We got our first black-and-white television sometime around the time I was four years old. Television was quite the novelty for our family, and it didn’t get turned on unless there was something in particular we wanted to watch. I remember Saturday morning westerns on television in particular, and a few selected weeknight programs that aired after my homework was finished and before my 8:30 pm bedtime. My father liked to watch the evening news on television, but he was always very conscious of my presence in the room, and would turn off the television set if the news included something he didn’t think I should be exposed to as a young child. I was a very sensitive little girl, tenderhearted to the core, and my parents were always careful to protect me from things that were frightening or threatening to me.
Also in our home was my grandmother, who lived with us until her death after I was grown and married. Granny was a Bible toting, Hell and Brimstone devout Southern Baptist, who believed that because we were Methodists, we were in dire need of salvation. She was an odd duck, to put it mildly, who picked and chose her favorites among her grandchildren, and who could be very cruel to those who weren’t on her “favorites” list. She never quite approved of me, but for some reason I didn’t get the brunt of her very strange personality as my sister and some of my cousins did. As sensitive as I was as a child, it’s a wonder that she didn’t mar me for life.
With all this said, there was something that happened when I was about nine years old that had to do with a combination of Granny, her strict religious beliefs, and our black-and-white television, which at the time seemed relatively tame, as far as I was concerned. I guess it was the perfect storm aimed at little Jennie Lou.
It was a Billy Graham crusade. I think it must have been the first one aired on network television. Granny was exuberant in anticipation of watching the crusade on our tv. She listened to his radio program religiously, and sent him money whenever she had a little extra to spare from her babysitting jobs. She convinced Daddy that we all needed to watch the broadcast. I am sure that she believed that we would be saved and would see the error of our Methodist ways. I didn’t know what to expect.
I was a little girl that night—only nine years old. I had been brought up to this point in my young life learning about Jesus and his teaching, believing that God is Love and that Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. My faith was that of a child, simple and true. Looking back at that night, I don’t remember any specific details about watching the crusade service, but I recall the music—hymns I knew from the Methodist church—which were beautiful. What I do remember is Billy Graham at the pulpit preaching, and how his voice and way of talking fascinated me. I was mesmerized, at first. Then terrified. He got louder and louder, began waving his arms into the air, holding up his Bible with one hand, and pounding on it with the other. I’m sure his sermon was typical of an evangelistic camp meeting of the time, but to me it was the opposite of inspiring. It scared me to death. I began to fidget, and Granny sternly instructed me to sit still and listen to what Billy Graham had to say.
I started silently crying, tears rolling down my face, afraid to move from my spot on the sofa next to Granny. She was loving it, and it appeared that my parents were also paying close attention to Billy Graham’s sermon. My feelings of fear grew and grew, until I jumped up from the sofa and ran to my room, slamming the door behind me. I sprang onto my bed, pulled the covers up around me and sobbed like there was no tomorrow.
My mother followed me to my room, and quietly sat down at the edge of my bed. I folded up into her warm and loving arms and buried my face into her soft and cushiony bosom. She finally got enough out of me to learn that Billy Graham had truly frightened me, although to this day I don’t recall exactly what he said that sent me over the edge. I only know that I was afraid that I was going to die and go to Hell, and that I might not wake up in the morning. I also remember not understanding what it meant to be saved, and he had said that if I weren’t saved, I would spend eternity separated from God and Jesus in eternal fire and agony. I loved Jesus. I had a print of him holding a lamb hanging over my bed, which comforted me and made me feel close to him. Why was Billy Graham saying that I wasn’t good enough?
I don’t remember what my mother said to me that night. I only remember her arms wrapped around my small body and her soft voice reassuring me that I was loved and that nothing bad was going to happen to me. She sat with me until I fell asleep, a habit that continued for quite some time after that night, because I was afraid that if I fell asleep, I would die and never see my family again.
The Billy Graham Crusade was banned from our home television viewing after that night, much to my grandmother’s objections. Later, when I became a teenager, she would watch the crusades on television when they aired, but I always stayed in my bedroom, refusing to watch.
I was confirmed into the church when I was eleven years old, and when I was sixteen, I dedicated my life to Christ. Even then, I was still somewhat afraid of Billy Graham. As an adult, I worked up the courage to watch one of his crusades on television and puzzled over what had frightened me so intensely that night when I was nine. It is something I’ve never quite understood or come to grips with.
As I write about this childhood memory, I do so within a week of Billy Graham’s death. Reading about his passing and his life and watching commentaries about him have brought this all back into my mind. I am in awe of the man, his great faith, his calling to preach the Gospel to the world, and his lifelong dedication to God and to saving souls for Christ. He did more in his life to bring people to God than I could ever imagine doing in mine.
It makes me wonder, however, what it was that frightened me so many years ago when I was watching him and listening to him preach on our little black-and-white television set. I wish I knew. It would make it so much easier for me to reconcile what I know about Billy Graham’s life and ministry with what I experienced as a child in the living room of my home. Why didn’t his message bring me to my knees at the altar in confession and salvation as it did for so many people over the course of his lifetime? What was it that terrified me? I was a child of God then, growing in my faith, and walking the path of redemption and salvation in my own little life. What was it that frightened me so terribly?
In my collection of days, the day this nine-year-old watched the Billy Graham crusade on television was a significant one in my life, and one that left an imprint that has stayed with me all these years. As a Christian, it also leaves me without a clear understanding or answer about this memory, pondering why I feel the need to record it now in my writing.
As his followers mourn his passing, as people line up to pay their final respects to him, and as accolades are proclaimed about his life and ministry, I find myself with more questions than answers. I know that there is much rejoicing in Heaven over Billy Graham’s arrival into God’s kingdom, but I can’t forget the little girl in Georgia who was afraid to go to sleep at night.
What is the message in all of this for me? I don’t know. I wish I did.