/ /

Son of a Preacher Man

As the son of Billy Graham, Franklin Graham learned many lessons from his father. Read more about his journey from rebellion to reverend.

This article first appeared in WNC Magazine in 2007.

For all his youthful rebellion, Franklin Graham learned where he started—with family and the church—was where he always belonged

Fast cars. Fast motorcycles. Fast planes. “Anything that blows smoke and goes fast, I like it,” says Franklin Graham, son of world famous evangelist Billy Graham. His hankering for adrenaline-pumping experiences hasn’t changed even though he parted ways with the rebellious days of his youth and followed his father to the pulpit.

When he crisscrosses the globe on international relief missions, the [almost 65-year-old] Franklin buckles himself into the cockpit and pilots the plane to whatever destination he’s headed. “I’ve been flying for around 35 years,” he says. “Aviation is the one thing I learned in school that I use every week. We have 14 aircraft in the organization, and I fly all of them except the helicopter.”

Franklin maintains a hectic schedule of world travel for two organizations. In 1979, he became president and chairman of the board of Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief agency with corporate offices in Boone. There, he helps provide assistance to victims of natural disaster, war, disease, and famine in more than 100 countries. He’s also the CEO and president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association—roles he took on in 2000 and 2001, respectively.

After serving God throughout the world, Franklin anticipates returning to his home, located on more than 100 acres in Boone, and his wife of 33 years, Jane Austin Cunningham Graham—a hometown girl he met when he was eight years old. It’s also the place where they raised their three sons, William, Roy, and Edward; and daughter, Jane Austin.

“It’s the only home my wife and I have ever owned. We were just kids when we first came up here to Boone,” he says. “I’ve lived all my life in Western North Carolina, and I can go anywhere in the world. But there’s something special when you land in Charlotte, and you see the mountains to the west.”

That notion, that he can be anywhere in the world but chooses to come back to the familiar, is a theme that runs through Franklin’s life—professionally, personally, and spiritually.

Battle for Control

Franklin’s features are strikingly similar to his father’s, especially his magnetic eyes. On the day of this interview, he’s dressed in black jeans, purple shirt, and a black Harley Davidson ball cap. He looks more ready to jump onto a motorcycle than lead the faithful and help the needy.

His oversized office provides more insight into his personality and interests. It features an executive desk and conference table, along with a luxurious sitting area that resembles a living room decorated with the leather sofa and chairs and oriental rugs. Some of his hunting conquests—deer and elk—are preserved over the stone fireplace; Franklin has enjoyed the sport since he was a child. And antique guns are displayed on the walls. A multitude of family photos are showcased on the walls, as well as framed photos of his parents arranged on the bookshelves.

There were times in his youth when his choices and behavior gave his parents pause as they wondered about the direction their fourth child would take in his life. His teenage years were riddled with fights, cigarettes, and alcohol. In his book, Rebel With a Cause, Franklin writes: His parents “knew much more clearly than I did pressures I faced of being a ‘preacher’s kid’ as well as the oldest son of a ‘Christian legend.’ I’m sure God gave them wisdom to know that if they pushed me too hard to conform, I might take off running and never come back—not just away from them, but perhaps from God, too.”

His parents sent him to a boarding school—Stony Brook in New York—when he was 13. Enduring his freshman and sophomore years there, he then intensified efforts to persuade his father and mother, Ruth, to allow him to finish his studies at Owen High School near their home in Montreat. They finally agreed to a transfer following Christmas of his junior year. But he continued to be a handful and Owen’s principal quickly suspended him for fighting. Franklin also pushed the limits by staying out late and resisting wake-up calls to go to school.

His mother devised creative tactics to wake him, including stuffing a little firecracker under his door and crawling across the roof to knock on his window when he locked her out of his room. Her meddling made him “madder than a hornet,” but today he admires the spunk she showed and credits her for his bold spirit.

“Mama always had a sense of adventure,” says Franklin. “I remember one day there was a rattlesnake in the yard. She took a marshmallow fork and tried to pin the head of the snake down because she wanted to pick it up by the tail. I said ‘Mama, what are you going to do with that snake when you pick it up?’ She said she just wanted to pick it up. I don’t think she ever knew what fear was.”

Ruth wasn’t afraid to dish out tough love to her wayward teenager, but tensions continued to flair at Owen. The principal agreed to let Franklin finish his high school credits while attending LeTourneau College in Longview, Texas. “I did get a diploma from Owen, but I wasn’t there my senior year,” explains Franklin. “I think they threw the diploma at me.” When LeTourneau officials kicked Graham out for breaking rules, he returned home and spent two years at Montreat-Anderson College (now known as Montreat College).

Then in 1972, during a trip to Jerusalem, Graham underwent a personal transformation and committed his life to serving Jesus Christ. He writes, “that night I had finally decided I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. My years of running and rebellion had ended. I got off my knees and went to bed. It was finished.”

He believes the rebellion he experienced as a young man helps him relate to people he encounters through his ministry. “I went through a period of my life when I questioned and when I didn’t want God to be the Lord of my life,” says Franklin. “I wanted to be in control. I don’t think there’s anybody who’s ever lived who didn’t want to be in control. I found out that trying to be in control only messes things up worse. I think there are a lot of people who are where I was at one time. It just allows me to say, ‘Hey, I’ve been there. I know what you’re going through.'”

Preaching a Familiar Message

Franklin has witnessed much suffering during his missions for Samaritan’s Purse. He saw “bodies everywhere” and breathed in a “stench that was unbelievable” after a tsunami pulverized Thailand on December 26, 2004. He’s comforted people in war-torn countries, and he’s helped provide food and medicine to those suffering from dreadful diseases all around the world.

He recently talked with a man in Uganda who shocked him by saying he was thankful he has AIDS. Through his disease, and through the support of Franklin’s missionaries, the man found a relationship with Christ. “I’ve never had anybody tell me that before,” says Franklin. “It made me so grateful for our team of men and women who showed love and compassion for him.”

As Franklin has matured into his role as an evangelist, it’s common for people to compare him with his father. But they are separate individuals, with very different styles. “There’s only one Billy Graham,” he says. “There will never be another Billy Graham. My father and I are a lot different, but the Gospel that we preach is the same.”

Franklin is not the only grandchild to follow in his father’s footsteps; many of his close family members are involved in his work. All his siblings, including sisters Anne, Ruth, and Virginia, and his younger brother Nelson have a history of operating the family’s organizations. And Franklin’s two oldest sons, Will and Roy, have also chosen to serve in the ministry.

This year [2007] has marked a period of significant personal concern, celebration, and grief for Franklin. In March, his youngest son, 27-year-old Edward, suffered shrapnel wounds while serving in Iraq. Then, on May 31, Franklin was beside his father, who turns 89 in November, as he greeted a large crowd and three former presidents to officially dedicate the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte. This wonderful family celebration was followed by sorrow, as Franklin’s mother died, at the age of 87, just a few weeks later.

Today, Billy Graham is in declining health and no longer conducts his famous revivals. Instead, Franklin has taken on that role. He called the crusades “festivals,” and this year alone he’s preached to hundreds of thousands of people, both stateside and international venues such as Panama, Ukraine, Ecuador, and Korea.

If you were to ask Franklin where he gets the inspiration and the guidance to maintain such a large ministry and be involved in so many support efforts, the preacher in him would likely give credit to a source on high. But the direction he received from a family who never gave up on him is equally evident.

 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published but you will receive our next BGEA ministry update. You can opt out of future emails at any time.

44 Comments

  1. Harold Zimmer says:

    Interesting article, I believe God has chosen you to lead the ministry your father started and the wayward path was a great learning for you as a servant. God bless you Franklin.

  2. Ward Snearly says:

    We are so thrilled to be able to attend the BG Library and events at The Cove. Growing up and watching BG Crusades onTV with my folks I never dreamed we would be so physically close to Billy, George Beverly and Cliff but each of them have been within 10 feet of us as we attended events at The Cove. We have chatted with Will and admire how he sets the mood for Cove attendees and manages this wonderful institution. We have met GiGi as she greets us and marveled at her presence. We just admire and love The Lord’s work that the Franklin family does. Our son met Franklin maybe ten years ago when he was installing phone cable in Charlotte for an event and he was mightily impressed by his brief visit with Franklin. We feel very lucky!

  3. William Chitwood says:

    Happy birthday Franklin. I have the greatest respect for BGEA and Samaritan’s Purse and for you family. You exhibit great Christian integrity and I am glad to be a supporter.

  4. Gloria Burriss says:

    Thank you for your wonderful testimony. My grandson is on his journey of controlling his own life without the Lord, but I will continue to pray for God to send his Spirit to him and convict him…a rebel without a cause, much as you once were Franklin. But I know I can trust the Lord.

  5. Richard Thorne says:

    I remember well seeing you terrorize the good citizens of Black Mountain on your motorcycle. You are proof positive that there is a loving Lord and Savior and He can indwell his Spirit and change lives in a productive and positive way!
    You have truly honored your mother and father and your Heavenly Father.
    HAPPY BIRTHDAY, FRANKLIN

  6. Sharon says:

    This article really made me take a look back on my life. Even though there were times I forgot God he never forgot me. I depend on him more today to lead me in the way he has for me. Thank you for showing me another side of Franklin Graham.

  7. Karen L Littleton-sunkett says:

    God bless Billy Graham and Franklin Graham. Have a blessed birthday

  8. Betty Paul says:

    I have admired Franklin for many reasons and am proud of him that he followed the Lord. I am sad for those who have not. Keep up the good work. God bless you.
    Betty

  9. Doris Russell says:

    I am thankful for starting to hear Billy Graham in 1948 in Kansas City at Youth for Christ meetings. I am so thankful for his ministry and for Franklin’s following his dad’s foot steps. God has used them in the lives of many many people. God bless you, Franklin, in all you do!

  10. Lela J. Schaffner says:

    Well, I certainly, know that Franklin Graham speaks out about Salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ, wherever he goes. I
    read his book “Rebel With A Cause” and know he has had a
    wonderful conversion, that came from his heart & not because he is the son of Billy Graham! I pray for his & his ministry, those who are involved in his ministry & support the ministry financially.
    God Bless you on your 65th birthday. I pray the Lord will continue giving you good health, wisdom & strength to continue being His Spokesman. Santa Barbara, CA

  11. Joanie says:

    Happy Birthday Franklin!!! I have been to all three festivals in Tennessee. I have been a supporter of BGEA and Sam’s purse. for many years. Your sister Ruth and I are friends and pen pals. I was fortunate enough to attend the invitation for supporters in Chattanooga, Tn. Now, I will be retiring from 41 years of nursing. I am critical/acute care trained. Worked 17 years in Endoscopy. and now pre/pacu . I want very badly to work on a missions trip with Sams purse. A dear friend flies for Sams purse. I retire in December. I will be 60 years old, and I am determined to serve wherever led to go. Happy Birthday once again. Keep on keeping on!!!!!
    Joanie

  12. Norma Lane says:

    I greatly respect your ministry! You are doing a marvelous work!

  13. JOSÉ LUIS BRETON says:

    I can relate to alot that Franklin has gone through. I am Blessed by Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, he is helping me become a better Man Every Day!

  14. Tom Van Lear says:

    God bless in the name of Jesus Christ.

  15. Justina Marina says:

    I’m very thankful for these bulletins. I’m praying for the entire Graham family and the ministries you all have. It’s an encouragement to me. I like knowing the history of the family. My mother, dad, and step-mother tried to raise me right, plus my three sisters, brother, and nephew when we were all at home. We’ve tried to obey God, but we’ve tried to do things on our own, too. Without God’s help, we wouldn’t have made it this far.

  16. Eric Purse says:

    Praise God Franklin, We aren’t that much different in our early lives and most men have a similar testimony. My Prayer is God gives us Wisdom and Strength to reach even more before the Hoof Beats get to loud and overtake. God Bless Brother.

  17. Carol says:

    Wishing you a blessed birthday. Thank you for everything that you do to help people. When I was growing up, every time your Dad, Billy Graham had a crusade on TV, my parents made me watch the sermon and I am so glad that they did. My Dad also flew an airplane. Single engine Cherokee Piper. They both have passed on. Almost 20 years for my Mom and 16 years for my Dad. But, one day I will see them again. Thank you once again and Happy Birthday.

  18. Matthew Zigler says:

    What a testimonial. Praise the Lord! Glory to my Heavenly Father. I can also relate to this. God is awesome! I love you to the entire Family for there service for souls to be saved.

  19. Maria Thomas says:

    I pray for Franklin, his family and co-workers and I’m thankful for His leadership in bringing our nation to prayer and repentance and believe through those prayers God has given us leaders to bring us back to One Nation under God. And knowing his past as a prodigal gives me hope for God’s purpose for my prodigal. God bless Franklin Graham.

  20. Sandra Hartman says:

    I love reading about Franklin it reminds me of myself until I realize I was tired and wants what my Christian sister and father had. Happy Birthday brother in Christ

  21. Theodore Glenn Williams,MD says:

    I’m so glad that Billy Graham has always been a part of my life and that I have had the privilege to attend several conferences at The Cove!! I felt as though I was in HEAVEN!!!

  22. Jane Park says:

    Happy Birthday to dear Mr. Frank Graham!
    May God bless him richly in all he does for God in this world.

    Love in Christ,Jane Park

    Ps,I heard the first sermon from Mr.Billy Graham at Pusan,South Korea during the Korean War. I was in medical School at that time.
    I am thankful to our Lord God for being a believer in Jesus Christ.
    I have been spiritually edified through BGEA and their programs and messages and the books since I came to USA.
    I am so thank to God for this old age (87 year old) to see Mr.Frank Graham’s 65th Birthday! Surely God’s hands were
    on his youth,because I have the books written by Mrs Ruth Graham ,so I know all about his youth! Also there were many
    episodes with his Grandfather Dr Nelson.

  23. Janet says:

    Happy Birthday Franklin! I thank God for your love and dedication to God and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Through the work you do, souls are being saved all over the world. May God bless you and your family as you continue to seek out and save lost.

  24. Janet says:

    Happy Birthday Franklin! I thank God for your love and dedication to God and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Through the work you do, souls are being saved all over the world. May God bless you and your family as you continue to seek out and save those who are lost.

  25. joyce nelson says:

    Happy Birthday Franklin Graham. Glad to see you are continuing working with The Billy Graham Association. God bless you in all you do.

  26. Sandra says:

    I am so thankful to the entire Graham family, they have been a constant Christian companion through out my life with Jesus Christ. I went to my first Billy Graham revival in the 1960’s and knew then that I wanted to spend my eternity with God. All Praises and Glory to God who loved us first!

  27. Carolyn Bugg Butler says:

    Great life story for the son of a great Evangelist who has become a great Evangelist himself! I thank God every day for your father’s life of service to God and for you and your entire family’s life of service to God in helping to bring relief to those who are hurting and working to bring sinners home to Jesus. My prayer is that God will bring more people like you and your family into his fold to witness for Jesus-thank be to God!!

  28. Alan Ferullo says:

    Thankyou .I am 60 yrs old and read The Rebel with a cause many years ago.I have been blessed and been able to serve the Lord on a few missions trips.I respect Franklin very much in all he is doing,What I love the most is at every oppertunity he gets either a one hr interview or one min. He always shares the gospel.Thankyou again and may the Lord continue to bless you.

  29. Don Bailey says:

    Franklin’s story is an illustration of God’s patience in bringing a recalcitrant person to himself. Thank God for a precious mother who knew just how to handle Franklin.
    Amazed at how Franklin can handle so much going on in so many parts of the world. How wonderful that he learned how to fly!
    He and Jane also have a terrific family. Will is the next one to step up and preach in the Graham tradition. I pray for him every day.

  30. Donald R Clamser Sr says:

    Thank You for your continuing to do the work you do to keep the
    BGA doing the work of bring people to the Knowledge and Love of Jesus Christ. May God continue to Bless You and your Father.

  31. Bunny Luensman says:

    So proud of the man Franklin has become. It was watching his dad on TV that I gave my heart to the Lord many years ago. I went to Columbus last year to hear Franklin encourage us to pray for America! The Lord is so good!

  32. wanda karr says:

    I am so thankful I signed on to Billy Graham email some time ago. I have been to the Retreat Library where they conduct trainings. It is beautiful
    Thanks for the wonderful information, I can sit here and read in my own home.Wanda Karr

  33. Carolyn Cantrell says:

    This article gives me hope for my grandson, who was once a believer but now says because of what he has learned from science, he now thinks all of his believing came from us telling him what to believe.
    I pray that God will bring him back to his senses before it is to late, he has already had two friends, one that lost his life to drugs and one to suicide.
    Please pray with me for him.
    In Jesus Name, Carolyn

  34. Harvey says:

    Pray for him and both organizations everyday, keep up the great work that God is blessing in so many ways!!

  35. Robert Abbott says:

    I had the pleasure of meeting your father when I worked with the Mike Douglas Show in Philadelphia. Thank you for following in your father’s footsteps, and “Happy Birthday”.
    .

  36. Joyce Brazell says:

    It was interesting to hear the story of Franklin Graham growing up. I had no idea he was a rebellious child. Our youngest son went through this in his younger years and when God finally got a hold of him it was amazing. I know all things can be done through Christ who gives us strength. We just have to trust!! I thank God for the Billy Graham MInistry!! Thank you all so very much for all you do!! To God be the glory!!

  37. Ernest Franklin says:

    I’ve been to two of Billy Grahams crusades and saw Franklin for the first time at Promise Keepers at the Redskins stadium. I’ve enjoyed putting shoe boxes together for several years. I’ve also been to the Billy Graham library. In June of 2015 we had to move to Gallatin TN to be much closer to our children. Very sadly, we can no longer work for Franklin Graham anyone. We’re very thankful that we had an opportunity to meet Franklin Graham the last time we worked on the shoe boxes!

  38. Dorie says:

    I love Billy Graham and admire his family. I thank God for them.

  39. Carolyn says:

    Happy Birthday Brother Franklin! All that you do & support around this nation & around the world brings Glory to His name! My mothers house was flooded two years ago in Texas & Samatians Purse showed up & helped. Without their love & support & weeks of endless labor it would have been hopeless. The love of Christ runs to the people in need & that is what your organization has given to millions of people day after day, year after year. I pray that you & your volunteers will know the fruits of your labor as you grow closer to our Lord & Savior & that He will give you the strength to carry on.

  40. Joyce Bross says:

    Such a beautiful story, God bless Franklin Graham and all of the Billy Graham family for being true to God and being such an inspiration. Thank you all and may God bless and protect you all from the enemy.

  41. Susan Reddy says:

    May God bless this family through all their missions to help others and live a very blessed family union. A very happy birthday to you Franklin. 😀

  42. Eugene R. DeHoogh says:

    Dear Franklin,
    I praise the Lord for your testimony and the way you openly share how the Lord has had His way in your life. I have read many of the books of your father, and have attended several of his Crusades—was blessed in shaking his hand in the one which took place in Sioux Falls, SD. I served on the committee and prayed with many for that Crusade. I am so blessed what you are doing around the world, and I especially praise the Lord how you went to every state last year to encourage America to vote, get involved, and pray for America. I will continue to pray for the Billy Graham Association of Evangelism and tell others of your faithful work.
    Gratefully,
    Eugene R. DeHoogh

  43. Lorraine Eckhardt says:

    Dear Believers, I so appreciate the Grahams and their ministry to the world. I could never have done what you all have done and I thank God for your willingness to serve and introduce thousands of people to Jesus Christ. With joy, I read your weakly letters and find great love in my heart for what you all do. It has also been a great pleasure to fill a shoebox for children around the world many times.. God has done a lot of inner healing in me and I find that I am much more able to share Christ here and there. Happy Birthday and grace and peace as you follow God’s leading. My prayers are with you. Sometimes God has special ways and work with people who started out rebelious. They often.have a more tender heart toward God.

  44. Tony says:

    Thank you so much for your wonderful testimony. I can truly say that there is hope out there for my son as we speak. Not quite as a Franklin Graham used to be, but far from the Lord in general. I continue to pray that one day he will see the light like you did!

    God Bless and Happy Birthday!

Subscribe to Library E-News

Subscribe to Library E-News