Billy Graham, the early years: A look back at Graham's North Carolina roots

(Photo credit: Billy Graham Evangelistic Association)

It's impossible to remember the life of Reverend Billy Graham without including his North Carolina roots.

His life started on a Charlotte area farm, where he credits his mother for encouraging his spiritual journey with God.

I love the Carolinas, and especially that part of North Carolina where I was born and reared.

Four days before the end of World War I, William Franklin Graham and Morrow Coffey Graham brought Billy Graham into the world in a frame farmhouse near Charlotte. Billy would later join his brothers and sisters running the family farm and chores that bored the future Evangelist.

News 13 spoke with his late brother, Melvin Graham back in 1997, “even though he worked on the farm, I must say, Billy never really liked it. You see God had a plan for him, even then, to do something else. He always wanted to be a baseball player. He was not a real athlete, really, but you know, we had to work so, we didn't have time to practice or anything, daddy didn't really believe in that, he thought that was wasted time.”

Melvin Graham told us he and his brother often wondered if his mother's home bible study sessions were wasted time, “many mornings she would want Billy and I that we memorize a verse of scripture. Now that wasn’t pleasant to any of us. I think Billy disliked it more than I did. But when I think back on the insistence that my mother had, concerning our being reared, she and my father taught tremendous moral values.”

Even so, Graham was still a boy. “He had a little bit of a wild streak, like most of us did,” childhood friend T.W. Wilson told us before his death in 2001. “I remember him driving down north Tryon real fast, and making a U-turn right in the middle of a 2-lane street.”

Wilson says despite the youthful shenanigans, he knew something about his friend was different, “he showed me a real deep part of his character, this was when he was wild. He would let me drive, and my girlfriend, my date in the front, and he would give me money to set up everybody, because his father was pretty well-to-do, and I lived, as it were, across the tracks. And I thought that was a very noble thing for him to give me credit for something I didn't deserve.”

Billy Graham said he accepted Christ at age 16 at a Charlotte tent revival. Six years later, the Southern Baptist convention ordained him, and during World War II, he toured the U.S. and Europe preaching to servicemen. Family members say he preached fast and loud, “oh, man, he had a voice like an I don't know what. You just didn't know where it came from because he was very thin. Billy probably didn't weigh 150-pounds at that time, but he could really speak loudly. And of course, later on, it stood him in good stead, because he began to preach to large groups of people,” said Melvin.

“There are problems of sin and habit that cannot be solved outside the person of Jesus Christ.”

Graham was thrust into the national spotlight in 1949 when a 2-week tent revival became a 2-month crusade. During that time, night after night, people packed the tent. Graham quickly learned the power of the media as his preaching became an international sensation.

His fame as a national Evangelist won him his first of many invitations to the White House, where Harry Truman and the national press would teach him a lesson about fame, “When I got up to leave nobody told me that you never quote the President. So I went outside I was surrounded by a group of newsmen and they said what did the president say and what did you say and I told them the whole thing and they printed it the next day. And then they said we didn't get a picture of you, would you go and kneel down in front of the White House lawn, and like a fool, totally unused to such a thing I and a couple of my colleagues went out there and knelt down and that was all over the country the next day.”

Graham said Truman forgave him, but he never forgot the humiliation of a slip in the glare of national news conference video attention. He became more careful as he appeared before cameras at countless news conferences.

He says he realized his fame could get in the way of his message, and between humiliation and humility, he found a humble and simple path to a single soul in a giant stadium. Whether Graham preached in downtown Moscow or downtown Charlotte, he said the same words to people who come forward to declare their faith, “you've not come to Billy Graham, you've come to Jesus. And you've come to the cross. I have no supernatural power to do anything for you, I'm just a man like you are, I'm only a messenger and my message is that God loves you.”

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