The Lord worked in mysterious ways for Billy Graham in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
The story comes with many twists, and a gumbo of religious flavors.
It centers on two lions of American culture who owned large estates near Charleston. They took notice when the dashing young evangelist roared into Columbia for this first crusade the Deep South 68 years ago this week.
Their blessing helped Graham — who died Wednesday at age 99 — rise from the sawdust trail of tents and faith healers to a minister embracing the world’s most powerful people.
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One of the lions was Bernard Baruch, a South Carolina native who made his first million on Wall Street at age 30 and was an adviser to every president from Woodrow Wilson to John F. Kennedy. Baruch was Jewish; his wife and children were Episcopalian. Graham was neither.
Baruch tipped his Lowcountry neighbor, Time magazine founder Henry R. Luce, that he should put a reporter on Graham. Luce listened, perhaps because he was the son of a Presbyterian missionaries and his wife, Clare Boothe Luce, a devout Roman Catholic. Adding to her role in this drama, she also was a playwright, Republican member of Congress, ambassador — and a paramour of Baruch.
All of them knew a good show when they saw it.
Graham came to Columbia hot off his first two crusades, in Los Angeles and Boston, where he was an instant hit.
At the time, Baruch was staying at his sprawling Hobcaw Barony plantation near Georgetown, where his friends FDR and Winston Churchill came to relax.
The State newspaper in Columbia was printing Graham’s sermons each day, and Baruch wasn’t missing a word.
His fateful words to Luce, who owned Mepkin Plantation in Moncks Corner were these:
“There’s a young fellow down here that’s not only preaching some good religion, but he’s giving some good common sense.”
Luce didn’t leave it to a reporter.
He went to Columbia to see for himself.
Time’s Atlanta bureau chief picked him up in Charleston and made arrangements for Luce to meet Billy and Ruth Graham. They were staying with then-Gov. Strom Thurmond at the Governors Mansion.
The man who founded Time, Life, Fortune and Sports Illustrated magazines — helping set the mind of America — was so warmly welcomed by Thurmond that he had to eventually tell him he’d heard all he wanted to know about South Carolina.
But for several nights, Luce and Graham stayed up late at night, talking theology alone in the mansion’s library.
“I think he was trying to pull me out to see if I was genuine or honest,” Graham later told his biographer Marshall Frady.
“Among other things, the encounter had an impact on Time’s coverage,” veteran Time writers Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy write in their book, “The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham and the White House.”
Prior to the Columbia crusade, Time had reported that “admirers of glib, arm-flailing Evangelist Dr. Billy Graham, 31, swear his voice can penetrate a case-hardened conscience like a jack-hammer.”
Gibbs and Duffy write: “But after Luce’s visit, the tone was less mocking. Now, he was ‘hawk-nosed, handsome Evangelist Billy Graham,’ whose old-time religion he ‘spruces up with streamlined metaphors of his own. Said he of Judgment Day: ‘God is going to say “Start up the projector!” Because from the cradle to the grave God has had His television cameras on you. God has every sinful word on His recording ... Are you ready?’”
Graham later told Frady for his biography, “Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness”:
“Through Mr. Luce, people heard about me, people at universities and in the business community and places like that, that would have never considered our work seriously if it had not been written up in a sophisticated magazine like Time.”
Etched in stone
Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst supposedly told his editors during Graham’s first crusade in Los Angeles to “Puff Graham.”
But Graham said he never met the man. And Hearst’s son said it didn’t happen, according to Patrica Cornwell’s biography of Graham’s wife: “Ruth, A Portrait: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham.”
Hearst and Luce chased what drew a crowd, and what made the heart tick.
For the hearts of Luce and Baruch, that included a yearning for the same lush Lowcountry that is filling every hummock with people today.
“To the eastward, as the sun rose, one could see tens of thousands of ducks,” Baruch wrote of the land he bought in 1905. “At times they appeared like bees pouring out of a huge bottle.”
Writer Jack London — like world political leaders — was among the luminaries to come to see it for themselves.
It’s open to everyone now. Baruch willed Hobcaw Barony to his daughter, Belle, who gave the 16,000 acres to a foundation so it could be preserved for scientific research and education. It is open now to the public for limited tours and special events.
Over at Mepkin, Clare Booth Luce loved the land more than her husband did. She commissioned an extensive garden. And she found solace there after her only daughter was killed in a car wreck while a student at Stanford University. During her recovery, Clare converted to Catholicism, and at about the time her powerful husband put his hand on Billy Graham, the Luces donated much of Mepkin for use as a Trappist monastery.
Today, the peaceful land of Mepkin Abbey is open to the public.
Both Henry and Clare Boothe Luce are buried there. On the gravestone is a large, white carving of a Lowcountry live oak. Etched into the stone are the words of Isaiah 60:19:
“The sun shall be no more your light by day,
Nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you,
but the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory.”
Young Graham preached the everlasting light in Columbia from Feb. 19 to March 12, 1950. He then accepted Strom Thurmond’s offer for a police escort to any college in the state that would host his dazzling evangelistic team.
And he rolled on into history to become a world leader himself.