Jean Graham Ford — Billy Graham’s younger sister — and her husband, Leighton, recently sat on a discussion panel during a conference at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Charlotte, N.C. campus. The conference, titled “Billy Graham and Modern Evangelism,” explored the ministry and legacy of Billy Graham. During their portion of the conference, the Fords candidly shared memories from a more personal perspective.
The Grahams at Home: Faith, Family and Farming
Jean Graham Ford began the panel discussion by describing her life as a Graham, growing up on a dairy farm in Charlotte, N.C. The family was important, and so was the farm. But, as she put it, faith took top priority: “We grew up in a very committed Christian home. We had prayer every day. No matter what we were doing, we would stop when it was time to pray. That means mother would read the Scripture, and Daddy would pray.”
Jean’s mother, Morrow Graham, went to college and taught piano. Ford describes her mother as “very sophisticated to be a farmer’s wife.”
She also spoke of the admiration she had for her father, William. “Daddy was wonderful and gentle, kind, soft-spoken. And Mother believed in the man being the head of the house, but she would ‘practice’ (being the head). Mother was the ‘boss!’”
Billy Graham: The Brother, the Preacher
Jean recalled that she was five years old the first time she heard her oldest brother—“Billy Frank” as the family called him—preach. The thing she remembers most about that event: She covered her ears because she thought his voice was too loud.
During the Los Angeles revival of 1949, Jean was in college. She may have covered her ears to his preaching as a child, but now the rest of the world began to open theirs to hear his message. In the process, it became surreal to her to see his name throughout various newspapers.
“My brother is wonderful. He’s sweet, and he’s kind. He has my father’s personality, and he has my mother’s drive,” she said of her older brother. “God put those two things together to make him who he is. And why God chose to use him is still a mystery.”
God even used her brother to introduce her to Leighton, her husband of 60 years.
“He met Leighton way before I met him. Billy came home and told me he met this wonderful ‘kid’ from Canada. I later met him, we fell in love, and I got him to propose,” she quipped.
Jean then shared a funny memory from her wedding, officiated by Billy Graham: “He had not done many weddings. He doesn’t even like to do weddings. During the ceremony, he said, ‘Now that Jean and Leighton have exchanged wings…’ And then my other brother Melvin laughed out loud. We still tease them about that all the time, because he has rarely made a mistake speaking.”
Billy Graham: The Leader
Under Billy Graham’s leadership, Leighton was an associate evangelist with BGEA for 30 years. Of all the things he could recall of Billy Graham’s leadership style were his consistency and his humility.
“Billy has been like an arrowhead—he has kept the sharp, cutting edge of the gospel. He is also a life-long learner—he kept asking questions. I heard him say one time to someone else in ministry, ‘You can probably teach me a lot.’ And that man was 40 years younger than Billy. That is a picture of the humility that is often spoken of concerning him.”
It was out of this humility, as both Fords describe, that God used Billy Graham to accomplish many things for God’s Kingdom.
Leighton told of a time when Billy asked him to begin alternating Sunday preaching on the radio program, Hour of Decision: “He was not one to tell me what I had to preach or how I had to preach. Left it as my decision, however the Lord guided.”
Jean shared similar sentiments on her brother’s leadership style, and believes any leader could takes some cues from him.
“I am intrigued that he’s done all that he has done without being any kind of a micro-manager. Never once did he tell someone how to do something. He just told them what needed to be done and let them do it,” she explained.
“And most importantly, he would pray for them.”