The Billy Graham Library is just a barn, really. A big barn, mind you. An elaborate, 40,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art barn, plopped in Charlotte, North Carolina, complete with a bookstore, gift shop, food court, and a mechanical animatronic talking cow á la Disneyland.

But a barn nonetheless.

Billy Graham is buried on these grounds. His wife Ruth lies beside him. The remains of gospel singer George Beverly Shea rest here also.

William Franklin Graham Jr. was born and raised only a few miles from here. His memorial library hosts upwards of 200,000 annual visitors, ranging from U.S. presidents and dignitaries, to third-grade field trips and Midwestern retirees in Reeboks.

Today, the place was packed.

You can say what you will about the man, you can even attempt to muddy his good name. But even years after his death, Billy still pulls them in.

I remember when Billy Graham would come on TV. In our house, life completely stopped. My father would quit piddling in the garage. My mother would unchain herself from her stovetop.

Granny would sit on the sofa, poised before our Philco console television, legs crossed. I sat on the floor six inches from the glowing screen since I was the family remote control.

And we would watch America’s pulpiteer preach to packed arenas in New York City, L.A., Paris, Germany, and Budapest.

“God loves you!” Billy would shout, pointing that spindly finger at the camera. “He loves you, and you, and you…”

And since I was nose-to-nose with the TV, his message always felt particularly personal.

At the close of his sermons when George Beverly Shea would sing “Just As I Am,” Granny would say, “Turn it up!”

I’d crank the volume and Granny would sing every word without ever dropping the cigarette from the corner of her mouth.

Truthfully, as a boy I didn’t know the difference between Billy Graham and God himself. Not until Jimmy Williams brought an illustrated Bible to Sunday school.

The entire class gathered around Jimmy’s Bible to peek at the illustrations. For ten cents, Jimmy would let you look at the Adam and Eve pictures. For a buck and a quarter you could rent the book for the half day.

Inside this Bible were depictions of the Almighty, shown standing among the clouds, with a long beard, and a white tunic.

“Who’s that supposed to be?” a kid asked Jimmy.

“That’s God, you dummy.”

“But, if that’s God, then where’s George Beverly Shea?”

That’s how intermingled Billy Graham and God were inside our childhood brains. In many of our kid-minds, God wore a plain brown suit and spoke with a North Carolinian accent.

As it happens, there were plenty of those accents at Billy Graham’s library when I visited. Many of the library volunteers grew up here in Mecklenburg County, and most of them remind you of your favorite aunt Judy or uncle Loyd.

The first stop on the self-guided tour was Billy’s restored childhood farmhouse. He was born in 1918, deep in the sticks, back when the world was a vastly different place. Woodrow Wilson was president. Prohibition was in its conceptual stages. Ty Cobb and the Bambino were still playing ball.

They say young Billy would wander through these very woods and practice his sermons for tree stumps and cattle. And on the snowy Carolina mornings, when Billy would milk the cows, they say he practiced shouting between tugs on the udders.

When you enter the library’s main building, your tour takes you through a series of dramatically themed exhibits depicting different phases of Billy’s life and work.

Our tour group began in the recreated canvas revival tents where the preacher first cut his teeth. My wife and I sat in a pew and watched old footage of a baby-faced Billy preaching the paint off the walls.

The tour finished by showing the international sporting arenas where Billy sermonized before crowds so large that spectators sometimes climbed the stadium rooftops, or sat directly beside his pulpit.

The whole tour took a little over an hour, and by the end I could honestly say, without any exaggeration, that I seriously needed to visit the Little Fundamentalist’s room.

It was on my critical journey across the lobby that I noticed someone. A young man. He was crying privately in the corner. He had been with our tour group and he was visibly upset.

I was not the only one who saw him because a few volunteers sidled up to the man and spoke in tender voices.

Without missing a beat, one of the older volunteers bowed her head and closed her eyes. The weeping man covered his face and did the same. They stayed like that until the last amen was uttered.

I asked a nearby volunteer if this sort of thing happened often at the museum.

“Oh, gosh. All the time,” she said. “Every day, actually. We get tons of people who come here at the end of their ropes. People who just didn’t know where else to turn.”

I asked her what volunteers usually do in with people like this.

She smiled. “We just tell’em exactly what Billy woulda told’em. God loves you.”

And you, and you, and you…

26 comments

  1. Norma Den🇿🇦 - November 24, 2021 7:41 am

    Even in a remote corner of Africa then known as Northern Rhodesia in 1950’s Billy Graham featured in our lives, occasional film shows in a school hall or just listening to the radio ( no TV in those days), listening to the great George Beverly Shea singing all the old familiar songs. At about 13 I was moved enough to respond by joining many going forward at the end of the show, despite having been brought up in a good Christian home. Billy was a giant of a man, left many good memories behind with much needed good advice which fits every day and age. I’m sure he has a chair right beside the Lord & resides in the mansion next door. God bless is works, his soul and the precious memories he has left.

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  2. Tamara - November 24, 2021 11:50 am

    He sure does.

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  3. Hawk - November 24, 2021 12:07 pm

    Billy Graham will always be my minster no matter where I attend church.

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  4. Trudy - November 24, 2021 12:54 pm

    Just like your family, Sean, we all gathered around the TV when Billy Graham was on. He was a great man. I’m proud to claim him as me 8th cousin. Not sure how many times removed. I visited the Library at Christmas time. As we were taking the horse and carriage ride, it began to lightly snow. It was magical.

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  5. CherylW. - November 24, 2021 1:41 pm

    We need another Billy, but more so, folks wanting to listen. Sean, excellent likeness of Billy by the way.

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  6. Sarah - November 24, 2021 1:43 pm

    Thank you!

    Reply
  7. Paul McCutchen - November 24, 2021 1:50 pm

    There have been many who try to duplicate, and some come close but there was only one Billy Graham. If you have ever heard him, on the radio, TV or in person you knew that God loved you.

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  8. Nancy Crews - November 24, 2021 2:09 pm

    ❤your writing. God loves you too.

    Reply
  9. Sally Reeves - November 24, 2021 2:12 pm

    I’m a Ruth Graham fan. I recommend an unauthorized bio of Ruth by Patricia Cornwell (yes the Patricia Cornwell).. It was her first book and shows what Ruth did during those crusades. One wonders how such a woman as Ruth produced a son like Franklin. Thank you for your column. I read it early in my mornings and appreciate it a great deal.

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  10. Jan - November 24, 2021 2:23 pm

    Awesome!

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  11. Elaine Price - November 24, 2021 2:44 pm

    Thank you for reminding people that God is real and He loves us so very much…each and every individual. It isn’t a popular viewpoint in today’s world, but that doesn’t make it any less true. He will never stop loving us and working on our behalf.

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  12. Richard Owen - November 24, 2021 3:00 pm

    Lewis Grizzard would be proud, Sean….

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  13. BEX - November 24, 2021 3:05 pm

    AMEN! 🙏🏻

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  14. AL - November 24, 2021 3:16 pm

    I believe this is true…..Ruth Graham’s epitaph on tombstone.. End of Construction. Thank you for your Patience.

    Hope I can be as humble as she.

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  15. NancyB. - November 24, 2021 3:34 pm

    Bro Billy was a staple in our home also. Whatever else was on TV took a way, way back seat to him and Bro. Shea. Even my dad watched and stayed awake.🙂 I was too young at the time to realize the full importance of what I was hearing. From attending church with my family “every time the doors opened” I knew God loved me. But the discipleship and dedication that were also a part of Bro. Billy’s sermons wasn’t comprehended by this pre-teen/teen brain until I hit my 20s. Bro. Billy was a humble servant, not perfect, but a giant of a man for the Lord.

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  16. Stacey Wallace - November 24, 2021 4:19 pm

    May God bless you and Jamie, Sean.

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  17. Penn Wells - November 24, 2021 5:53 pm

    And then there is Franklin. 😢

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  18. Linda Moon - November 24, 2021 6:52 pm

    A library in a barn and a barn converted into a home. Billy Graham’s is the first one I just read about, some of my kin’s was the second one I thought about. Wow. There was love in both those barns. God, I love you and the kin. And I loved Billy, too.

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  19. Jenny Young - November 24, 2021 8:38 pm

    I would love to visit his library. What a beautiful story.
    Have you heard about his coffin? It was made by prisoners…in Georgia I think? It’s just a simple wooden coffin. I’d really like to have one just like his.

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  20. MAM - November 24, 2021 8:58 pm

    Yes, God loves you… and you…. and you through everyone. Believe it and believe in Him, and you’ll be just fine!I attended a wonderful memorial for a long-time friend of mine yesterday, and the priest ended by saying: Do not say: “Goodbye”; say: “I’ll see you later.” I believe this to be true! I look forward to the day when I meet my parents in heaven (If I can made it there!).

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  21. Bob E - November 24, 2021 9:41 pm

    God loves everyone – too many choose not to love back.

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  22. Deb - November 25, 2021 3:38 am

    My dad is a retired minister; during his active career he volunteered many times at Billy Graham crusades. I loved everything about attending them, including George Beverly Shea’s alter call songs. Johnny Cash was a special guest at the last one I attended. Thanks for bringing back some very precious memories.

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  23. Christina - November 25, 2021 5:58 am

    I still remember singing “How Great Thou art” in the joint choir at a stadium in Argentina for the crusade. He was a giant that preached with conviction and love.

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  24. Kate - November 25, 2021 7:43 am

    Sean, thank you for your remembrance of Billy Graham, but I don’t understand the references about “Franklin”. The only thing I know about Franklin Graham is the amazing outreach he does through the Christmas Shoeboxes and Relief programs. Seems he is also making a positive impact for God. And his sister is an amazing minister as well, although because she is a woman, she is often restricted from lifting up her voice in certain venues. It was nice that someone remembered Ruth, while being a minister is often so very hard and lonely, I think being a minister’s wife is even harder.

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  25. Cathy M - November 25, 2021 2:28 pm

    There will never be another like him. He dedicated his life to spreading God’s word and was free of scandal. I regret that I never saw him in person. My dads parents always referred to him as Reverend Graham. Beautiful speaking voice.

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  26. Ruth Ann - November 26, 2021 1:40 pm

    Thank you for sharing this Sean. Although we no longer have Billy to preach and Ruth to pray, their children are still spreading the gospel. Samaritan’s purse is a great avenue for letting people know that God loves us all.

    Reply

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