Pastor Donnie Sills grew up watching the Rev. Billy Graham on TV at his grandmother’s house, he said Wednesday.
“I grew up in the 70s, during Billy Graham’s heyday,” Sills said. “We used to gather around the TV to watch his crusades. I have a lot of good memories from those times.”
Graham, who began as a tent revival preacher in the late 1940s, rose to international fame as he traveled the country to hold evangelical crusades in front of thousands of people, eventually millions via radio and TV.
Graham died Wednesday morning at his North Carolina home. He was 99.
Local pastors on Wednesday described Graham as someone who wasn’t flashy but professed “the basics of evangelicalism.”
Sills, the pastor of McClellan First Baptist Church, said Graham is a cultural icon.
“I don’t know of any pastors my age who don’t recognize him as an influence in their life,” Sills said. “He influenced many of my professors while I was in seminary and I try to take my congregation back to the basics like he did.”
Graham taught of God’s love for people, Sills said.
“He constantly proclaimed it and lived it,” the pastor said. “I mean how many have risen to similar fame and have fallen because they did not live how they taught? I think that’s how he became so well loved.”
While Sills was first introduced to Graham on TV, Walter Solomon, pastor at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Anniston, was introduced to him amongst about 35,000 people in Birmingham.
Graham hosted an Easter crusade in March 1964, months after an explosion killed four black girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Despite intimidation, Graham demanded the event be integrated at a time when racial tensions were high.
When Solomon saw Graham speak, the spectator seating at Legion Field was full while Graham spoke from a lectern on a stage on the field, he said.
“I was probably 8 or 9 when I saw him,” he said on Wednesday. “He had such passion, so eloquent. He made a huge impact on my life.”
Solomon further described Graham as a role model.
“He used the word as a beacon for faith,” the pastor said.
Graham made an appearance in Anniston at the invitation of an Army general at Fort McClellan in August of 1954, speaking to 10,000 soldiers and another 10,000 community members. It was the first time Graham spoke at a military installation.
Truman Norred, a retired pastor from West Side Baptist Church in Jacksonville, said he wasn’t at the McClellan crusade but he would have liked to have been.
“I’m not sure why I wasn’t there but if I could have been, I would have,” he said. “He was probably one of the greatest soul-winners in American history.”
Norred said he did have the opportunity to see Graham in Birmingham and Atlanta, where the evangelist would make time to speak with faith leaders directly.
“They were all set up the same way, you’d learn a lot about soul-winning and how to reach people,” Norred said. “It was a great educational experience as well as inspirational. I enjoyed going to them and they helped me get close to other pastors of other denominations that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Graham set the standard for all pastors, preachers and reverends, Norred said.
“He was pretty much a role model for all of us,” the retired pastor said. “I always held his name in high esteem. I’m glad I lived during the time of his ministry.”