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Graham’s enduring legacy in the Natural State
Billy Graham preached the gospel to more people in live audiences than anyone else in history – nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories. Billygraham.org photo

Graham’s enduring legacy in the Natural State

Mar 8, 2018

Tim Yarbrough
Arkansas Baptist News

THE MARK MADE by Billy Graham on the furtherance of the gospel throughout the United States and the world is indelible.

To Arkansas Baptists today, Graham’s impact on the Natural State may not be as apparent.

The famed evangelist – who died Feb. 21 at the age of 99 – made numerous visits to Arkansas beginning in the 1950s, bringing his message of the cross and unmistakable brand of evangelicalism to the annual meeting of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and numerous crusades.

In the pages of the Arkansas Baptist News (ABN) we have an account of many of Graham’s visits and his interaction with Arkansas’ noted Baptist leaders.

The late W.O. Vaught Jr., longtime pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, wrote in 1956, prior to the evangelist speaking at the state convention’s annual meeting, about one of Graham’s earliest visits to Arkansas in March 1953.

“Graham spoke to four hundred preachers and their wives at an informal luncheon. That evening he spoke to fourteen thousand assembled at War Memorial Stadium,” said Vaught, who served as crusade chairman for the event.

“That Sunday afternoon Mr. Graham and his team members gave their nationwide broadcast, THE HOUR OF DECISION from War Memorial Stadium and after the broadcast, Mr. Graham preached to the twenty-five thousand people who had gathered at the Stadium to hear him. Several hundred decisions were recorded in that service.”

Vaught continued, “It has been since this visit in 1953 that Mr. Graham has gained international prominence as the world’s outstanding evangelist and spiritual leader.”

‘Greatest evangelists’

The Immanuel Baptist pastor shared an observation from the book “Billy Graham, the Personal Story of the Man, His Message, and His Mission” by Stanley High:

“In this splendidly written, carefully documented book, Dr. High attempts to analyze Billy Graham and his power as an evangelist. Though Billy Graham is only thirty-seven years of age, Dr. Stanley High believes that he stands in succession of the great evangelists of the world. Dr. High believes that he stands along the apostle Paul, John Wesley, Dwight L. Moody, and Billy Sunday as the world’s greatest evangelists,” Vaught wrote.

“I urge you to read this book as you prepare your mind and your heart for the visit of Billy Graham to our Arkansas Baptist Convention. Let us all pray that this will be a fitting climax to our Convention and that we will catch the spirit of this man who is doing so much in the world for Christ.”

In 1953, in advance of Graham’s two-day event at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, a photo of the evangelist and another member of his team wearing military helmets appeared on the March 5 cover of the Arkansas Baptist.

Again in 1959 and 1989, Graham held multi-day crusades in Little Rock that drew hundreds of thousands, both of which were attended by former U.S. President Bill Clinton – first as a child and later as the young governor of Arkansas.

1959 crusade integrated
In a video at billygraham.org, Graham spoke of the 1957 turmoil during the Little Rock Central High School integration crisis, offering to hold a crusade in the city, but the local committee “felt it would be impossible at that time.”

Two years later in 1959 when the crusade did take place, its “impact would prove to be far reaching.”

Clinton spoke of the crusade during the dedication of the Billy Graham Library in June 2007.

“Almost 50 years ago my Sunday school teacher took me to Little Rock to hear the Billy Graham Crusade. The schools were closed because of the Central High School integration crisis. The white citizen’s council in Little Rock tried to convince, even to pressure, Billy Graham and all of his people, to preach to a segregated audience. He told them that if they insisted on that, that he would cancel the crusade and tell the whole world why.

“So here we were, with neighborhood, after neighborhood, after neighborhood, in my state on the verge of violence, and yet tens of thousands of black and white Christians there came together in a football stadium. And when he issued the call at the end of his message, thousands came down, holding hands, arm in arm, crying. It was the beginning of the end of the old South in my home state. I will never forget it.”

In a letter published in a special edition of the ABN prior to the Sept. 17-24, 1989, crusade, Clinton wrote:

“Your visit comes at an important time of decision in our state. We have made much progress in education and economic development in the last few years, but our potential is limited by the scourge of drugs and the family problems which affect so many of our young people. I am doing what I can do to deal with these matters, but much of what has to be done is a matter of the human spirit, beyond the reach of politics. We need your message and God’s help.”

‘A giant for God’
In an interview with ABN Podcast host Bill Bumpas, Ronnie Floyd, senior pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas, who also serves as president of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, USA, said Graham is “a living legacy and now, a legend, obviously – not only for this generation, but for all generations to come – until Jesus comes again.”

Floyd said he had the privilege of meeting and praying with Graham during a crusade in Little Rock.

“He had an enormous impact on a lot of peoples’ lives. It is very obvious, when you see that today over things that have been said and written about. It’s so encouraging to see the power of what Jesus can do with one man when surrendered to Him.

“I give God praise for his life and the power of what he stood for.”

Reflecting on the 2018 theme of the National Day of Prayer, Unity, Floyd said Graham was a unifier who brought people together from diverse backgrounds.

Floyd said, “In 2001, Billy Graham was our honorary chairperson for the National Day of Prayer. And, what is pretty amazing is, in a time when America is so divided, thinking about what has happened … the one man who could always unify, the one man who they would always bring appreciation and love for – was obviously Dr. Graham – has now been lost.”

Floyd said Graham’s personalized and passionate message of the gospel – either in person or during televised crusades, touched millions of people deeply and changed lives for all eternity.
“Jesus has him, and all is well with him, but we (will) miss Dr. Graham in a major way in this country. And I think that’s why you see such emotion – even in people that you would never imagine – about the impact of his life and ministry,” said Floyd.

“I’m not a golfer, but Billy Graham always kept it in the fairway. He kept his eye on the gospel, on the hope for the world, no matter who you are or where you are, (he told people that) Jesus Christ is the power to save.

“He was a giant for God, a one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-generation prophet of God’s truth and grace.”

Contact Tim Yarbrough at tim@arkansasbaptist.org.

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