Recently, during Sunday service, our pastor stated that it was doubtful anyone knows the name of Billy Graham’s Sunday school teacher. Well, now, that’s probably true….
Billy Graham has stated in his memoirs that he was raised in the Associate Reform Presbyterian Church near Charlotte, NC. After Graham was turned down for membership in a local youth group because he was “too worldly,” Albert McMakin, who worked on the Graham farm, persuaded him to go and see the evangelist Mordecai Ham. According to Graham, he was converted in 1934, at age 16, during a series of revival meetings in Charlotte, led by Ham.
Mordecai Fowler Ham, Jr. (2 April 1877- 1 November 1961) was the son of Tobias Ham and the former Ollie McElroy. Ham was born on a farm in Allen County, KY, near Scottsville. Descended from 8 generations of Baptist preachers, his namesake was his grandfather, Mordecai F. Ham, Sr. He once stated that “from the time I was 8 years old, I never thought of myself as anything but a Christian. At 9, I had definite convictions that the Lord wanted me to preach.”
In 1886, his family moved to Bowling Green, staying until 1888, when they returned to a second farm near Greenwood in Warren County. At 16, he was Sunday School Superintendent of the family church at Greenwood.
From country school, young Ham went to Ogden College (later Western KY State Teachers’ College) in Bowling Green, also studying law with a private tutor. After finishing his studies, he relocated to Chicago, IL, where he engaged in business from 1896-1900. There, he married the former Bessie Simmons in 1900.
His grandfather’s death on 28 February 1899 was a renewed call of God to start serving the Lord. In December 1900, he closed his business in Chicago to devote full time to the ministry. The next month, Ham began the study of 27 books to prepare for the ministry.
In September 1901, he accompanied his father to a meeting of the District Association at Bethlehem, near Scottsville, where his grandfather had preached for over 40 years. There he was put on the spot and asked to preach. When he finished, the congregation was praising God, and he was invited to speak at the First Baptist Church of Scottsville that very night. From there he was asked to preach at Mt. Gilead Baptist Church, off of present-day Hwy 100, between US 31E and Holland, in northern Allen County.
At this, his first revival, he established a pattern that was to follow him the rest of his days. He went after the biggest sinners in town and often saw them saved. He believed enough personal evangelism would produce mass results.
At Mt. Gilead, a strange power came over him from the Holy Spirit, and Ham used that power from then on. The following day, Ham visited a dying girl named Lulu. As Lulu, who was apparently unsaved, closed her eyes in death, he called to her, “Lulu, how is it?” A voice came back, not the voice of one living, but that of one in another world. He was never able to forget it… “Lost.. lost… Oh! so dark… so dark!…”
His sermon, “And Sudden Death,” was heard by thousands in the days ahead. When he closed out the crusade, he had 66 baptized. This was the beginning of his career in evangelism. It was after the Mt. Gilead revival he went back to Bowling Green, and in December 1901, he was ordained at Burton Memorial Baptist Church, which was at that time known as Drakes Creek Baptist Church, on Cemetery Road.
In the fall of 1902, while Ham was holding a meeting at Mt. Zion, near Smith Grove (actually nearer to Railton), he ran into the type of opposition that was to follow him for most of his career.. On the second night of the meeting, the moonshine crowd surrounded the church and threw rocks at the preachers. Lawlessness prevailed, and the leader threatened Ham with a long knife. Ham said, “Put up that knife, you coward… Now I am going to ask the Lord either to convert you, and your crowd, or kill you.” The bully died the next morning, before Ham could get to his bedside.
On that same day a neighborhood sawmill blew up and killed three others of the crowd. That night he announced he wanted everything that was stolen the night before to be returned before God killed the rest of the tormentors. Everything was returned. 80 were saved in this revival.
In January 1903, he took his first meeting outside of Kentucky, traveling to the First Baptist Church in New Orleans. Other great 1903 revivals were in Garland, TX and Russellville, KY. A large meeting was held in Paducah, KY, in June 1904. The whole area was shaken, and Ham’s fame was rising.
Ham had a reputation for racism, and was publicly and virulently anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic. He believed Jews represented a subversive social force and were “beyond redemption.” The targets for his preaching were often “nebulous rings of Jewish, Catholic, or Black conspirators plotting to destroy white protestant America.”
Ham accused the president of Sears, Roebuck, & Co. in Chicago, Julius Rosenwald, of operating inter-racial prostitution rings in Chicago that exploited white women. A North Carolina newspaper editor, WO Saunders, wrote an account of the accusations Ham made, and how Saunders had proven the accusations false called “The Book of Ham.”
Another target of Ham’s sermons was alcohol abuse, particularly before adoption of the 18th Amendment of the US Constitution, which declared production, transport, and sale of alcohol (though not consumption or private possession) illegal. It was ratified on 16 January 1919, and took effect the following year. The Prohibition was not repealed until ratification of the 21st Amendment on 5 December 1933.
On 4 December 1905, his wife Bessie died at the age of 30, stricken with cerebral meningitis. Ham was shaken to the depths of his soul, so grief-stricken that he lost some 50 pounds, and became ill himself. In January 1906 he sailed abroad to tour the Holy Lands, hoping to offset his great upset over the course of events in his life.
In August 1907, he held a meeting at Pleasureville, KY, in rural Henry County. His fame extended to all the communities around, including Eminence, 7 miles distant. From here, a Dr. and Mrs. Smith and their 14-year-old daughter, Annie Laurie, attended the meetings. Before the meeting closed, Ham mentioned to Mrs. Smith he wanted to take her daughter with him to Europe, as his wife! On 3 June 1908, the 31-year-old evangelist married a beautiful girl of 15. Their marriage lasted more than 50 years, and they had three daughters – Martha Elizabeth, Dorothy, and Annie Laurie.
In 1909, they made their home in Anchorage, KY, and remained settled there while they traveled from state to state for revivals and meetings, until 1927. Ham turned to pastoring after a very successful crusade and a trip to London, England, in the fall of 1926. In the spring of 1927, upon returning to give a report in Oklahoma City, he was met at the train by 40 laymen of the First Baptist Church there. Their pastor had resigned and they entreated Ham to accept the pastorate. At first reluctant, a unanimous vote by the congregation clinched it. He had always made enemies and never dreamed of total support anywhere – he was shocked to receive the news of a unanimous ballot. He became their pastor on 9 June 1927.
His big battle at the time was against the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism. On 3 August, he was crossing the street, and was struck down by an automobile and dragged for half a block. He was out of commission for 6 weeks with a skull fracture.
In his first and only foray into politics, he campaigned hard and fast for Herbert Hoover in the 1928 election. On 16 June 1929 he resigned from the pastorate in Oklahoma City, as the fires of evangelism burned in his soul. The Hams moved back to Louisville, KY, and joined the Walnut Street Baptist Church late in 1929. In 1936, he began a radio broadcasting reaching 7 southern states. He started a network ministry in 1940 on Mutual Broadcasting Network’s southern hookup of some 50 stations. In 1947 he started the publication of a paper bearing the title The Old Kentucky Home Revivalist.
From 1901- 1941 Ham led 289 meetings in 22 states. He subsequently conducted a weekly radio sermon over a network of stations originating in Louisville, KY. He also held rallies and short meetings in his radio coverage area.