I was nine when I was saved by the Rev. Billy Graham. I was spending the summer of 1956 in my family’s beach house in Ocean Grove, N.J., two blocks from the beach and a five minute walk from Asbury Park, the amusement park.
Though we were in a resort town on the Jersey shore, Ocean Grove is also a Methodist camp meeting community, where Bible study and religious training are serious endeavors. Every August, the town would hold its camp meetings, which involved daily religious training and evangelical preachers offering their version of Hell, fire and brimstone. Our home church, in ritzy Great Neck, N.Y., was nondenominational Protestant, but my parents recognized that Billy Graham was a big deal, and so took us to hear him preach in the great hall when he came to town.
The Ocean Grove Auditorium seated upward of 10,000 people. My younger brother and I ended up in the balcony apart from my parents and sisters. But once we were settled, I found myself captivated by the speaker.
He was talking about how we were all sinners, every one of us, and that we were doomed to eternal pain and sorrow. But, he said, we could be forgiven and saved if we would just accept Jesus Christ as our savior.
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I was impressed enough to think that maybe that was a decision I should make. And then he called on those who wished to be saved to come forward to join with him in prayer.
As I peered down at the crowd forming a queue, I thought I saw my father among them. My father, at that point in my life, was my hero. On the spot, I got up with hundreds of others and went down the stairs to the main floor.
We were ushered to an adjoining chapel where scores of ministers were waiting to meet with each of us. A young one was assigned to me, and he asked what my denomination was. I told him I wasn’t of any denomination, but that I was a Protestant. That seemed to confuse him, but he let it pass and prayed with me.
As I walked home alone after the service, I felt serenely happy, as if I had somehow found a part of myself I hadn’t known before. When I got home and told my parents what had happened, my mother hugged me. Later, after I had gone to bed, my father came into my room.
It turned out he was not the man I thought I had seen; he had not gone to the front. But he told me I had done something very special, something I would always remember. I stayed “saved,” for the next ten years.
Years later, when Billy Graham was more a legend than a real person, he came to Sacramento, and my wife and I took our sons, then in their early teens, to one of his services. By then I viewed him more as a caricature than as the man who had given me that sense of euphoria all those years before.
Faith, I have learned, is a bit of a trick you allow your mind to play on yourself. It’s an easy leap when you are just a child. Only later do you realize it also requires surrendering your intellect to a make-believe world.
We are all afraid of many things, death and what comes after it very possibly being the prime among them. Faith in a power greater than what we can see or know is reassuring, especially if that power offers us rapturous joy in a life after death and serenity in the here and now.
That was Billy Graham’s message, and he delivered it for more than 70 years – until his death last week at the age of 99 – with a conviction that only the best salespersons can match. He said in his later years that he welcomed his own death with the knowledge that he would then rest in the house of God.
I have no reason to doubt that he held that belief, just as a little boy of nine did all those years ago.
Edward H. Telfeyan is a professor at the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.