Billy Graham's personal pastor shares what the Church can learn from ministry of 'humble' evangelist

Billy Graham with his friend and Pastor Don Wilton on the porch at Graham's home in Montreat, North Carolina. The two spent most Saturdays together for the last 20 years of Billy Graham's life.
Billy Graham with his friend and Pastor Don Wilton on the porch at Graham's home in Montreat, North Carolina. The two spent most Saturdays together for the last 20 years of Billy Graham's life. | Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

Billy Graham’s friend and pastor reflected on his yearslong friendship with the famed evangelist — and shared the lessons and values he believes the Church can glean from the life and ministry of a man he said mirrored the “very heartbeat of God.” 

“Mr. Graham's heartbeat and passion and reflection of the very face of God showed deeply, penetrated my own heart and life,” Don Wilton recalled in an interview with The Christian Post. “I've never been around a man personally like that, who so deeply and genuinely and consistently reflected the face of God's grace. As a pastor myself, one can only imagine the enormous depth of the blessing that God conferred on me every time I was with him every week.”

Most Saturdays for 15 years, Wilton, the senior pastor of nearly 30 years at the First Baptist Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and founder of the global network, The Encouraging Word, drove to Graham’s home in Montreat, North Carolina, to discuss family, politics, sports, and their spiritual lives. In the days before the famed evangelist died in 2018 at the age of 99, Wilton sat next to him, holding his hand. 

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“Most people, the closer you get to them, the more you realize they have clay feet,” Wilton said. “But the closer I got to this man, Billy Graham, the more I realized that he was just full of the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that showed throughout his life and his demeanor. Everything pointed to Jesus.”

To honor his friend’s life and legacy, Wilton recently releasedSaturdays with Billy: My Friendship with Billy Graham, a book that includes more than 20 stories recounting his friendship with Graham. In addition to photographs accompanying the stories, the book includes some of the greatest lessons Wilton gleaned from Graham’s life and ministry. 

The South African pastor said something that defined Graham was his deep love for his family — especially his wife, Ruth, who died in 2007.

“It was not uncommon for me to be sitting outside having tea with Mr. Graham and he'd be staring out the window. I'd say to him, ‘Mr. Graham, what are you looking at?’” he recalled. “And he’d say, ‘I can just see Ruth standing in the kitchen preparing something nice for us.’”

“It sounds very simplistic, but he had such a very tender and deep love for her that when she went on to be the Lord, he had a deep gap and grief in his heart.”

Thomas Nelson
Thomas Nelson

Graham, he said, also had a “deep love of good food” — and especially coffee. He shared how, later in his life, the pastor would sneak black coffee despite doctor’s orders because he didn’t appreciate coffee that had “stuff in it” (Thick-It).

“One day, after the doctor left, he reaches over and he grabs my cup of coffee and starts drinking it. I said, ‘Now, brother Billy, what do I do with yours?’ And he said to me, ‘Well, my facilities are just around the corner.’ In other words, he told me to dump his coffee and the medical staff wouldn’t know,” Wilton said with a chuckle.

But the most “potent and influential” thing about the evangelist, the pastor emphasized, was his striking humility despite his celebrity status. Over 70 years, Billy Graham preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ to some 215 million people at more than 400 Crusades, simulcasts and evangelistic rallies in more than 185 countries and territories.

“If you were to paint a picture of Don Wilton and Dr. Billy Graham, here's the picture: A nobody who thought he was a somebody, talking to a somebody who really thought he was a nobody,” he shared.

“Mr. Graham was known all over the world; he was a famous man who dealt with prime ministers, presidents, kings, queens, celebrities, and the most famous athletes in the world, yet he consistently exemplified the uncommon unattainable spirit of humility that Christ expects of us. He never elevated himself; he only elevated Jesus Christ.”

It was his humility and unfaltering faith in Christ that allowed Graham to “be so unapologetically focused on the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost and dying world without compromise,” Wilton said. 

Grahams’ life, Wilton said, reflected Galatians 6:14 — a verse that was posted in a number of places around the late pastor's home. It reads: “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

“Mr. Graham was respected by all people, and yet was unapologetic about holy living and righteousness and the wrath and judgment of God and salvation exclusively through Jesus,” he said. 

The modern church, he said, would do well to emulate Graham’s passion for keeping the Gospel of Jesus Christ “the main thing” in a post-Christian culture that is “desperate for answers.” 

“Mr. Graham stood in the largest stadiums of the world and said, 'God loves you.' He believed implicitly in the life-transforming power of the cross of Jesus, and He preached that passionately and unapologetically and loved people in that same way,” Wilton said.

“I'm deeply concerned about our country and our people and about policies that violate the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” he continued. “How do I balance that in my life as a Christian? How do I be a testimony but stand for the truth of God's Word? It's something that each one of us has to really do business with God about, because our world is really desperate for answers, and our people today are in desperate need of the true meaning of the Gospel and the power of the Gospel to change people's lives forever.”

Through sharing his friendship with Graham, Wilton said he hopes to encourage readers to “take a very simple yet real look into the heart of this precious man and be blessed by his presence” while at the same time “drawing near to the heart of the Lord.”

“I pray that people would read Saturdays with Billy and pass that on to others so that others would be blessed. That's what Mr. Graham did. His whole life was passing blessings on from one person to the next. We just pray this book is an extension of the witness of the life and testimony of Dr. Billy Graham.”

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