For years, Don Wilton had a front row seat to the quiet leadership and humble spirit of Billy Graham. As pastor of First Baptist Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Wilton was Graham’s pastor, meeting with him regularly to discuss the Bible and pray together.
“I will forever be grateful to the Lord that He allowed me to sit at this man’s feet for nearly 25 years,” Wilton, now retired, said on a recent episode of the Think Eternity podcast hosted by Matt Brown.
The conversation included Wilton’s thoughts on Graham’s humility and servant’s heart, despite the fact that he was counselor to some of the most famous and powerful people in the world. Wilton also shared the evangelist’s answer to the question Christian leaders asked near the end of his life and after his 2018 death: Who will be the next Billy Graham?
Friendship with Billy Graham
Wilton shared stories about Graham in the book “Saturdays with Billy: My Friendship with Billy Graham” (Thomas Nelson, 2021). But for the first decade they knew each other, he rarely mentioned their friendship to anyone. He hesitated to write the book even years later and insisted it’s not a biography. Rather, it’s the story of a friendship or, as Wilton said, “a picture of a nobody who really thought he was a somebody, talking to a somebody who really thought he was a nobody.”
In 1993, Wilton had begun his tenure in Spartanburg when Graham called to discuss his sermon, which he’d watched on television. He invited the pastor to visit his home in Montreat, North Carolina. Wilton went the next day.
Graham greeted him in blue jeans, a sweater, and running shoes, Wilton recalled. They sat on the front lawn drinking tea. “I really believe that that moment God ordained something that I can’t explain to you,” Wilton told Brown about the beginning of their friendship. “It just was a God thing.”
Wilton met with Graham for years until the evangelist summoned him to Montreat to ask an important question: Can I join your church? The vote was a unanimous yes. “You can imagine, when I took it to our church, in all our worship services, just standing ovations,” Wilton said.
Graham was a world-renowned evangelist, a counselor to leaders around the globe. But he had a deep humility that came from within, Wilton noted.
As they read the Bible together, the evangelist would often ask his pastor to help him understand a particular passage of Scripture.
“He was the most genuinely Christ-like, humble servant of the Lord Jesus I’ve ever had the privilege of being around,” Wilton said.
“We were with presidents of the United States, prime ministers, kings, queens, the most famous athletes in the world, the most famous people in the world, and he was the same in his spiritual demeanor toward them. And yet in that, there was a supersonic greatness. Mr. Graham would be very unhappy to hear me say this: I always felt like I was in the presence of greatness, of someone who was highly esteemed. I never lost that, the sense, I knew it.”
The ‘next’ Billy Graham
Wilton said Graham impressed upon him the uniqueness of the gospel.
It is a message unique in its content and its application to all people, he said, and in the instrument God chose to share it: followers of Jesus.
“I am not Billy Graham, and Billy Graham is not Don Wilton,” he said. “We are made militantly, fiercely, uniquely in the image of God. And you and you and you and you are precious in God’s sight. And we all have our unique gifts, all of us. Because God has no giftless children, and God uses all of us.”
Wilton once asked the evangelist who would take up the mantle as the next Billy Graham. “Don, you are,” Graham replied and for one second, Wilton recounted, he told himself he had just been anointed by Graham himself. He wished his wife and sons had been there to hear it. But Graham quickly added, “Everyone, all of us, Don. That’s the single greatest need we have in our world today.”
“Mr. Graham so embedded in my heart the joyful necessity of sharing Christ, inviting people to trust him,” Wilton said. “And that’s the work of God by His Holy Spirit.”