I was nine years old (a month short of my tenth birthday) when I was saved by Billy Graham. Of course, Graham wouldn’t have wanted me to say it that way. He would have had me say that I was saved by Jesus when Billy Graham opened my heart to Him.
Okay; here’s the story: In the summer of 1956, I was spending the summer with my parents and siblings in my parents’ beach house in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. They had purchased the two-story, four-bedroom cottage in 1954 after discovering the little town in previous vacations. Our house was just two blocks from the beach and a five minute walk from Asbury Park, where the amusement park (with the merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, roller coaster, and fun house, along with the pinball machines and skeeball games) was open every day and night. It was, simply stated, an idyllic spot to spend summer vacations, which is what I did every summer from 1954 until I went to college. (Asbury Park was later made famous by Bruce Springsteen, as fans of the Boss surely know.)
But Ocean Grove is unique among all of the resort towns on the Jersey shore because, while it does offer a beautiful beach and parks (on which I’d play baseball just about every day), it is also a Methodist camp meeting community, where Bible study and religious training are serious endeavors. In fact, in those days, Ocean Grove was so serious about its Christian identity that no cars were allowed anywhere in the town on Sundays. And when I say Sundays, I mean all 24 hours of every Sunday.
To be specific, each Saturday night, all of the town’s residents and visitors had to drive their cars to either Bradley Beach (the town directly south of O.G.) or Asbury Park (directly north), where they would pay a couple of bucks (relatively cheap in those days) to park their cars in a lot or, if they were lucky, for free on the streets in either of those towns. You also couldn’t play ball in O.G. on Sundays, and when I say play ball, I mean not even bounce a ball in the open. The local cops enforced those rules with a vengeance: the vengeance of the Lord, I suppose.
Anyway, every August, as the summer came to an end, the town would hold its camp meetings, which involved daily religious training and evangelical preachers offering their version of Hell, fire and brimstone, as it were. These were very serious sermons, and everyone was expected to attend at least some of them. My parents were religious, but they weren’t evangelicals. Our home church, in Great Neck, New York (a ritzy community on Long Island’s north shore), was a non-denominational Protestant church where Jesus and God were respected but not revered and where prayerfulness was recognized but not required.
But, as liberal as my parents might have been on religious matters (remember, we’re talking about the mid-1950s, when just about everyone went to one kind of church or another), they recognized that Billy Graham was a big deal. By 1956, he had established himself as the evangelical preacher with the largest following (having even been featured on the cover of Time magazine two years earlier). And so, on that hot summer night in August, we had all gone to the great hall where Graham was to preach.
The Ocean Grove Auditorium is a massive structure that is now listed on the National Register of Historic Sites. In the 1950s it seated upwards of 10,000 people, and on that night in August at least that many were in attendance for Graham’s sermon. For reasons that I can’t recall, I got separated from my parents. We probably split up to find seats. My younger brother and I ended up in the balcony apart from my parents and sisters. Once we were settled, I found myself captivated by the speaker. He was talking about how we were all sinners, every one of us, and that we were doomed to eternal pain and sorrow as a result. But, he said, we could be forgiven and saved from that fate if we would just accept Jesus Christ as our savior.
He went on to explain what rapturous joy awaited us if we made that decision, and I was impressed enough to think that maybe that was a decision I should make. And then, quite to my surprise, he called on those who wished to be saved to come forward to join with him in prayer. I thought that it would be pretty scary and, therefore, unusual to stand up and move to the front of the auditorium, but as I watched from my spot in the balcony, I did, indeed, see many people doing just that. And, as I peered down at the crowd that was forming a queue, I thought I saw my father among them. My father, at that point in my life, was my hero. I only wanted to be just like him.
And so, without giving the matter any further thought, I decided, on the spot, that I, too, needed to be saved, and so I got up and went down the stairs to the main floor and then walked up to the front of the auditorium with the hundreds of others who had done the same thing. We were all then ushered to an adjoining chapel where scores of ministers were waiting to meet with each of us. A young one was assigned to me, and he asked me what my denomination was. I told him I wasn’t of any denomination, but that I was a Protestant. That news seemed to confuse him, but he let it pass and prayed with me.
As I walked home alone after the service, I felt serenely happy, as if I had somehow found a part of myself I hadn’t known before. When I got home and told my parents what had happened, my mother hugged me. Later, after I had gone to bed, my father came into my room. He told me I had done something very special, something I would always remember. (He was not the man I thought I had seen earlier; he hadn’t gone to the front with the others.)
I stayed “saved,” for the next ten years. I even contemplated the ministry in my high school years. Many years later, when Billy Graham was more a legend than a real person, he came to Sacramento, and my wife and I took our sons (then in their early teens) to one of his services. By then I had lost my faith, and I viewed him more as a caricature than as the man who had given me that sense of euphoria all those years ago.
Faith, I have learned, is a bit of a trick you allow your mind to play on yourself. It isn’t based on reason or on reality. It’s just something you choose to make a part of your perception of your existence. It’s an easy leap to make when you are just a child, when things like Santa Claus and the Easter bunny may still seem believable. And faith in a higher power (one so loving that He sent His “only begotten son” to offer salvation to all) is a nice thing to have. It helps you get through hard times, and it gives you a sense of security in the face of constant threats to that security. (The problem with that kind of faith, as I came to understand as a young adult, is that it requires surrendering your intellect to a make-believe world; but that fact never seemed to bother Graham.)
We are all afraid of many things, death and what comes after it very possibly being the prime of all those fears. Faith in a power greater than what we can see or know is reassuring, especially if that power offers us rapturous joy in a life after death and serenity in the here and now.
That was Billy Graham’s message, and he delivered it for over 70 years—until his death last week at the age of 99—with a conviction that only the best salespersons can match. He said in his later years that he welcomed his own death with the knowledge that he would then rest in the house of God. I have no reason to doubt that he held that belief, just as a little boy of nine did all those years ago.