Tennessee Baptists Remember Graham’s Last Crusade in Nashville
Editor’s Note: A post with quotes from Tennessee Baptists about the impact of Billy Graham and his ministry is also available.
By Lonnie Wilkey
FRANKLIN — Southern Baptists’ (and the world’s) most widely recognized evangelist died Feb. 21 in Montreat, N.C., at the age of 99.
Known as “America’s pastor,” Billy Graham reached millions of people with the gospel over his decades-long ministry. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association says Graham’s audience has reached nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories.
Graham’s ministry and popularity goes beyond the religious sphere. He regularly has been listed by the Gallup organization as one of the “Ten Most Admired Men in the World.”
During 80 years of ministry, Graham’s down-to-earth, homespun sermons filled stadiums across the world, leading to the salvation of untold millions. Ordained a Southern Baptist minister, he was a longtime member of First Baptist Church in Dallas before joining First Baptist Church in Spartanburg, S.C., in 2008.
Graham personally knew every U.S. president — Democrat and Republican — from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. A one-on-one meeting with Graham in the summer of 1985 marked a spiritual turning point in George W. Bush’s life. Graham preached the funeral messages of Presidents Johnson and Nixon.
In 1995, Graham delivered a message of comfort at a national prayer service following the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people. Six years later, he delivered a similar message following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 that killed nearly 3,000.
“Dr. Billy Graham was indeed America’s pastor and a great global ambassador for Christ,” said Randy C. Davis, president and executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. “His gospel-centered message was always clear as he made one simple appeal, ‘Come to Jesus.’
“As a Southern Baptist, he epitomized everything good about our Great Commission focus,” he said.
Southern Baptist Convention president and Cordova pastor Steve Gaines agreed. “Billy Graham is with Jesus. He has seen and talked with our beloved Savior. May the awareness of his death result in many people hearing the Gospel and being converted to Jesus Christ!”
Gaines, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church, said Graham is “the nearest thing to a true prophet that Christians have had in the past century. He was a man of integrity, simplicity, love and evangelistic fervency. … He was a legendary man of God, and every born again Christian will miss him. He was converted to Christ in 1934 at an evangelistic crusade in Charlotte, N.C., led by evangelist Mordecai Ham. He soon felt the call to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the world has never been the same.”
While health plagued Graham in his later years, he was still able to hold a crusade in Nashville in June of 2000 at what was then known as Adelphia Coliseum (home of the Tennessee Titans) at the age of 81. The conference drew approximately 226,800 people over four days. There were 9,429 known professions of faith.
Graham held a press conference during the crusade. At the time Graham was dealing with Parkinson’s Disease along with another illness. A reporter asked him how he had the strength to continue preaching. Graham’s response was, “It’s an answer to prayer. People are praying.”
In one of his sermons during that crusade, Graham compared the world in 2000 with the world in the time of Old Testament Noah. It was a world filled with evil, Graham said.
Graham, however, reminded crusade attendees, “Jesus is going to come again. That is the hope of the world. I know of no other hope.”
Shelia Darden of ClearView Baptist Church, Franklin, and human resources manager for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, served as a counselor during the 2000 crusade. “I was able to pray with folks to receive Christ. What a blessing that was.”
Denise Bronaugh, adult missions and ministry specialist for Tennessee Woman’s Missionary Union, also served as a counselor. Her oldest daughter, Abby, who was 10 years old at the time, accepted Christ during that crusade. “It was a precious moment to have her go down with me. It’s what every mom wants for their children — to know Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.”
Joanna Beasley, daughter of B&R editor Lonnie Wilkey and now a college librarian at North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C., was 15 years old and served as a volunteer. “The Billy Graham Crusade was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had. I was able to be a youth volunteer which included being available to counsel people who had made decisions after Billy Graham preached,” she said.
“Seeing so many people with tears in their eyes calling out to Jesus was amazing,” Beasley added. “In particular, there was one guy who came to know Christ and spoke with one of the youth workers from my church. He ended up coming to our youth group. He has since passed away and my first thought this morning was that he and Billy Graham were praising God together today.”
Phil Taylor, director of missions for CrossNet Baptist Association, based in Cleveland, served as a page for a Billy Graham crusade in Norfolk, Va., when he was 15 years old. “I will never forget sitting in a section reserved for us near the stage. Our assignment started during the invitation. The memory of holding in my hand completed decision cards of new believers and taking those cards to a room where they were processed and distributed to local churches for follow-up is deep in my heart,” Taylor recalled.
Lewis McMullen, new churches group leader for the TBMB, noted that it was while watching a Billy Graham crusade on television in 1979 that the Lord called him into ministry. “That initial call led me to talk with my dad and pastor about becoming a minister. This one event through Graham’s ministry has changed my life forever. Because of this call, I am now celebrating 37 years in Christian ministry with 27 of those years in church planting.”
Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City presented Graham with the “Evangelist of the 21st Century Award” in 2013.
The university lowered its flag to half-staff today in honor of Graham. “Our dear friend and hero of the Christian faith has gone home to be with his Lord,” said Randall O’Brien, C-N president. “Our Carson-Newman family sends our love, prayers, and sweetest communion to the Graham family who we dearly love.
“We join our hearts with our Christian brothers and sisters worldwide in giving thanks to God for his faithful witness … and his blessed service to his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
— This article includes reporting from Baptist Press.