DALLAS (RNS) — In 1953, Robert Jeffress’ mother, Judy, got saved at a Billy Graham crusade at Dallas’ Cotton Bowl.
After the crusade, Graham — the world-famous evangelist who died Wednesday (Feb. 21) at age 99 — gave a guest sermon at First Baptist Dallas.
“The day he preached, he also joined the church,” said Robert Jeffress, who grew up in the historic Dallas congregation — which will celebrate its 150th anniversary this year — and has served as its senior pastor since 2007.
Graham formally placed membership at First Baptist Dallas — where the late Rev. W.A. Criswell was the longtime pastor — even though he didn’t live in Texas. He never would. But Graham maintained that membership for more than 54 years.
On the day of Graham’s passing, Jeffress remembered his mother’s reasons for choosing First Baptist.
“My mom looked at my dad and said, ‘If it’s good enough for Billy Graham, it’s good enough for me,’” Jeffress told Religion News Service in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.
“And that’s the day she joined the church,” added Jeffress, who is one of President Trump’s evangelical advisers and part of a delegation of Christian leaders visiting Israel this week.
“A year later, I was born and grew up at First Baptist Dallas. So, in many ways, I’m a Christian — and I’m the pastor of my church — because of Billy Graham.”
In “A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story,” first published in 1991 and set for an updated, expanded release by Zondervan in March, Rice University biographer William Martin noted that Graham conducted crusades in half a dozen U.S. cities in 1953.
The four-week crusade in Dallas was the most successful: The climactic closing service drew a capacity crowd to the 75,000-seat Cotton Bowl, Martin wrote, making it “the largest evangelistic meeting ever held in America to that point.”
Why did Graham place membership at a church nearly 1,000 miles from his home in Montreat, N.C.?
“I think his reason for joining the church was that he appreciated Dr. Criswell, my predecessor, and his strong stand on his belief in the inerrancy of the Scripture,” said Jeffress, whose Southern Baptist megachurch claims 13,000 members and occupies six city blocks on a $135 million campus at the heart of downtown Dallas.
“Dr. Graham wanted to associate with a church like that.”
But in an interview with his biographer, Graham gave a different reason.
“If I belonged to a Baptist church in the neighborhood, they would continually be asking me to work in church affairs,” Graham told Martin. “When I’m at home I attend my wife’s Presbyterian church and naturally they don’t ask me to do anything.”
Martin noted that Graham “did not mention that the Dallas church was also the largest Southern Baptist congregation in the world.”
Other observers point out that deep in the heart of Texas, the big-time revivalist understood the importance of big-oil money.
“Those big-oil guys were mostly wealthy Texas evangelicals who wanted to fund evangelism and missions, including Graham’s work,” said Barry Hankins, a Baylor University history professor and author of several books on Southern Baptists. “Graham, therefore, came to Texas often and developed relationships with Texas big oil, and from this came his membership at First Baptist Dallas.”
“Anointed With Oil: God and Black Gold in Modern America,” a forthcoming book by University of Notre Dame history professor Darren Dochuk, will highlight Graham’s big-oil connections.
“Graham was close to several Dallas-Fort Worth oil families, many of whom attended First Baptist or the prominent Methodist and Presbyterian churches in Highland Park,” Dochuk said in an email. “But through longstanding family ties (on wife’s side), Graham was also familiar with Houston and its legion of independent oilmen. So both cities and their oil wealth — and the state as a whole — mattered a lot to him.”
Not until late 2008 did Graham switch his membership to a congregation closer to his home in the North Carolina mountains.
At age 90, he was voted in as a member of First Baptist Spartanburg in Spartanburg, S.C. The change came after Graham started watching that church’s pastor, Don Wilton, on television every Sunday, said A. Larry Ross, who served as Graham’s spokesman for more than 30 years.
“Pastor Don has been coming to his home to have prayer and Bible study with him regularly since then,” said Ross, who is based in Dallas. “But he was a member at First Baptist Dallas until then, having placed his membership here while W.A. Criswell was the pastor.”
First Baptist Dallas was the childhood church home of James Lankford, now a U.S. senator from Oklahoma. Lankford, who was baptized at First Baptist Dallas as a red-haired little boy, recalls the pride he felt attending the same church where Graham was a member, even though he never met Graham.
As Lankford grew older and became a pastor himself, Graham remained one of his spiritual heroes. The Republican senator reflected Wednesday on how Graham’s style of preaching changed over the years.
“He was a wagging-his-finger, salvation preacher at the beginning, yelling and stomping around, (with) long messages,” Lankford told Religion News Service in a telephone interview.
“And toward the end, all of his focus — in fact, for decades there — was about the love of God and how God pours his love out on us and offers us this incredible, free gift. And he was so incredibly gracious in how he would present the message.”
In a post on the First Baptist Dallas website, Jeffress called Graham “the most impactful evangelist since the Apostle Paul.”
Cissie Graham Lynch, a granddaughter of the late evangelist, is a part of the evangelical delegation in Israel.
“She and I were just talking about (Graham) yesterday and how much he was ready to go home and be with the Lord,” Jeffress said. “He said often, ‘Heaven is my home, I’m just passing through this world.’ So I think there will be sadness on our part, but also a real happiness for Dr. Graham.”