Sat, Dec. 9 at 8pm – American Experience: Billy Graham
American Experience presents Billy Graham, explores the life and career of one of the best-known and most influential religious leaders of the 20th century. From modest beginnings on a North Carolina farm, Graham rose to prominence with a fiery preaching style, movie-star good looks and effortless charm. His early fundamentalist sermons harnessed the apocalyptic anxieties of a post-atomic world, exhorting audiences to adopt the only possible solution: devoting one’s life to Christ. Graham became an international celebrity who built a media empire, preached to millions worldwide, and had the ear of tycoons, royalty and presidents.
At age 99, he died a national icon, estimated to have preached in person to 210 million people. Billy Graham examines the evangelist’s extraordinary influence on American politics and culture, interweaving the voices of historians, scholars, witnesses, family, and Graham himself, to create a kaleidoscopic portrait of a singular figure in the American experience. Directed by Sarah Colt, produced by Helen Dobrowski and executive produced by Cameo George.
Tune in Sat, Dec. 9 at 8pm on the WSIU stations: WSIU 8.1, WUSI 16.1, WSEC 14.1, WQEC 27.1 and WMEC 22.2 or access the WSIU local broadcast livestream online at pbs.org or via the PBS Video app. Get extended access to this program and more with WSIU Passport.
About the Program
Born November 7, 1918, on a dairy farm in Charlotte, North Carolina, to a conservative Presbyterian family, Graham grew up in a fundamentalist South where preachers were considered cultural heroes. He discovered his own talent for converting people to Christ as a college student, preaching in small Florida churches. In 1949, seeking a larger audience, Graham headed to Los Angeles to hold a series of revival meetings — “crusades” he called them. Charismatic, energetic, with a voice “like a train whistle on a prairie,” Graham gave his message a sense of urgency by connecting it to current events, including the recent Soviet test launch of an atomic bomb. His anti-Communist rhetoric caught the attention of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, who directed his editors to give Graham front-page coverage. Attendance surged, and Graham was catapulted onto the national stage.
Departing from Christian fundamentalist tradition, Graham associated his crusades with influential civic leaders, celebrities and politicians, increasingly connecting his ministry to power and influence. His anti-Communism, pro-capitalist message resonated with many, including the business community, and his empire grew. In 1950, he established the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Guided by Graham’s instinctive media savvy, the BGEA moved into modern telecommunications, launching a weekly radio program that reached 20 million listeners within weeks of its first broadcast, creating TV programs and establishing a movie studio. In 1954, Graham took his message to the UK, packing the 11,000-seat Harringay Arena in London for 12 weeks. By the time the crusade came to a close, Graham had arguably become the most famous person in the world.
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In the U.S., Graham had also become the figurehead for a movement which brought Christian fundamentalists “from the fringes of society and put them right into the center of American Protestantism,” explains historian Anthea Butler. “Billy Graham becomes a household name, and he ends up making American evangelicalism a household name as well.”
Graham’s entry into the American political arena was launched when, at the age of 31, he had the audacity to secure a meeting with President Truman in the Oval Office. Truman was the first president with whom Graham met, but not the last, and he became an increasingly visible advisor to American presidents in the years that followed, most notably Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon.
Graham retreated from politics and began to focus more on international efforts. His view of the world broadened, and he became less dogmatic. Once a staunch anti-Communist and American exceptionalist, Graham began speaking out in favor of nuclear disarmament, and in 1982, in defiance of the Reagan administration, traveled to Moscow for a peace conference. “He became less American, and more global,” says journalist Nancy Gibbs.
When Baptist minister Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, a conservative movement that became a powerful political force, Graham refused to join. But Graham’s more than two decades in politics had opened the flood gates. “The closer he moved Christianity to politics, the more he opened up the opportunity for Christianity being used to polarize, to politicize,” says historian Uta A. Balbier. “He opened Pandora's box the second he stepped into the Oval Office for the very first time.”