NEW YORK — Ending years of speculation over who will take over the nation's most coveted evangelical pulpit, the Rev. Billy Graham has announced that his eldest son, Franklin, will be his eventual successor.
Franklin Graham--the evangelist's "prodigal son," who drank, fought and was expelled from college before a religious conversion 21 years ago--has been elected to the new position of first vice chairman of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Assn., with the right of succession should his father become incapacitated.
The 77-year-old Graham--who once said only God can choose his successor--suffers from Parkinson's disease, but said he will continue as chairman and chief executive of the organization he founded in 1950.
After a decade of deflecting questions about successors, the evangelist said of his son's selection: "As a father I am both proud of his capacity for leadership and humbled in gratitude for the Lord's blessing on him."
Franklin Graham's selection was not unexpected, but in his younger years he had seemed an unlikely prospect to inherit the mantle of the world's best-known Christian evangelist, the confidant of presidents and perennial member of the Gallup Poll's list of the world's most admired men.
As a teen-ager and young adult, Franklin Graham rebelled against his famous father. In his autobiography--published earlier this year and titled "Rebel With a Cause: Finally Comfortable Being Graham"--he recounts a youth "marred by smoking, drinking, fighting, confrontations with the police, and eventually expulsion" from LeTourneau College in Longview, Tex., where his father had used his influence to get him admitted.
"Being the son of Billy Graham had given me advantages," wrote Franklin Graham, now 43. "But it had its downside as well. If I screwed up, the book would be thrown at me a little harder. . . . People expected me to be some kind of example and would hold me to a higher standard."
At 22, he reported having a religious experience in Jerusalem that changed his life. Then in 1978 he joined the board of Samaritan's Purse, a mission organization.
When he joined the ministry, the younger Graham at first "suffered some credibility problems because of his past," said Stephen Winzenburg, a communications professor at Grand View College in Des Moines, Iowa, who has tracked the Graham ministry for 15 years.
"But he was taken under the ministry's wing and has been well groomed to succeed his father," Winzenburg said. "His credibility problems are behind him."
While the elder Graham is an ordained Southern Baptist minister, Franklin Graham received his ordination from the board of elders of Grace Community Church, a nondenominational evangelical Christian congregation in Tempe, Ariz.
Also unlike his father, Franklin Graham is closely identified with what Winzenburg termed "the social gospel of providing direct help to those in immediate need."
Once he takes over, Winzenburg said, the younger Graham can be expected to incorporate his emphasis on Christian relief work into the message of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Assn., which, under his father, has stayed close to the basic soul-saving message of traditional evangelism.
In recent years, Franklin Graham has been preaching as an evangelist, addressing more than 200,000 people at nine crusades in the United States and Canada this year. He appeared with his father for the first time at an October crusade in Saskatoon, Canada.
He will continue as director of Samaritan's Purse and World Medical Mission, an organization he helped found.
The younger Graham said he is committed to doing whatever he can to support his father and "take some of the responsibility off of his shoulders."
Other names that had been mentioned as possible successors to Graham included Jim Wilson, the son of his longtime right-hand man, T.W. Wilson, and Luis Palau, a mass crusade evangelist based in Portland, Ore.
Some leading evangelicals have expressed doubts that anyone can replace Billy Graham, no matter who winds up heading his $100-million-a-year enterprises.
"I think it's impossible, because there's only one Billy Graham, and when he's gone, he's gone," the Rev. Billy Melvin, former executive director of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, once said. "God doesn't work in clones."
And it is unclear whether the younger Graham--whose full name is William Franklin Graham III--will be able to command the audiences that his father consistently attracts, said John C. Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio.
"Once Billy is out and the ministry loses its star, the person who put it on top, the ministry could fall on hard times," Green said.
The elder Graham--whose Parkinson's disease is controlled by medication--has crusades planned for next year in Australia, New Zealand, Minneapolis and Charlotte, N.C.