On the eve of his 97th birthday Saturday, Charlotte-born evangelist Billy Graham is the subject of a big new exhibit at the N.C. Museum of History. It celebrates his life and Christian message – and airbrushes out any hint of the controversies, including his coziness with President Richard Nixon, that left occasional stains on his career.
“North Carolina’s Favorite Son: Billy Graham and His Remarkable Journey of Faith” opens Friday and will be on display through July 10, 2016. There is no admission charge.
Though it occupies 5,000 square feet in Gallery D at the state museum in downtown Raleigh, the $300,000 exhibit is essentially a production of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. The Charlotte-based Christian group also raised the money to mount it from private donations.
Graham’s oldest son, Franklin, an evangelist who heads the BGEA, made it clear at a media preview Thursday that he hopes the exhibit will expose many young people, including schoolchildren, to the life story and Christian faith of Billy Graham – a figure an increasing number of them have never heard of.
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“Another generation (will) be able to come and see what God can do with your life, for any life that says yes to Jesus Christ,” the younger Graham told reporters before a tour of the exhibit. “It’s an opportunity to let them see what God did with a farmboy in rural North Carolina – Mecklenburg County – (who was) raised on a dairy farm ... (and see) that God could pick and touch somebody like that and use them to go around the world to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The museum had 421,184 visitors, many of them students and their teachers, in the fiscal year that ended June 30. On Thursday, 30 school groups – with about 1,000 students – were scheduled to tour the various exhibits, which cover everything from the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame to a military history of the Tar Heel State.
Ken Howard, director of the state history museum, said the Graham exhibit will be one of the options for school groups that generally spend about 45 minutes inside. “It’s really up to the teacher as to which exhibit he or she takes the students through,” Howard said.
Nixon controversy left out
The exhibit traces the elder Graham’s life and career with photos, film footage, memorabilia and interactive features. It lingers on his boyhood in Charlotte, the 1949 crusade in Los Angeles that made him a national celebrity, his stand against segregation in the South and apartheid in South Africa, his crusades in North Carolina cities and around the globe, and his meetings with world leaders.
Among the personal memorabilia on display: one of Graham’s preaching Bibles, opened up to Matthew’s Gospel, with extensive scribbled notes from the evangelist.
One surprise: Graham’s record as a “pastor to presidents” is limited to one podium adorned with a presidential seal and topped with a scrapbooklike collection of photos and quotes from 11 Republican and Democratic presidents. Some of them sought spiritual counsel – and even public support for controversial policies – from the world-famous evangelist who routinely finished in the Gallup Poll’s annual list of most admired men.
From Ronald Reagan: “It was through Billy Graham that I found myself praying even more than on a daily basis.” The book also quotes a note to Graham from Lyndon Johnson, whose Vietnam War policy Graham publicly defended: “My mind went back to those lonely occasions at the White House when your friendship helped to sustain a president in an hour of trial.”
There’s no quote from Nixon, and the photo of him with Graham and wife Ruth Graham predates his time as president. The evangelist was a frequent visitor to the White House in those days and a stalwart supporter almost to the end of Nixon’s scandal-plagued administration. Years later, Graham apologized after the release of Oval Office tapes that recorded him agreeing with Nixon’s anti-Semitic comments.
The BGEA’s Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, which opened in 2007 and has attracted just shy of 1 million visitors, is modeled after presidential museums. But Billy and Franklin Graham have both said they consider the library off Billy Graham Parkway to be a bricks-and-mortar extension of their worldwide Christian ministry.
The Raleigh exhibit puts more emphasis on the elder Graham’s connection to his native North Carolina, with wall-size photos of his crusades in Charlotte over the years. But the last part of the exhibit does showcase the BGEA and invites museum visitors interested in making a decision for Christ to visit a website, take a pamphlet or visit a nearby kiosk to learn more.
“The message of the Gospel is timeless, but our lives on this earth are not,” a sign reads. “Have you made a decision for Christ? If you have not, or if you are not sure, please visit peacewithgod.net.”
When asked whether he was sensitive to the boundary separating church and state, Franklin Graham pointed out that private donations, not taxpayer funds, were used to develop and produce the exhibit. He added that the story of his father, who has been close to presidents and other world leaders, “is an important part of North Carolina’s history.”
Howard said museum staffers reviewed all of the museum’s content and “we kind of steered them to being a little more generic than maybe you would get if you went to the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte. Because our focus was on the life of Billy Graham, not just on the ministry. So I think, to me, it’s a good blend. You obviously can’t tell the story of his life without addressing the ministry.”
Asked about the last part of the exhibit inviting patrons to consider a decision for Jesus, Howard said “I think it’s okay. It’s not overly done. Nobody’s standing there pressing you like at the (Billy Graham) library.”
Addressed to GOD’S MAN
Howard also said that all of the museum’s exhibits are privately funded these days. “Our state budget only covers salaries and lights and those things,” he said.
This will not be the first exhibit with strong religious content at the state history museum. It also featured “"Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina,” an exhibit chronicling the history of Jews in North Carolina. That was a project of the Jewish Heritage Foundation of North Carolina.
Among the things visitors to the Billy Graham exhibit will see and hear:
▪ Flash cards Graham’s wife, Ruth, used to quiz their five children on Scripture. “How many people were in Noah’s Ark?” read one, while another asked the kids to “Name the last book of the Bible.”
▪ A Depression-era ice box that, when opened, produces an audio recording of Graham’s mother saying that Billy’s favorite dessert was lemon pie.
▪ The Charlotte Coliseum marquee, from 1972, that advertised upcoming events. “Billy Graham Crusade 5-9. Wrestling 10. Elvis Presley 13. Ice Hockey 11 & 14.”
▪ Envelopes for letters sent to Graham from around the world. One from England was addressed to “Mr. Billy Graham, ‘Evangelist,’ Who lives somewhere in America USA.” Another from 1988 was addressed to simply “GOD’S MAN, Minnesota, U.S.A.”
▪ Video footage of Graham appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon. Speaking of heaven, Graham told Carson, “I’m going there because of what Christ did for me on the cross. ... I’m a sinner. Just like you and Ed.” Carson’s reaction to being called a sinner gets his audience roaring with laughter.
Howard, the museum’s director, said the idea for the Graham exhibit was born after the state legislature voted in 2013 to officially name the evangelist “North Carolina’s Favorite Son.” A group of Graham supporters in Raleigh approached the museum, he said.
For the museum, the exhibit is a chance to attract people who have never been to the facility. Franklin Graham, for example, visited for the first time this week. The museum is widely marketing the exhibit, Howard said, with an emphasis on churches and church schools.
Will Billy Graham himself get to see the exhibit?
“I really doubt it,” said Tom Phillips, executive director of the Billy Graham Library and one of the speakers Thursday. “He knows about it. He’s encouraged about the message going out. But physically he’s not able.”
An earlier version of this article had the incorrect title of the exhibition on Jewish life in North Carolina and gave the incorrect title of the organization that sponsored it.
Want to go?
“North Carolina’s Favorite Son: Billy Graham and His Remarkable Journey of Faith,” a new exhibit at the N.C. Museum of History, opens Friday. It will be on display through July 10, 2016.
There is no admission charge.
The museum, at 5 East Edenton St. in downtown Raleigh, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Details: ncmuseumofhistory.org