EDITOR’S NOTE: This profile was originally published in a 2012 issue of Our State. Details within the story were updated on November 3, 2017. The Rev. Billy Graham passed away on February 21, 2018, at the age of 99.
Consider for a moment The Cove, Billy Graham’s popular spiritual retreat and training center in Asheville.
Mockers once called this hallowed ground BillyLand, as if it were destined to become some sort of gaudy theme park with neon signs and cheap thrill rides and maybe even concession stands hawking Billy Burgers and Jesus Juice. They imagined the tacky billboards along Interstate 40: “Twelve Miles to BillyLand!”
“Why,” the critics pointedly asked, “does a preacher need this much land?”
Why, indeed, would the famed evangelist — or, more accurately, his ministry — purchase hundreds of acres of virgin land in the mountains of western North Carolina? Surely that well-worn Bible of his warned of excessive living, right? Had he not read that passage?
Of course, this was during the 1970s, when Graham was merely loved but perhaps not yet revered, as he is today. He did, in fact, have grandiose plans for the property, but not of the sort suggested by the mockers. Instead, he envisioned The Cove just as it is today — as a place where believers can get closer to God, through His word and His creation. But Graham hated the bad press, so he donated the land to another ministry and didn’t get it back until the mid-1980s, when the other ministry began to falter.
Today, the 1,200-acre retreat, now in its 30th year of existence as The Cove, has become a Christian Mecca for many pilgrims of the faith. They come here seeking God — toting their Bibles, their notebooks, and their weary spirits — in quest of rest and renewal.
And honestly, He’s not hard to find — His fingerprints are all over this place. They’re in the spectacular colors of the surrounding Craggy Mountains on a crisp autumn afternoon. In the breathtaking silence of dawn, when the only sound is the whisper of a meandering stream. Even in the majestic chapel — man-made, yes, but God-inspired — that stands in the midst of all this natural beauty, its 87-foot-high steeple pointing heavenward. If you can’t find God here, the faithful say, it’s because you’re not looking.
On this particular visit, though, I have not come to The Cove seeking God. I have come seeking Billy Graham, who — with his wife, Ruth — founded The Cove in 1987. I have come here toting my tape recorder, my reporter’s notebook, and my inquisitive spirit, searching for the secret to the great evangelist’s success. Why do we, especially those of us here in North Carolina, love this man so dearly? Why are we so quick to place him on a pedestal when, if we are to believe him — and Billy Graham wouldn’t lie, would he? — he doesn’t want to be on that pedestal? Why have we turned this man of God into such a god of men?
I’m searching for this iconic North Carolinian, who grew up on a Charlotte dairy farm and rose to become the most prolific evangelist in America, preaching — in person — to more than 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories.
And honestly, he’s not hard to find here, either — his fingerprints are all over this place. They’re in the Billy Graham Training Center, a three-story facility that bears not only Graham’s name, but also his portrait in the spacious main lobby, a distinguished tribute to the man who spent so much of his life jetting around the world to spread the Gospel, yet still called these North Carolina mountains home. They’re down on the bottom floor, where walls of photos and display cases of souvenirs document Graham’s extensive travels; and on the top floor, in Graham’s private office, where a wall of fame displays snapshots of “America’s Pastor” pictured with everyone from Jimmy Stewart and Bob Hope to Johnny Cash, Muhammad Ali, and 12 U.S. presidents.
Billy Graham is everywhere here, including the people. His namesake grandson, William Franklin “Will” Graham IV, is a third-generation evangelist (he’s Franklin’s son) and the executive director of The Cove. A likable young man of 37 with an engaging sense of humor and a penchant for storytelling — and, yes, a noticeable physical resemblance to his grandfather — Will shares tale after tale about the man he and the other 18 grandchildren call Daddy Bill. Some of them are downright hilarious — family stories that show a side of the pastor most of us have never seen.
But mention Billy Graham the icon — the man who easily ranks as the most admired man in the world during the last half of the 20th century, the man whose many honors include the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, the man who lives his life on that precarious pedestal the rest of us have placed him upon — and Will Graham turns serious.
“I wish you could meet my granddaddy personally — he just lives about 15 minutes down the road from here [in Montreat],” Will says.
My heart jumps, and I resist the urge to blurt out, “Let’s go!” After all, who wouldn’t want to meet Billy Graham — who’s 93 now and of frail health — if only to shake his hand and pose for a quick photo to prove to your family, friends, and coworkers you did, indeed, meet him? The invitation, however, does not come.
“My granddaddy is the most humble man you’ll ever meet,” Will continues. “If you met him, he’d be more interested in talking about you — your wife, your kids, your work — than talking about himself. He’s never looked for the limelight — he tries to hide from it — and he definitely doesn’t like being on a pedestal. He knows he’s famous; he knows that God’s used him in a lot of circles; he knows he’s got a lot of people praying for him that love him — and he’s grateful for all that — but it’s never been about him. Any time he feels like he’s up on a pedestal, he’s very uncomfortable with it.”
Maybe that’s one of the reasons we admire this man so much — because he doesn’t want us to.
• • •
One of the great paradoxes of Billy Graham’s amazing life has always been the image he intentionally tries to project.
On one hand, he’s a filthy sinner — always has been and, this side of heaven, always will be. Just ask him. Whenever Graham stood in the pulpit and quoted Romans 3:23 (“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”) — as he did countless times in his preaching career — he always made it clear that “all” applied not only to those he was speaking to, but to himself as well.
“That’s really a theological point he’s making — even the most publicly righteous among us has to deal with the reality of sinfulness,” says Bill J. Leonard, former dean of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, who has studied Graham’s life and career extensively. “People who are publicly good and people who are publicly evil all have that same nature.”
That may be true, but it’s hard not to wonder just what sin could Graham possibly be struggling with. Lust? Murder? Gluttony? An unforgiving heart? Taking the Lord’s name in vain? He’s Billy Graham. We know he’s not perfect — that wouldn’t be sound biblical doctrine — but he must be pretty close, right? Certainly closer than most of us, right?
I pose this question to Will — already knowing how he’ll answer — and, sure enough, Graham’s grandson toes the company line.
“I think God put a bubble of protection around my granddaddy where Satan just couldn’t get to him,” Will says. “But my granddaddy’s human. He’s no different than anybody else. He’s got the same hormones. He still has to deal with pride, still has to deal with coveting. He’s had all the same desires you and I have — the same struggles of anybody else in this world — but they never seemed to take root, and I think it’s because God was protecting him.”
Graham consistently maintains that sin is sin in the eyes of God — no matter how big or small — and he has a sinful heart. The man has always been adamant about this. Maybe that’s another reason we like him so much — because he doesn’t act holier-than-thou, even when we think he probably has a right to.
At the same time, in stark contrast to this picture Graham paints of himself as a sinful man, he has always gone to great lengths to ensure his ministry remained above reproach. Scandal has tainted many an evangelist’s ministry through the decades, but never Graham’s.
“That’s one of the reasons for his longevity,” Leonard says. “From very early on, he set very high standards for his personal behavior, his finances, and his revival practices so that nothing would get in the way of his message.”
That decision was made in 1948 — when the young, hellfire preacher’s ministry began to catch on nationwide — at a meeting with three of his ministry team members in Modesto, California. Concerned that scandal could ruin his reputation and dilute his message of salvation, Graham and his colleagues came up with the so-called “Modesto Manifesto,” an unwritten guide for maintaining integrity — financial and otherwise — in Graham’s ministry. Of the points they agreed on, the best known is Graham’s refusal from that point forward to travel, meet, or eat alone with any woman other than Ruth, to avoid even the appearance of sexual impropriety.
“One of the guys that traveled with him would literally go into his hotel room, and my granddaddy would stay outside until this man had checked the room to make sure there was no one in there,” Will says. “He’d check under the beds and in the closets to make sure no one could surprise my granddaddy by having some girl run out naked or in skimpy clothes, and they’d take a quick picture and run out the door screaming, ‘Look who we found Billy Graham with!’ ”
Today, the policy of not being seen alone with a member of the opposite sex — other than one’s spouse — applies to all employees of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Some people may find such precautions prudish or extreme, but you can’t argue with the results.
“There was never even a hint of scandal,” says Ken Garfield, former religion editor of The Charlotte Observer, who covered Graham for 12 years and interviewed him personally. “Never a hint, and it’s because he was very intentional about that.”
Maybe that’s another reason we love him so — because he makes us proud. We North Carolinians embraced him as one of our own, and he never let us down.
• • •
Perhaps we’re going about this the wrong way. Let’s turn the question around: What’s not to like about Billy Graham?
Good luck finding something.
The criticism Graham once attracted when he purchased the property for what is now The Cove — but what cynics said would become BillyLand — disappeared. The faithful come here seeking God, and Graham helps them find Him — not much to mock there.
Graham even made his personal library at The Cove — some 16,000 volumes at the time — available for visitors to tour. That backfired, though, when staff members began to notice books disappearing from the shelves. “What happened was, we found that people were more in love with Billy Graham than they were with Jesus,” Will says.
So is there anything about Graham not to like? If you asked him about regrets, he’d tell you he should’ve spent more time at home with his family — instead of accepting so many speaking engagements — and he should’ve spent more time studying God’s word and more time in prayer. You see? Even when he’s on his knees, he stands tall.
You won’t find any skeletons — or naked women — in Graham’s closets. He reportedly went skinny-dipping in the White House pool with President Lyndon Johnson — a story even Will Graham hadn’t heard — but that’s not exactly a sin.
The media have certainly tried to dig up some dirt on Graham, of course, but to little avail. In the late 1970s, The Charlotte Observer reported Graham reused material in his books — in other words, he plagiarized himself. That’s how much of a stretch it’s been for the media.
Probably the closest thing to a Billy Graham scandal occurred when secretly recorded tapes of a conversation between him and then-President Richard Nixon were released; Graham could be heard making several statements critical of Jews. When the tapes went public, Graham genuinely seemed not to remember making the comments, but he apologized deeply nonetheless for any offense they may have caused, and most people seemed to forgive him.
“I think people were willing to see that in the context of a much larger reputation and to know that most anyone, any famous person, can fall off the wagon on some issues from time to time,” says Leonard, of the WFU School of Divinity. “It was not shown to be something that he consistently promoted. It was more the kind of thing you say that is almost in passing, and you wish you hadn’t said it.”
Maybe that’s another reason we’ve always loved Billy Graham — because he’s easy to forgive. He strives to be what we all would like to be — an individual of honor and integrity — and for the most part, he’s succeeded. And when he hasn’t, we find it in our hearts to forgive him.
In the words of Billy Graham
On growing up in North Carolina:
“In my Depression-era growing-up years, I suppose we Grahams on our North Carolina dairy farm bore some resemblance to the fictional Walton family on television. It’s easy to feel nostalgic about simpler times, but they obviously were not easier times. Nor were they necessarily happier times. What we did have back then was family solidarity. We really cared about each other, and we liked to do things together. Jesus’ word picture of a hen gathering her brood under her wing fits my mother. She saw to it that we gathered frequently and regularly — and not just around the dinner table or in front of the radio for favorite broadcasts. She gathered us around herself and my father to listen to Bible stories, to join in family prayers, and to share a sense of the presence of God.”
On the greatest surprise in life:
“The brevity of it. … Time moves so quickly, and no matter who we are or what we have done, the time will come when our lives will be over. As Jesus said, ‘As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work’ (John 9:4).”
On his marriage to Ruth:
“Being human, not one of us will ever have a relationship with another person that doesn’t have a wrinkle or a wart on it somewhere. The unblemished ideal exists only in ‘happily ever after’ fairy tales. I think that there is some merit to a description I once read of a married couple as ‘happily incompatible.’ Ruth likes to say, ‘If two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.’ The sooner we accept that as a fact of life, the better we will be able to adjust to each other and enjoy togetherness. ‘Happily incompatible’ is a good adjustment.”
“No, I don’t know the future, but I do know this: the best is yet to be! Heaven awaits us, and that will be far, far more glorious than anything we can ever imagine.”