The Next Graham: Like Grandfather, Like Grandson

A crowd of 4,000 cheered with delight as they watched Will Graham, on the final evening of his first American revival, pick up the evangelical torch carried for decades.
( [email protected] ) Dec 26, 2006 02:05 PM EST

GASTONIA, N.C. (AP) - For decades, it was Billy Graham's job to bellow a hearty 'No!' across the stage when asked, 'Hide it under a bushel?' when the song 'This Little Light of Mine' was performed at one of his epic crusades.

But on this night, it was Billy's grandson - William Franklin Graham IV - who responded with that emphatic "No!"

A crowd of 4,000 cheered with delight as they watched Will Graham, on the final evening of his first American revival, pick up the evangelical torch carried for decades by his grandfather, the famed evangelist whose last crusade was in New York in 2005.

"Man, what a great privilege it was," Will Graham recalled a few weeks later, still touched that Billy Graham's longtime musical directors, Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea, showed up to lead the singing.

Graham family observers have speculated that Will Graham, 31, is the most logical successor to carry on the tradition of crusades begun by his grandfather, who is now 88 and in declining health. Will's father, Franklin, has taken over the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association but has long seemed more comfortable leading international Christian relief efforts through his Samaritan's Purse charity than speaking from the pulpit.

"Outside observers seem to like to play the heir-apparent game, and it's not a game that's being played internally," said association spokesman Mark DeMoss. "What Franklin has told me, and his son, is that the most important thing right now for Will is to make sure he feels called by God to preach evangelical meetings."

At Will Graham's first such meeting in the United States, it was hard not to be struck by the strong physical resemblance between him and his grandfather. During his sermon, the view on the giant television screens on either side of the stage emphasized a shock of hair falling over his forehead and a wide mouth with lips that seemed to curl around each word as he pronounced it - both echoes of a young Billy Graham.

"We're all wormy-looking, I think," Will Graham said, laughing when asked about the similarities, insisting he does not dwell on them. "A lot of it's in our mannerisms. I don't try to imitate my granddaddy."

Still, while the Gastonia event was billed as a "celebration" and included the fun and casual atmosphere of one of his father's evangelical "festivals," the three-day revival also offered some of the hallmarks of a Billy Graham crusade - including appearances by Barrows, 83, and Shea, 97, singing "This Little Light of Mine."

With Franklin Graham watching from a tent reserved for family members, Will Graham finished his sermon and asked those in the crowd to step forward and dedicate their lives to Jesus during the traditional "altar call." He urged those listening to make a decision about Jesus and reminded the crowd about the indecisiveness of Pontius Pilate when he was asked to judge Jesus.

"Here's a man that has interviewed the living God. ... Pilate was impressed with Jesus, and yet he was undecided about Jesus. Some of you tonight have heard the truth over and over again," Graham declared. "There is no way to stay neutral about Christ."

That night, 125 people responded to the call.

"This is where I'm supposed to be," Will Graham said. "This is needed, and I want to be a part of it. I felt like this is what the Lord was calling me to do."

The youngest Graham's preaching style has been polished over the better part of a decade. He gave his first sermon in March 2000 at a Southern Baptist church in Deep Gap and was ordained two years later. Until this spring, he was the full-time pastor at a Southern Baptist church in Raleigh.

In 2004, he began leading Billy Graham association events in Canada and India. Last spring, shortly after the Gastonia revival was scheduled, he said he was called by God to return to the western North Carolina mountains where he was raised and begin work at The Cove, the association's training center, which offers seminars and other training for ministers and evangelists.

On previous occasions, Will Graham said, he had turned down invitations from his father to come work with him.

"It's hard to tell your father no," he said, but "I had no intention of leaving my church."

But as he cut his grass one day last April, Graham said, he got a message from God.

"The Lord said, 'What I sent you to the church to do, to learn, you've now learned. Your time is up. ... Now it's time to go help your Dad.' "

Graham said that kind of personal connection with God has been a constant in his life, and his conversation is peppered with references to the things God has told him to do and the ways he believes God has spoken to him.

"I don't hear an audible voice, but yes, just through prayer, through talking, the Lord presses things upon my heart," Graham said.

Before the Gastonia revival, Graham said he was nervous about the schedule - Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night instead of the traditional Graham crusade schedule of Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

"I'm Will Graham. I'm not Billy Graham. I'm not Franklin Graham," he said. "No one's going to show up on a Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday in October on a school night."

But God spoke to him as he prayed and read the Bible, Graham said, and told him not worry about the schedule or whether people would show up. They did, more than 12,500 filling an American Legion baseball stadium over three nights.

"I've never strived to be an evangelist. I've always wanted to be more like my dad, in the sense of working at Samaritan's Purse," Graham said. "But over time, the Lord just changed me. I had no idea what the Lord had planned for me. Gastonia wasn't really a test of the waters, it was really where I felt the Lord had called me to come."

Copyright 2006, Associated Press. All rights reserved.