There had been a persistent rumor around town about a particular house located across the road from one of the local high schools and how it had become a den of iniquity. A preacher had been making a big deal about it and the fact that sexual immorality was rampant in the area, particularly among young people. One version of the tale had it that some of the high school students were planning some kind of demonstration out at the makeshift tabernacle, where the old preacher was railing against the sins of the city. The whole thing finally convinced one previously reluctant young man to go out to one of the revival meetings to check out things for himself.
The year was 1934. The city was Charlotte, North Carolina. The young man was William “Billy” Franklin Graham. The old preacher was a guy named Mordecai Ham.
Young Billy Graham listened to Mordecai Ham that first night. The preacher thundered against sins, and Graham couldn’t help but feel he was the preacher’s target. He went back the next night—and the next. Eventually, he decided to avoid the evangelist’s penetrating stare by joining the choir, even though he couldn’t hold a tune in a bucket. However, even without seeing Ham’s eyes, he heard that voice, as well as another voice—one stiller and smaller than that of the loud preacher.
Mordecai Fowler Ham Jr. (1877-1961) was one of the most well-known preachers in the American south in this time. More than 300,000 people were converted in his crusade-type meetings. In fact, he was among the last of the highly successful tent/tabernacle revivalists—except, of course, for his famous convert that night in 1934. That young man moved from tent to stadium and to ultimate influence for the Kingdom of God.
Born in Allen County, Ky., Mordecai F. Ham was the son and grandson of preachers—actually his ancestry included clergymen going back eight generations. His grandfather Mordecai Ham Sr. managed somehow to juggle 14 pastorates at one time.
Young Mordecai was converted as a young man and felt the stirrings of a call to preach; but he resisted, or at least postponed such surrender, determined to make a personal fortune first. Having watched his father and grandfather barely scrape by fueled his personal ambition. He attended a local college, studied law and soon found early success in business.
That all changed the day he watched his grandfather die in 1899. It was almost as if in that moment a mantle of sorts was passed from grandfather to grandson. Ham later referred to the experience: “Seeing him die did more than anything else to convince me of the reality of Christian experience.”
Very soon thereafter, everything changed for young Mordecai Ham. First, he married Bessie Simmons; then he quit his business, giving his share to his partner. He borrowed a little more than $1,700 from a local bank and began his ministry with an intense time of self-preparation. During an eight-month period in 1900, Ham devoted all his time to the study of the Bible and the reading of 27 books, including manuals on Old and New Testament history, the works of Josephus, various writings about Baptist history and polity, a couple of titles about the second coming of Christ and one called The Mistakes of Ingersoll, a book that dealt with the most famous infidel of the day.
Then he started preaching, demonstrating a propensity for oratory and persuasion so pronounced that one engagement led inevitably (and usually immediately) to another, then yet another. Mordecai Ham was off and running on a career that would span six decades. He was an evangelist from 1901 to 1927, then again from 1929 to 1961, interrupted by a curious two-year stint as the pastor of Oklahoma City’s First Baptist Church.
His surrender to the ministry was not the only thing the death of his grandfather that day in 1899 had stimulated, but also Ham’s actual pulpit style. As he watched his granddad linger between life and death for hours, he listened and observed as the dying man gave various instructions about his funeral to those in attendance. One man asked: “Mordecai, if you had your life to live over again, what would you change?”
The reply: “I would be plainer.”
Through the years, Mordecai, in the spirit of his grandfather’s dying declaration, described himself as “a hog-jowl and turnip green” preacher—simple, plain and always to the point, often bluntly so.
Such a style made him popular with the masses, but not with everyone else. A Mordecai Ham campaign in any town usually was accompanied by local conflict, with some religious forces, as well as resident sin-interests becoming for a moment strange bedfellows. Ham typically chose the most notorious sinners in town and went after them, occasionally with notable success, but always with attendant controversy. Of course, his early career was in the run up to that noble experiment Prohibition, so liquor interests were a usual suspect for Ham, as well as gambling, prostitution and other vices du jour.
He didn’t stop there. Often Ham aimed his attack language at the doors of local churches, where he’d perceive spiritual deadness or the emerging contagion of modernism. This would put him at odds with pastors, who quite often refused to support Mordecai’s meetings. Still, nothing could keep the people away; and usually the clergy eventually, albeit reluctantly, had to lend a hand.
Once in Fort Worth, Texas, (c. 1916) where he was conducting a meeting in league with Texas Tornado J. Frank Norris, Ham was viciously attacked as he left the Westbrook Hotel en route to Norris’ office a couple of blocks away. Reports described the evangelist as being “struck from behind on the back of his head, and gashes were cut in the side of his face.” Several local clergymen, including L.R. Scarborough, attributed the attack as “the liquorites, in their desperation, showing their foul methods in defending saloons in Tarrant County.”
Ham was a man touched with grief when his wife, Bessie, died suddenly less than six years into their marriage. A few years later, Ham was smitten with a young lady who attended one of his meetings in Eminence, Kentucky. Her name was Annie. They married, though she was just 15 years of age. They were together more than 50 years and blessed with three daughters.
Mordecai Ham was a student of history and world affairs, but made it a rule not to meddle much in national politics—except in 1928. That was the year Republican Herbert Hoover ran against New York’s Democrat Governor, Al Smith. Ham made it his business to campaign tirelessly against Smith, who was a Roman Catholic and advocated the repeal of Prohibition, two things anathema to such a fundamentalist-minded preacher.
Mordecai Ham accomplished in North Carolina what J. Frank Norris did in Texas, swinging a usually solid Democrat state to the Republicans. This led one Catholic publication at the time to dub Ham and Norris as two of “the Four Horsemen of the Devil.”
Once, while preaching in the Texas state capital, Austin, Mordecai Ham advertised a sermon titled: “Governor in the Middle of a Fix.” This was at a time when then Texas Gov. Jim Ferguson was on the verge of being impeached. The governor sent stenographers and reporters, who took down every word as Ham preached a message about Pontius Pilate—a whole other governor.
Ham’s ministry focused more on local church revivals in his later years, putting the tent and tabernacle crusades behind him. He also developed a highly popular radio broadcast heard throughout the American south. He regularly told listeners, “I’ll meet you on the air, until I meet you in the air.”
When he was 81 years old, Billy Graham flew Mordecai Ham from Kentucky to San Francisco to be on the platform, introducing him to the audience at a meeting in that city’s Cow Palace. Mordecai Ham died on Nov. 1, 1961.