Growing Up With Billy Graham

By   •   January 28, 2014

the fords

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.”

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  1. Jane Geraldo says:

    Thank God for His awesome grace and presence on His servant.

  2. julie fischer says:

    What a lovely glimpse into your older brother’s life. Thank you for sharing. What a blessing he has been to the world!!

  3. Senyonga Simon says:

    All these years and his teachings still align me in my Christian life

  4. Sue says:

    Yes, as it has been said many times, the family that prays together, stays together , I still like to listen to Billy Graham’s sermons on TBN. God bless

  5. Joan Moore says:

    I love to hear about Billy Graham’s family.

  6. Alfred Yaqub says:

    Amazing discussion. I am inspired by reading about such simple attitudes that our beloved Rev. Billy Graham practiced. His kind of leadership touches us so truly. Lord be with him in this age and continue the vision that he holds to this day.

  7. Irene Egan says:

    I thank our Lord God for His Generals – such as Billy Graham & those before him, for their obedience to God. The Lord has blessed us through such poeple as Bill Graham. I give God thanks.

  8. Kim Wikenheiser says:


  9. Phyllis Gebauer says:

    My husband and I went to Wheaton to hear Billy preach many years ago. We were very young parents but high school sweethearts and we both thought we were Christians but not really sure of our salvation. We could not get in to the crusade as we were late and it was full. Someone directed us to a very small church on the campus of Wheaton College and there were only a few seats left in the choir loft. Leighton was preaching and we felt God tug at our hearts to go forward and accept Christ. We both walked to the alter and from then on we knew we were His. We will be married 60 years this coming August and praise the Lord for bringing us to him and helping us raise our seven children to love the Lord.

  10. Sara Mills says:

    If we had someone like Billy to do evangelism today this world may not be in the condition it’s in right now. He’ll always be my favorite pastor! Only once did I have the privilege to attend one of his crusades.