the choir sing, "Just As I
Am, Without One Plea," verse by verse, as people gathered round
the pulpit. Billy stayed in his seat, his conscience wrestling with his
will. The choir began, "Almost persuaded, Christ to believe." Billy
could stand it no longer and went forward.
As Billy recalls, "It was not just the technique of walking forward
in a Southern revival meeting. It was Christ. I was conscious
A short man with dark hair and dark eyes, an English-born tailor
whom Billy knew and liked, approached him and they talked
and prayed. Billy had a "deep sense of peace and joy," but around
him many were in tears, and he worried a bit because he felt so
matter-of-fact. His father came across, threw his arms round him,
and thanked God for his decision.
That night Billy Graham walked upstairs past the old family
clock ticking loudly the time, day, and month, and undressed in the
dark because Melvin was already asleep. The moon rode high again
and Billy looked out across his father's land, then laid for hours
unemotionally checking over in the context of his adolescent world
what should be the attitudes of a fellow who belonged to Christ.
He drifted into sleep content and at peace, with just a grain of
doubt: "I wonder if this will last."