Billy Graham and the Soda Fountain

Excerpt from Chapter 22 of The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family. The year was 1956, and April in Wheaton was lush and luminous. The grass at Grandpa and Grandma’s house was an electric green that seemed to sizzle in the sunshine. Red, orange, and yellow marigolds crowded around the front steps. Brilliant red geraniums erupted from pots on the porch railing. The closely bunched blooms on the tall lilac bushes along West Franklin Street produced an immodest and compelling scent, sweet yet astringent, that transfused and subtly altered the colors of the grass, the yellow house, the gray stone of the wall at the edge of the yard, my granddad’s black Buick sedan in the driveway.

We were buzzing with excitement, because my grandparents were just back from spending a week with Billy and Ruth Graham at their new home in Montreat, North Carolina. On this Sunday afternoon after church, my aunts and uncles plus all of us Himeses—my mom and dad, little brother Johnny, and my two older sisters Lloys Jean and Faith—were over for Sunday dinner. I was six years old then, and we were the vanguard of a yet-to-be-born multitude of Rice grandkids. As the oldest male grandchild, I felt that I must be someone very special indeed.

The adults gathered around the big dining room table over fried chicken and biscuits, French green beans and Jell-O fruit salad, while my siblings and I were relegated to a card table in the kitchen, listening intently to my grandmother in the next room describe how they had driven along a winding road up the side of the mountain to reach the large and rustic log house where the Grahams lived.

“Edward R. Murrow from CBS was there this week interviewing Billy for his television show, and there were wires and lights and people all over the house. We had to be careful to stay out of the way when they were around,” my grandma said. “They had a big fireplace, and a guest bedroom where we stayed, and someone had given their children an ice cream soda fountain!”

An ice cream soda fountain! I quickly developed a sense of profound injury. How dare God provide the Graham children with an ice cream soda fountain when I was not similarly blessed? All I knew about Billy Graham was that he was a famous preacher, though how in any remotely just world his children could possess an ice cream soda fountain was beyond my capacity to explain or imagine.

My sense of resentment toward Billy Graham built over the next few years as he and my granddad had a falling out over theological issues of which I knew little. From my granddad’s sermons, I understood that Billy was associating with people my granddad called “modernists” and “liberals,” who included assorted heretics, infidels, and Episcopalians. I was too young to understand any of the issues, and my granddad only criticized Billy with sadness and regret. Nonetheless, I came to feel that I had something personal at stake in this struggle. I had heard Granddad inveigh against atheists, communists, New Dealers, and Unitarians. I could only imagine that Billy Graham, if he were in disagreement with John R. Rice, must be one of these…whatever they were.