NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) â€” At 81, the Rev. Billy Graham says Parkinson's disease has made him unsteady and fluid on his brain has caused him to be forgetful.
But on opening night of a recent four-day Nashville crusade, he still had eyes sharp enough to cut through a crowded stadium and a tone so therapeutic and reassuring, it could calm a crying child.
Many of those in attendance wondered if God himself was actually speaking through Graham.
``The spirit of God is on him,'' said Pearl Masters, 60, a kindergarten teacher who drove 72 miles for the event. ``You can feel the spirit in his preaching.''
With his visit to Nashville, in the heart of the Bible Belt, Graham continues to build a legacy that has made him one of the most beloved evangelists in American history. About 45,000 people turned out for the event at Adelphia Coliseum, where the Tennessee Titans play football.
The Bill Gaither Vocal Band and Steven Curtis Chapman performed for nearly an hour before Graham entered the stage, with a cane and the help of a few staff members.
He hunched his shoulders as he walked but straightened up once he took the pulpit, and the crowd stood and cheered. He spoke for nearly an hour, and his message was simple â€” God will welcome to heaven everyone who lives by his word.
``Jesus is knocking at your heart's door tonight,'' he said with a rolling Southern drawl. ``He wants to give you peace and joy you've never had before.''
It's a message that has reached hundreds of millions of people worldwide. In more than 50 years, Graham has spoken in person to some 210 million people in nearly 200 countries â€” and counting.
He defiantly refutes recent reports that quoted him as saying his failing health could make this his last year of crusades. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease about six years ago.
``That's not quite true,'' he said at a news conference before his Nashville appearance earlier this month. ``I think we'll go on as long as God gives us the strength.''
Yet his son, Franklin, is ready to inherit the family ministry. The younger Graham bears his father's sharp eyes and pointed nose, and he attends each crusade in case his father can't preach.
His second daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, also has taken to the pulpit. Her first big crusade was last month in Knoxville.
``I cannot replace my father,'' Franklin Graham told The Associated Press. ``I'll continue the work God has given my father to do, and that is preach the Gospel.''
An ordained Southern Baptist preacher who was raised Presbyterian, Graham first gained national attention at a Los Angeles revival in 1949, but he had been preaching a decade before that. As vice president of the fledgling Youth for Christ organization started in 1945, he logged hundreds of thousands of miles a year leading revivals.
Since then, Graham has been compared to the Pope and has advised presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton.
He commands a massive but highly efficient army of Christians to help organize his crusades. In Middle Tennessee, 2,400 Christian leaders from 600 churches were trained to promote the crusade. That's in addition to the 5,000 religious counselors, 1,000 ushers and 4,000-member choir.
The total cost for the Nashville event was $2.47 million, paid for mostly through donations and church contributions. Graham doesn't take a salary.
Bill Merrell, an executive committee member for the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention, said part of Graham's appeal hinges on his integrity.
``Billy Graham's life in ministry has been an open book for more than 50 years,'' Merrell said. ``His commitment to financial integrity and to moral uprightness are well-known not only in the Christian world but also in the culture at large.''