Will Graham on Preaching, Public Statements, and His Famous Family

Billy Graham's grandson discusses his grandfather's health, controversy over his father Franklin's public statements, and preaching "Celebrations."

William (Will) Franklin Graham IV is the grandson of Billy Graham and the son of Franklin Graham. He is in town preparing to preach at the Jersey Shore Will Graham Celebration on May 20-22 at the Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove. Graham is an associate evangelist at Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and assistant director of The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove.  He just returned from the Philippines, where he preached to 97,000 people in four days. Graham is a graduate of Liberty University and holds an MDiv. from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Kendra, live near Asheville, North Carolina with their three children.

Your grandfather was just released from the hospital, where he was treated for pneumonia. How is he doing?

My grandfather’s doing quite well. He’d been the hospital a number of times before and no-one’s even reported on it, but this time it seemed like everybody was picking it up. … What we found out had happened was someone at the hospital probably called their church and put Billy Graham on their prayer list and that started a leak that kind of jumped the press...

I went to go see him right before I came up here to give him a report on where I had just come from, the Philippines, and talking to him about coming up here. He was all excited because he has warm, fond memories of this place. But I didn’t want to talk too long because he was still tired. The only thing that was different was that he was on oxygen. He was sitting up in his office getting ready to eat lunch. ...He got out of the hospital on Saturday and I went to see him on Sunday afternoon.

You’re here at the Jersey Shore to preach a 3-day crusade style “Celebration.” It’s been 55 years since your grandfather preached at the Great Auditorium. Why the Jersey Shore? Did the MTV show have anything to do with the choice of venue?

We came because we were invited. The churches here in the area, they felt like this was the time God was going to do something special in their community, and they invited the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, in this case me, to come and preach the gospel here.

I was grateful for the opportunity, but when it comes to the MTV series, “The Jersey Shore,” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a full episode. I’ve seen tidbits. What I do see more of is when some of the characters are in jail. You know, “Fox in the Morning” will say Snookie’s in jail, she’s before court. …When I got the invitation, I knew nothing of The Jersey Shore [TV show] or anything like that. I just knew that it was a lot further north and I was doubtful that they had sweet tea, but we found some at Chick-Fil-A.

The ACLU is threatening to sue Neptune High School to stop the school from holding its graduation ceremony at The Great Auditorium, even though it has historically been held there. The ACLU previously represented two women who sued the Methodist Camp Meeting Association, which owns the Great Auditorium and all the land in Ocean Grove, for refusing to allow them to hold a civil union ceremony under its oceanfront gazebo. Do you have any thoughts on preaching in a venue that has been the site of these church/state legal battles?

It’s unfortunate what’s taken place, and I say unfortunate because it’s a distraction from other things that are going on in the community—a lot of good things going on in the community. At the same time, what happens is, I think it gets people to start to thinking of other things, spiritual things. Whether it’s good or bad, I’m not sure. When it comes to affecting our event, I think it’s going to be real positive just because people are thinking about the event. They’re thinking about what’s going on in our culture. People are looking for answers out there. I think what’s going to take place this weekend, what God’s going to accomplish is going to be far greater than whatever I imagined. ...

It’s such a wonderful landmark, the Great Auditorium.  My grandfather preached in there when he was my age, 36. That was 1955. George Beverly Shea would come down here in the 1920s, which were his 20s, and listen to the pipe organ in there. I saw him right before I came here. He came by The Cove and donated a keyboard organ. …I was like, “Hey, Uncle Bev, I’m going to be up at the Great Auditorium at Ocean Grove.” He said, “They’ve got one of the greatest organs in the world. When I worked in New York City, I would go down there on my time off and take the ferry across and come and just listen to the organ.” ...

There are such fond memories for so many generations here and I’m just grateful that I got an opportunity to come and preach in a wonderful event like this. The Camp [Meeting] Association up here, they have been a blessing to work with. They took a few rows out of the auditorium, which I don’t think they’ve ever done before. They did it gladly …to allow more people to respond. When people come forward, we want space for them. …They’ve helped support us financially. They’ve been a huge blessing, so we appreciate [Chief Administrative Officer] Scott Hoffman and his wife Nancy and the whole Camp Meeting Association. 

Last time we talked, I asked you if you thought the press was unfair to your father, Franklin Graham, because his public statements generate more coverage than the humanitarian work he does with Samaritan’s PurseNow, he’s drawn criticism for making statements to Christiane Amanpour of ABC News that seem to imply that he doesn’t really believe President Obama is a Christian and that he does believe there is merit to the claim that President Obama was not born in the United States. I have two questions about this issue. First, do you believe President Obama is an American citizen and a Christian? 

It seems from all standpoints that we can tell, yes. I have no reason not to think it. Do I know him as a Christian? I’ve never spoken to the president about his personal walk. I’ve never met him. ...My father and I, we’ve never discussed the president’s [faith]. My father’s had more intimate conversations with the president than I have, so I can’t speak to that. He claims to be a Christian, I do know that. ...

His job is the toughest job in the world. I don’t think anybody really knows the pressures the president goes through. I know for certain, my grandfather, my father, and my family, we all pray for our president, just in the sense of  “God, give him wisdom.” He’s got to make decisions that you and I will never know about in human history. We know that that burden falls on his shoulders and his alone. God’s put him in that place to make those decisions. We just pray that God will direct him on the decisions to make. Not to make our decisions, but to make what God wants to do and those are tough. 

When it comes to his birth certificate—if he was born American—it looks like he’s produced documents that say without a question anymore, it’s laid to rest. I think even [Donald] Trump waved his white flag. 

That brings me to my second question. Many BGEA staffers have told me over the past few months that you are more like your grandfather than your father. When it comes to making political statements, whose footsteps do you intend to follow? 

What I’ve learned on a personal level is the less you speak about politics, the less it comes up. I say that because it’s such a divisive issue. My dad recognizes that. The problem is he keeps getting asked about questions and he wants to be able to fair to a reporter and answer questions, at least from his point of view. Dad doesn’t speak for all Christianity, that’s for sure. He doesn’t claim to do it. Dad gives his own opinions. I’ve learned from personal experience that the less you talk about it, the better off you are sometimes. 

Do you think it’s better, for the sake of the gospel, that an evangelist stays away from those topics? 

I think there are going to be appropriate times, because we shouldn’t just allow things to continue, especially when we see something bad going on. We should be very vocal on things, to stand up for the things that are right and denounce those things that are bad. Obviously Christians do have a role in politics, in the sense of voting for what their conscience tells them, voting what they think are the key issues. We shouldn’t just be silent.

A lot of times for non-Christians, they think Christians can just take their religion off and put it in the cubbyhole and then they can come to the table and make a decision that is non-biased or anything religious and then go over there and put their religion back on. You can’t do that. My religious thinking and teaching permeates everything I do. … 

When it comes to preaching, when I’m preaching here at the Auditorium, I’m not going to bring up politics, because that’s divisive. It’s going to set a tone for people. Some are going to jeer and some are going to say, “Forget this! I’m not going to listen to anything else he’s got to say.” Because they’re offended. I just want to preach on what I know is the Bible, especially in front of the pulpit.

Tell me about the Philippines. How long were you there?

I was in the Philippines for about ten days and met President [Benigno] Aquino, met the U.S. ambassador. Both of those men are wonderful men. I had a great time talking with them. ...

We had a four day Celebration in the Philippines. We had 97,000 there and then we had 20-something thousand decisions for Christ. …It was one of the most exciting things I’d ever been a part of. There’s just story after story. …Everybody was coming and everybody wanted a part in it. Graphic art designers said, “Listen, we want to volunteer all our services to provide the graphic arts.” One person said, “We’ll volunteer to use our billboards to promote the event.” Everyone came with whatever they did in business and said, “We want to be used of you guys.” The military provided army trucks to bus people around. The Philippine navy gave their boats to get people from the islands to the mainland. …

I had never been to Bicol before, but the first time I went to the Philippines, I stayed in Manila and some of the people from Bicol came to Manila to meet me. … They said, “Will, we want you to come to Bicol.” But Bicol is the poorest place in all the Philippines. They’re always left out because they’re the poorest. Every typhoon that comes in that area hits Bicol. …The churches in Manila said, “We believe in what God wants to do in the Philippines and we believe that God wants Will Graham to go to Bicol, but people in Bicol can’t afford it, Will.” … It’s a 10 hour drive, so none of these churches in Manila are going to be directly affected by this, but they believed in what God was doing so they said we’re going to pay for a majority of the budget. …They were so excited. It was really special to see that. I was so glad to be a part of it, to see what God was doing. 

Thanks so much! 

Rick Elmore May 23, 2011 at 03:21 AM
Great article. The Graham family are awesome people.
John N. Seppo November 22, 2012 at 02:51 PM
Thanks for being so forthright in this article. It is wonderful to read and hear such good news as it is becoming increasingly more difficult in these trying times. God bless. Sincerely. John N. Seppo


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