After making my public profession of faith in Christ, I am grateful to say that more than 55 years later, I’ve never stopped “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” I’ve tried to never look back. With all my heart, I’ve sought to plow straight ahead, and when I’ve missed the mark—and indeed, I have—I’ve found what Peter did. When he took his eyes off Jesus, he sank into the water he was momentarily walking on, and the ride back to the boat in the arms of Jesus was even better than the walk out. He has always been ready to pick me up and hold me like that little lamb I saw on the stained-glass windows of the Episcopal church where I was christened.
So great was Mrs. Hale’s faith that I would trust Jesus on that night, she had brought me a change of clothes, believing I would be baptized—and I was. Thank God for a little Baptist church that prayed so faithfully for me and for a pastor and his wife who loved me, even though their hearts had been broken because they could not officially adopt me.
I had to return home to Austin the next day. After arriving, I told my mother I had given my life to Jesus and had been saved. My mother said sarcastically, “When God gets ready to save you, He’ll tell me.” She was not happy I had made that decision. Her response hurt me very deeply.
I spent a night that week in the woods and prayed all night with my best friend, Charles, who didn’t have a dad. Under a bright moonlight, I led him to Christ. He commented, “Now we both have the same Father, and He made that moon shining down us!” I said, “Yes, Charles, He did.” He was the first of millions I would point to Jesus during my journey.
A short time later, I got seriously ill with strep throat. My fever was so high that I hallucinated. The doctor came to the house where we lived and said that had he not gotten there when he did, I would have died. My mother called Joe Robison, the alcoholic who had forced his way on her, and said, “If you ever want to see your son, you need to come see him now because he is very sick.” Believe it or not, he came. He moved in with us, and my mother married him. She said she just wanted me to have a father.
Our home became hell on earth.
One day, drunk, Joe strangled my mother. The only reason he didn’t kill her is because he thought he actually had when she passed out. A few days later, he came in drunk and said he was going to kill me. I truly believe he would have—but he didn’t know that I had purchased a high-powered rifle, a 30:06, with the hope that someday I might get to go deer hunting. I paid for it with the money I had earned working at the grocery store. I ran from my father and returned with that gun, pointing it straight at him.
As he cursed me, I said, “If you move so much as a finger, I will blow a hole in you big enough for someone to crawl through.” It was a strong statement coming from the lips of a shaking teenage boy, but I meant it. I can tell you, had he moved so much as a finger, I would have shot my father in fear. But he never moved. He just cursed, and I called a telephone operator, and they sent the police. They arrested him, and he spent years in the penitentiary.
I often wonder why he didn’t move. I think I know. That little Baptist church never stopped praying for that boy who had lived with their pastor and his wife, and who had met Christ in their church. Don’t ever doubt the power of prayer.
The trauma was so great after this encounter that I told my mother I had to leave. I asked Rev. and Mrs. Hale if I could stay with them, and they were happy to have me. I left a brokenhearted mother, but I found the words of Jesus to be absolutely true. He said, “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or parents or brothers or wife or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who shall not receive many times more in this present time, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 18:29-30, NKJV). My, how this scripture has been revealed in my life. God has greatly blessed me—and I give Him all the praise and glory. I pray that I will always be willing to leave all and to follow Him with every fiber of my being.
I had not stayed with the Hales long before I got to know beautiful Betty Freeman, and I fell in love with her before she did with me. We dated for an extended period of time—several years, as a matter of fact. But we knew we were in love. You may say it was puppy love. Some did. But it was sure real to the dogs! We knew that we were to spend our lives together pursuing Jesus and seeking to build our home on the unshakable foundation of His Word.
Just before my 18th birthday, God called me to preach—to be an evangelist. I was so shy that everyone in the church thought He was calling someone else and I had simply overheard the call. But there was no doubt in my mind. God filled me with an indescribable boldness, and suddenly there was no timidity. He filled me with passion and compassion. There was conviction, and God released a river of life and love that flowed freely from my innermost being and through my lips.
After being called to preach on Friday night, I preached the next Monday standing on a flatbed truck at the construction job where I worked, and hundreds of men were brought under conviction. I spent the next weeks leading them to Christ one at a time. I then enrolled in East Texas Baptist College, now the university that gave me an honorary doctorate this year. There, I met Billy Foote, and he saw such a touch of God on my life that he asked me to minister with him. I would preach, and he would lead the singing. To say God blew the doors open is an understatement.
We did more than 20 revivals the first year, and the next year, more than 30 and received 1,000 invitations from 27 states. Within two years, our meetings became city-wide, and Billy Graham found out about a teenage boy who seemed to have the touch of God. He established our evangelistic association with the assistance of one of the most respected tax attorneys in the nation. He did it because he believed God put His hand on my life. Dr. Graham was also the one who shared that while he was praying, God told him I was supposed to be on television daily. I will always be grateful in many ways for the love Billy Graham expressed to me as a young man and has continued throughout my life.
I went on to preach 600 city-wide crusades attended by over 20 million people. More than 2 million people committed their lives to Christ, and to God be the glory. We had the blessed privilege of seeing coliseum and attendance records shattered. It was truly supernatural.
In foolish zeal, I allowed an excessive travel schedule and being away from home 260-300 days a year began to take a toll on me—spiritually, emotionally and physically. I was speaking four to six times a day. Next week, I’ll reveal some of those personal challenges and talk about losing intimacy with Jesus, experiencing personal defeat, and the newfound freedom I found in Christ: a freedom that, while met with criticism, led to a major, very positive shift in my ministry focus and direction.