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For a book so full of grace, the Bible is remarkably tough on sons, especially the firstborn. There is Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah, who barely escaped becoming the bloody covenant of his father's faith. Esau, who traded away his birthright for a mess of pottage. And the firstborn of the Egyptians, who paid horribly for their country's bondage of the Israelites.

The New Testament has less to say about the trials of being son and heir, but it does include a figure who would one day be of interest to William Franklin Graham III. That is of course the prodigal son, who, responding to pressures that have gone unrecorded, abandoned the straight and narrow and squandered his money before seeing the error of his ways and throwing himself on his father's mercy, and God's. He once was lost, and then was found.

Franklin Graham, lost once but now found, talks about his birthright with some humor, a jokiness that belies the fact that there have been times when the divine plan for him was hard to divine. "If I had understood the messages people were sending me on the day I was born," he says, "I might just have crawled right back in where I'd come from and taken a rain check!"

And indeed the words of congratulation were portentous. "Welcome to this sin-sick world and the challenge you have to walk in your Daddy's footsteps," wrote one well wisher. "Dear Little Billy Frank Jr. ...We heard...that your Daddy has new help for preaching God's truth...So grow up fast," said another. That was the fate prescribed for the boy born, after a succession of three girls, in Montreat, North Carolina, on July 14, 1952. He was heir presumptive to the world's most famous preacher, Billy Graham, a name already thundering out of the evangelical South, resounding through the nation and around the world in one mammoth revival meeting after another. A Catholic fan wrote the father: "I'll bet that your new boy will be a Catholic some day, maybe priest, bishop, or cardinal, possibly Pope." But little Franklin's father was already the Protestant Pope, a man who would soon be hailed by admirers as the greatest evangelist since the Apostle Paul.

So ominous were the hosannas that the son, almost as soon as he was able, began denying his legacy, turning primogeniture into prodigality, forgoing the joys of the spirit for postwar America's version of pottage: alcohol and tobacco, motorcycles and rock 'n' roll. He fought so hard against being Billy's kid that he became a sort of Billy the Kid. It would be years before his flight from God, fueled by a fear that God would not accept his foibles, gave way to the fear of the emptiness without Him; years before he realized he could embrace his father's calling and yet remain himself. "I've lived with this all my life," Franklin says patiently today. "I cannot be him." But he can inherit his kingdom, although not without a struggle of a different sort. The events that have led him finally to sit at his father's right hand constitute a story of human frailty and redemption, of the burden of being the son of a famous and charismatic father, and of the politics and jealousies and battle for power in the oldest and most influential evangelical organization in the world.

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