Billy Graham, who preached the gospel to an estimated 215 million people over the course of his lifetime -- not counting television, radio, and print publication audiences—was not a Seventh-day Adventist Christian. Graham, 99, passed to his rest shortly before 8 a.m. on February 21, 2018.
But his Southern Baptist background (he was a member of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, for 54 years) didn’t dim his appreciation for other believers. His late wife, Ruth Bell Graham, who died in 2007, was a Presbyterian, the daughter of missionaries to China. The composition of his evangelistic “team” spanned denominations.
In at least two cases, that team included Seventh-day Adventists as soloists. And once, a young Adventist pastor drove the world famous evangelist around Warsaw, Poland, earning a compliment for his honesty in obeying traffic rules!
While Adventists will have to wait for the resurrection to know the full impact of Graham’s ministry upon our ranks, it’s clear that for these three Adventist leaders, the lanky preacher from North Carolina made an impression.
‘Ambassador for Religious Freedom’
Rajmund Dabrowski, who spent 16 years as communication director for the General Conference, was a young pastor in Poland in 1978 when Graham held a revival there.
“Graham was an ambassador for religious freedom,” Dabrowski, now serving the Rocky Mountain Conference, recalled. Following a visit to Hungary, Graham spent 10 days in Poland.
“In order to facilitate the visit, it became quite apparent, the small minority churches and denominations got together and said let us facilitate this, since he is a Protestant, a Baptist in this case, and let us assist … with the logistics of this visit,” Dabrowski said. “I’d come back a few years before from abroad, I spoke English, and so they were happy to involve me. I was chosen to assist in Warsaw and be a driver.”
Decades later, Dabrowski remembers his conversation with the evangelist “was very interesting. We became friends. It was kind of like family.”
At one point, while driving Graham around Warsaw, the opportunity arose to take a shortcut, although it would mean making an illegal left turn. Although Graham’s escort suggested the move, Dabrowski demurred, leading the associate to remark that the Adventist pastor was a “legalist” even when driving.
“Billy Graham said, ‘No, you did right. We will not be breaking the law here in Poland,’” Dabrowski said.
The Warsaw visit was Dabrowski’s only meeting with Graham, but he remembered the preacher fondly. “I remember the graciousness in which he said what he said, and he was very happy to chat,” Dabrowski said.
Auditioning Before Thousands
In 1972, Seventh-day Adventist pastor Walter Arties was also a musician, sent by a booking agency to sing at a banquet for Campus Crusade for Christ. The group’s founder and president, Bill Bright, was there. He asked Arties to sing at the Explo ‘72 festival in Dallas, which drew crowds of up to 80,000 in a single evening. The keynote speaker was Billy Graham.
After the event, Cliff Barrows, who organized musical presentations for the Graham team, invited Arties to sing at Graham’s crusades. “I did several of those, and then got involved in the associate evangelist program,” Arties recalled. “I joined Dr. Ralph Bell, on his team. We were together for many years prior to my starting ‘Breath of Life,’” an Adventist television ministry aimed at African-American audiences.
Early in his association with Graham, the evangelist asked Arties what the singer did when not with the crusade team. “I told him then I was a Seventh-day Adventist,” Arties said.
Graham’s response stayed with him, Arties added. “Mr. Graham said, ‘Everywhere I go in the world, I see your hospitals, churches and schools. Your church is doing a wonderful work.’”
Arties also remembers a dinner at the home of one of Graham’s daughters in Raleigh, North Carolina, where Ruth Graham invited Beverly Arties, Walter’s wife, to fellowship: “Let’s just sit down and get to know each other,” Mrs. Graham said.
Asked his greatest impression of the evangelist, Arties unhesitatingly replied, “He was always the same, always centered, just a godly man.”
Even though the first audio CDs appeared on the market in the early 1980s, the cassette tape was still the dominant means of distributing music. Wintley Phipps, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor and singer, was on an airline flight one day where he observed a flight attendant in distress.
Phipps spoke to the attendant, offered a word of encouragement and gave her a cassette of his songs. Three days later, the flight attendant was on another flight, this time with Graham team music director Barrows.
Speaking to him, the attendant asked if Barrows knew about Phipps’ music, and gave the song leader the cassette Phipps had given her.
That led to a 25-year association between the Graham organization and Phipps, who in a telephone interview, said he was grateful for the opportunity.
“It was really one of the great privileges of my life for 25 years to travel to crusades with Mr. Graham and to get to know Cliff Barrows,” he said. “They were such awesome men of God who were a blessing to me. I also got to know George Beverly Shea, who was a mentor and music mentor. There are not a lot of men who sound like men when they sing,” Phipps added.
Shea, a bass-baritone who sang with the Graham ministry for 55 years, last sang with Phipps in 2010, when Shea was 101. The singer, known by friends as “Bev,” died in 2013.
Ironically, it was a time when Shea could not accompany Graham -- the evangelist’s first crusade in Russia -- that gave Phipps a cherished memory.
“When Russia opened up for the first time, and so I was asked to replace Bev Shea for that crusade. It was historic in many ways. I’ll never forget singing ‘How Great Thou Art’ with an 8,000 voice choir behind me,” Phipps said.
And Phipps, who as an Adventist pastor had worked on religious liberty issues, said the evangelist’s negative experience with U.S. President Richard Nixon left its impression on Graham.
“Mr. Graham once said to me, ‘Wintley, more than America was meant to be a Christian nation, it was meant to be a nation of Christians,’” Phipps recalled. After Nixon, Graham decided “never again was he going to be involved in partisan politics. And that’s probably one of the greatest impressions and legacies that he leaves that men of God should not be entrenched in partisan politics. And he left that upon my life as well.”
But it was the personal side of Billy Graham -- as authentic, Phipps said, as the man millions viewed on the public platform -- that Phipps said would be his personal legacy from the evangelist.
“One of the things I’ve learned in my ministry is that -- and I got it from my study in Ellen White’s writings -- the noblest achievement or the highest achievement of any human being is Christ-likeness in terms of temperament, in terms of tone and in terms of character, and I am absolutely able to affirm from all the witness of my life experience with Mr. Graham that I can say with tremendous confidence that this was a warm, compassionate, Christ-like human being and he was a bright light in a very dark world.”
Author’s Note: Billy Graham's Message Changed My Life
I never had the privilege of meeting Billy Graham during his lifetime. Yet the world-famous evangelist touched my life with his message, and it changed me forever.
In February 1970, I was a nice Jewish kid in New York City, preparing for my bar mitzvah, the confirmation ceremony every 13-year-old Jewish male should complete. Mine was months away, and one afternoon, I was home, alone, watching television.
A recording of Graham’s 1969 crusade, held at New York’s Madison Square Garden, appeared on the screen. No disclaimer was made that Jewish folks didn’t need to view this, so I watched the tall, energetic preacher deliver his message.
Graham’s thesis was straightforward: We’re all sinners, every last one of us. If we die with sin unforgiven, there will be a judgment that separates us from God forever. But that God who will judge us provided a way of escape, namely His Son, Jesus. Believe in Christ, receive him as Saviour, and you can live eternally in heaven.
It made sense to me, and I prayed the “sinner’s prayer” suggested at the end of the broadcast. To my two Jewish parents, anticipating a great family celebration, not so much. Seven months later, we had that bar mitzvah ceremony, even if I hadn’t forgotten my commitment.
A few years later, as an adult, I returned to that Christian faith, becoming a church member of The Salvation Army. Nearly 30 years after Billy Graham’s message touched my heart, the words of a Seventh-day Adventist evangelist –Australian-born pastor John Carter—reached my intellect and led me, and my wife, Jean, into this movement.
If there’s a “moral” to this story, I suppose it might be that no one—Jew, Buddhist, Muslim, Confucianist, animist—is exempt from hearing the claims of the Gospel. And if there’s a lesson for Seventh-day Adventists, it’s that using media to cast a wide net can bring life-changing results.
-- Mark A. Kellner