Henry Holley, Longtime Billy Graham Crusade Director and WWII Veteran, Dies at 92

By   •   May 3, 2020

Henry Holley served on Billy Graham's Crusade team for more than 45 years. Here, the two friends stand together in Seoul, South Korea, at a Crusade in 1973. Behind them are 1.1 million people who came to see the closing service.

Henry Holley, who led many of Billy Graham’s most historic Crusades, went to be with Jesus on Saturday evening at the age of 92.

Holley was a young Marine and already a veteran of two wars when he met Billy Graham in the summer of 1960. That summer, Holley worked at the Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C., during the day; in the evening, he helped a friend plan Billy Graham’s National Capitol Crusade.

The week-long Crusade in June drew more than 300,000 people to Washington to hear the evangelist preach the Good News of Jesus Christ. At the end of the week, Mr. Graham told Holley he had heard good things about his work. So good, in fact, that Mr. Graham wanted to offer him a position with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

It was the beginning of a friendship and ministry partnership that would last for many decades. For one Crusade after another, Holley served faithfully behind the scenes, planning and organizing Mr. Graham’s largest international events. Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong, Tokyo—Holley brought his God-given gifts and leadership skills from city to city, helping millions of people hear the lifesaving message of salvation through Christ. But if there’s one moment that embodies Holley’s legacy, it’s Billy Graham’s Crusade in Seoul, Korea, in 1973.

The Man Behind Billy Graham’s Largest Crusade

Henry and his wife, Bettie, spent more than a year in Seoul to prepare for the Crusade, hoping and praying that God would draw the Korean people to the love of Christ. When it came time for the multi-day event, the Holleys were not disappointed. An estimated 3.2 million people attended the Seoul Crusade.

An aerial view of the 1973 Billy Graham Crusade in Seoul, South Korea.

On the final day, 1.1 million people traveled, mostly by foot, to an old airstrip at Yoido Plaza. It was the largest live audience Billy Graham ever addressed. Nearly 50 years later, BGEA continues to hear from Koreans whose lives were changed by that event, including the children and grandchildren of people who invited Jesus into their lives during the Crusade.

“Reverend Henry Holley is one of the giants, historically, of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association,” said BGEA Vice President Tom Phillips, who worked alongside Mr. Holley for many years. “He was an incredible diplomat for Jesus who led the ministry in Asia, eventually singlehandedly developing the greatest Crusade ever organized by Billy Graham.”

“I was honored to be one of those who stood in his shadow and grew in the light of his incredible Biblical supervision, partnership, and ministry together, especially throughout Asia,” Phillips said. “He will be greatly missed, but he has laid a foundation for the present and future work of Franklin Graham and the BGEA.”

Off to War at 17

Holley was a teenager in Houston, Texas, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

“The next day, December the 8th, every boy in our high school went down to the recruiting office,” Holley told the Marietta Daily Journal in Georgia a couple of years ago. “We were determined to sign up and get into the fray, and we were disappointed when we found out that you had to be 17 to enlist. And then you had to have your mama’s consent.”

Holley had to wait two more years. When he was 17 and had graduated from high school, he enlisted with the U.S. Marine Corps with his mother’s permission. It was the start of a 24-year career of service.

Towards the end of World War II, Holley was sent to the northern part of China, to what is now Beijing. After years of Japanese occupation, the locals who had survived the horrors of war were overjoyed to see American troops.

“The Chinese people welcomed us warmly, and God planted a love in my heart for that part of the world,” Holley told Decision magazine back in 2008.

After serving in WWII and Korea, Master Sgt. Holley retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 1966.

The Blind Date That Almost Wasn’t

When he returned to the U.S. after the war, Holley was stationed in Dallas. That’s where he met the love of his life on a blind date. And it almost didn’t happen. Holley was planning to go to a movie with a young woman named Bettie, at the suggestion of some mutual friends. It was 1948.

“Bettie agreed, but then coming toward the weekend, Bettie got cold feet!” Henry recalled many years later.

Worried about the idea of going on a date with a Marine she’d never met, Bettie told her mother she was going to cancel.

“I said, ‘I’m not going on this date tonight,’” Bettie recalled. Her mother responded, “Young lady, you gave your word to your friend that you would go. You must keep your word to your friend.”

Bettie kept her word. Only a couple of months later, Henry proposed. They were married for 67 years, until Bettie passed away in 2016. Long after her death, her husband knew the exact number of days he had spent without her.

Bettie and Henry Holley in 1949.

‘Commitment Is Forever’

In 2014, the couple sat down with BGEA to talk about their long and beautiful love story.

“I love him with everlasting love, and it gets better every day … if it could,” Bettie said, adding that she had “about reached the top of the ladder” of how much a human could love someone else.

Henry and Bettie Holley were married for 67 years, until Bettie went to be with Jesus in 2016.

Henry, who called his wife “Miss America” and his “beloved,” said their marriage vows were a sacred and holy commitment—a covenant with God and one another.

“Commitment is forever. There are no exceptions,” Henry said. “When I married Bettie, I made three commitments: to provide, to protect and to love her forever.”

Together, they raised three children—Nancy, Debbie and Hank. At one time, the family lived in Montreat, North Carolina, when Henry worked at Billy Graham’s office there. They later settled in Marietta, Georgia, where they were actively involved with Johnson Ferry Baptist Church for decades. Henry and Bettie had grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even great-great grandchildren.

‘A True Servant of God’

Bettie was often by Henry’s side as he traveled the world with BGEA, from Billy Graham’s historic Crusades to Franklin Graham’s largest Festivals, held decades later in places like Hong Kong and Manila.

“Henry Holley was a role model to the Crusade team,” said BGEA Vice President of Crusade Ministries Viktor Hamm. “He was a dear friend, a mentor and a prayer partner. He knew how to encourage, how to lead and how to get things done. His love for the Lord, his wife Bettie, evangelism and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was profound. He was a Marine Master Sergeant, but to us he was a four-star General.”

Henry Holley
Master Sgt. Henry Holley served in World War II and in the Korean War. Several years ago, he led a prayer at the first Veterans Breakfast at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Those who knew Mr. Holley described a tall, lean man with a commanding presence and a great sense of humor. Gary Lundstrom, international vice president of BGEA and disaster relief ministry Samaritan’s Purse, met Mr. Holley in 1986. Lundstrom traveled extensively with the Holleys over the years.

“Henry was larger than life,” Lundstrom said. “He walked with the dignity and honor of a Marine, yet he was a true servant of God.”

Making History in North Korea

Lundstrom pointed out Mr. Holley’s role in helping BGEA to develop relationships with countries that initially seemed out of reach—most notably, China and North Korea. In Billy Graham’s autobiography, Just As I Am, the evangelist described the day he first began to pursue a visit to North Korea.

Henry Holley and I were talking in Hong Kong a few days after the Crusade there in November 1990. He had worked for us in Asia for many years and had directed many of our Crusades there. He too felt a special closeness to Korea, partly from his time there as a master sergeant in the U.S. Marines. We were discussing a number of invitations we had in Asia.

“Where can we go next?” I asked Henry.

“You have been practically everywhere in the world, except one place,” he said to me, sharing a burden he’d had for many years. “This place I have prayed for because of my love of the region.”

I asked him where it was, and he said North Korea.

We talked about whether a visit to North Korea would be possible, and he said he believed we could find an opening.

After more than a year, countless prayers and many meetings between Holley and government officials in the U.S. and North Korea, the opening appeared.

Billy Graham’s 1992 visit to North Korea made history and international news headlines. The evangelist who had come to be known as “God’s Ambassador” had the unprecedented opportunity to preach the Gospel inside the only two churches in the country. Mr. Graham also delivered messages to Kim II Sung from President George H.W. Bush and Pope John Paul II.

Holley was there, witnessing the historic events the Lord had allowed him to orchestrate behind the scenes.

Lundstrom wryly noted one of Holley’s lesser-known accomplishments: “Henry had the honor of being the first American citizen to send a fax from North Korea to the U.S. State Department.”

The Only Accolade That Matters

Between his military service and his groundbreaking work with BGEA, Henry Holley received his share of accolades during his 92 years of life. But as Gary Lundstrom looked back at the extraordinary life of his friend and mentor, a short Bible verse came to mind: Matthew 25:23—the words Jesus will say to those who lived their lives for Him.

“A real simple thought that comes to mind is what I fully expect him to have heard when he crossed into Heaven,” Lundstrom said. “‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”

Henry Holley, Ruth Graham, Billy Graham, and Bettie Holley, at the 1975 Crusade in Taipei, Taiwan.