Billy Graham and the queen of England: The unlikely friendship

Evangelist Billy Graham and Queen Elizabeth II
Evangelist Billy Graham and Queen Elizabeth II | Courtesy of Greg Laurie

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II passed from this life on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022. It is truly the end of an era. That is something we say often when iconic and influential figures leave us. But, in her case, it’s the end, not just of a cultural reign but of a literal one. The life and death of a royal is how some countries actually mark the passage of an era.

But it’s also personal. Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne the same year I was born. Because of that, I have always felt a connection to her.

England has lost more than a royal member of the family; they have lost a decades-long stabilizing and comforting figure. The Queen did not lord over them but instead, served them — right to the very end of her life. They loved and adored her. And, in her own reserved but determined way, she loved them back.

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Her Majesty was also a moral beacon to the U.K. and beyond. That came as a result of her faith in Jesus Christ, which she spoke of openly and often.

As the longest surviving monarch, Queen Elizabeth ruled England during many of the world’s most significant events of the modern era. Throughout her time on the throne, she appointed 15 prime ministers and dealt with 13 U.S. presidents and countless other world leaders. Her heart for service brought her in contact with millions during her lifetime, but there was little opportunity to cultivate relationships. The station of a leader at this level necessitates few close friends and confidantes.

However, it is certain that Billy Graham could be counted as one of them. Their friendship began in 1955, a year after his historic and triumphant crusade in England, which shaped the future of Christianity in that country. His preaching in the U.K. had a revival-like impact, not just on the people, but on their monarch as well.

Billy’s 1954 crusade ended with an invitation for a private audience with Prime Minister Winston Churchill. During that auspicious occasion, the two men talked about the things you might expect men of such influence to discuss — the future of democracy and the fate of the world. Churchill shared with Billy that he had all but run out of hope. But the young evangelist assured the cynical politician there was hope because the Bible said so. They ended their visit in prayer. And that meeting led to his first contact with the Queen.

Billy and the Queen enjoyed a friendship that spanned six decades, him having a seminal impact on her faith. It was an unlikely comradeship. He was the son of a dairyman who secretly hoped to become a professional baseball player; Queen Elizabeth II was probably the only famous person in the 20th and 21st centuries who was genuinely herself all the time. She was born with a specific role and certain responsibilities, grew up within these expectations, understood them, and knew how to live with them.

Everyone deferred to Queen Elizabeth. Women curtseyed and men bowed when meeting her; they didn’t speak unless spoken to first; and they never, ever turned their back to her when exiting a room. She met with some of history’s most notable figures — heads of state, religious leaders, Hollywood notables, and rock stars.

Even though Billy Graham was a world-renowned figure in his own right, he never acted like a star. In fact, if you were with Billy, you got the star treatment. I can attest to this personally, and wrote about it in my book, Billy Graham: The Man I Knew.  He always turned the conversation to you and genuinely listened to what you had to say. One time he even sought from a janitor input for a sermon. The man pushing the mop had plenty of feedback to offer him, too, which Billy tactfully accepted.

Despite her lofty title and position, the Queen possessed similar personality traits. She had poise, grace, genuine humility as well as a keen sense of humor. Franklin Graham recently stated, “My father said he found Queen Elizabeth ‘to be a woman of rare modesty and character.’” I personally believe Her Majesty’s personal faith is what kept her anchored to her life and her reign. She helped lead the Church of England for decades and proudly held the title of “Defender of the Faith.”

“I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad,” she said in 2002. I think the Queen must have also relied on Billy for strength and encouragement from time to time even though, given her official position, she could not openly show favoritism to any religion or minister. However, it was undeniable that she cherished the company and counsel of Billy Graham.

England was one of Billy’s favorite countries, which gave him frequent occasions to visit her. Billy and Ruth Graham met with the Queen at least a dozen times at both Windsor and Sandringham for preaching engagements. She even asked him to listen to her practice a speech for her annual Christmas broadcast to give feedback. Those visits deepened both their friendship and fellowship. He even made a pledge to pray for her and her family every day. He, in turn, watched her faith grow by leaps and bounds.

She often discussed Jesus Christ in her public addresses, telling her fellow countrymen and women that she drew “strength from the message of hope in the Christian Gospel”— the same message of hope he gave to Winston Churchill when he was troubled by the world.

When it was apparent, during Billy’s last time with Queen Elizabeth II, that he was going to pass before her, she intimated that she was supporting him in prayer. Theirs was a friendship of mutual respect and admiration. They shared a faith that guided them both as they carried the weight of the world on their shoulders and were revered in the hearts of millions.

But Elizabeth II wasn’t just an international icon and the queen of England.  She was the daughter of another King — the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Welcome home. You left us better.

Greg Laurie is the Pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship and the speaker at the Harvest Crusades. He is also the author of Lennon, Dylan, Alice and Jesus: A Spiritual Biography of Rock And Roll.

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