Billy Graham, the nation’s most beloved preacher, a native Tar Heel who many considered the embodiment of Protestant Christianity, died Wednesday.
The 99-year-old Graham had been in failing health since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1992 and with hydrocephalus, a condition in which water collects on the brain, in 2000. His wife of 63 years, Ruth, died in June 2007.
Graham’s sermons reached millions of people in more than 200 countries – whether in person or over the airwaves.
His was a resonant voice and a handsome face. The 6-foot-2 evangelist, with his steel blue eyes and chiseled chin, looked and moved like a Hollywood actor. His voice was smooth and authoritative. He spoke in declaratory sentences, waving the Bible in one hand and jabbing an index finger at his audience in the other.
Graham once said he had a single-minded mission: “My one purpose in life is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which I believe comes through knowing Christ.”
He did so with a combination of zeal, integrity and graciousness that won him admirers the world over. Many wryly called him the Protestant Pope.
Friend to presidents
From his humble beginnings as the son of North Carolina dairy farmers, Graham rose to national prominence, befriending every president since Dwight Eisenhower and serving as confidant to many others who occupied the Oval Office.
In 1991, in one of his last roles as unofficial White House chaplain, Graham was summoned by former President George H.W. Bush to the White House on the night he gave the OK to send the first squadron of fighter bombers to the Persian Gulf.
Later, Graham counseled President Bill Clinton in the dark hours of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Though officially nonpartisan, Graham had been increasingly drawn to Republican candidates. Despite being frail and hard of hearing, he invited onetime Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin to dinner at his Montreat mountain home.
But his influence went beyond U.S. borders, and he was a premier diplomat for Christianity. Graham was the first Christian to preach behind the Iron Curtain, and he accepted unprecedented invitations to Moscow and Beijing. When Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited the White House in 1997, Graham met with him privately and discussed religious freedom in China.
Graham traveled widely, mingling as easily with popes and kings as with soldiers and villagers living in mud huts.
The Gallup poll consistently ranked him as one of the world’s most admired men. In 1996, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. That popularity has helped boost the ministry of his children, Franklin, his successor, of Boone, and Anne Lotz, his daughter, of Raleigh.
In his early years, Graham earned the nickname “God’s machine gun” for preaching hell and damnation to those who strayed. In later years his message softened, as he spoke more about personal redemption.
But his theology – with its bright promise of reconciliation with Jesus – never wavered.
“We are helpless and hopeless,” Graham once said in a television broadcast, “but when Christ comes in we have a lot of help, and we have hope, and we have forgiveness of sin, and we have the assurance that if we die we are going to heaven.”
‘Come to Jesus’
Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Barnard College in New York City and the producer of a 1993 PBS documentary on Graham, said the evangelist’s message was often comforting.
“He offered a simple solution to the real problems people are facing: Come to Jesus. Jesus will save you,” Balmer said.
If Graham’s message was simple, his understanding of the power of mass communication was prophetic. His ministry tapped into every media outlet: Radio, television, satellite technology and the Internet.
“He came to prominence at a time when media technology was emerging, and he exploited that technology brilliantly,” Balmer said.
Graham’s biggest feat, though, was bringing sparring Christians under one roof. He was able to set aside theological and political differences between old-line fundamentalists and modern evangelicals, and he never got involved in doctrinal debates or denominational squabbles. Over the course of his career, he extended a hand to Christians of all stripes, including Roman Catholics and Pentecostals.
Graham also worked to steer clear of controversy.
While other charismatic preachers were brought down by financial and sexual scandals, Graham remained impeccably clean and above reproach, a devout man whose life mirrored his words and his actions.
Throughout his life, Graham conducted himself with humility, integrity and above all, tact.
But he could not avoid criticism. And some suggest his message lacked depth.
“I watch him on TV, and I hear him say the same things over and over again,” said the late Charles Templeton, a former preacher with the Youth for Christ organization who later lost his faith in God. “I feel sad he hasn’t grown, he hasn’t looked deeper into the Bible.”
Graham, however, never pretended to be a sophisticated theologian. His ambitions had more to do with numbers than nuance.
“Graham’s contributions haven’t come from intellectual breakthroughs but from a remarkable vision for what might be done and how to do it,” said William Martin, the author of “A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story.” “He’s always willing to use whatever means are available.”
Born on a dairy farm
William F. Graham Jr. was born Nov. 7, 1918, on a prosperous dairy farm near Charlotte. The young Billy Frank rose at 3 a.m. to milk cows. After school, he pitched hay and worked in the fields. Graham’s parents, William Franklin Graham and Morrow Coffey, were strict but fair-minded Presbyterians.
Graham nevertheless felt he had not fully surrendered his life to Christ, and at age 16, he answered an altar call at a revival held by a traveling evangelist named Mordecai Ham.
The experience was not the proverbial lightning bolt but more of a gradual awakening.
“I walked down to the front, feeling like I had lead weights attached to my feet, and stood in the place before the platform,” Graham wrote in his 1997 autobiography, “Just As I Am.” “No bells went off inside me. No signs flashed across the tabernacle ceiling. No physical palpitations made me tremble. ... I simply felt at peace. Quiet, not delirious. Happy and peaceful.”
After spending a summer as the Carolinas’ top door-to-door salesman for Fuller Brush, Graham entered Bob Jones College hoping to become a minister. But he disliked its rigid dogmatism and transferred to Florida Bible Institute. He started preaching at dog tracks and saloons. Later he became chaplain to Tampa Trailer Park, known as “the tin can tourist capital of the world,” a reference to its many trailers and RVs in the community.
He was ordained a Southern Baptist pastor in 1940 – a severe case of the mumps prevented him from serving in World War II – and he embarked on his life’s ambition to become a preacher. But first he needed some training outside the confines of the South.
He found what he was looking for at Wheaton College in Illinois, which had a reputation for strong Christian evangelism.
“On Wheaton’s elm-shaded suburban campus, 25 miles due west of Chicago’s downtown Loop, I felt like a hick,” Graham wrote. “Born and bred on a farm in the South, I doubted there was anybody in the entering class as green as I was.”
There, Graham caught the attention of evangelical leaders and scholars – and of a woman named Ruth McCue Bell. Their courtship was cautious at first, but Bell, the daughter of a missionary surgeon to China, was eventually taken with him. “If you let me serve you with that man,” she remembered praying to God, “I’d consider it the greatest privilege of my life.”
After graduating, they married in 1943 in Montreat – where Ruth Bell Graham’s parents had retired.
Graham served briefly as pastor of a small church in Hinsdale, Ill. But he felt restless, called to something greater than a simple church pastor.
“By the 1940s fundamentalism had gone through a dark period and there wasn’t really anyone who could draw a wide range of people outside fundamentalist circles,” said Martin, the Graham biographer. “His timing was great.”
He signed on as a field representative for Youth for Christ, a Chicago-based organization founded as a ministry to teenagers and servicemen during World War II. Graham soon acquired a reputation as one of the brightest and most energetic of the troupe’s representatives. In 1945, he visited 45 states and was named United Airlines’ top civilian passenger.
He also traveled abroad. In 1947, he did a six-month tour of Europe, preaching to GIs involved in the rebuilding of war-ravaged countries. A year later, at a Youth for Christ conference in Switzerland, Graham realized the potential for expanding his ministry beyond the English-speaking world. That potential would come to fruition a few years later.
In the meantime, the U.S. beckoned.
A traveling evangelist
At a Minneapolis rally in 1945, Graham was introduced to William Bell Riley, president of Northwestern Schools, which included a seminary, Bible school and liberal arts college. On his deathbed, Riley persuaded the 29-year-old Graham to accept the presidency of the college. Graham did, serving as president from 1947-52.
But Graham knew his calling was as a traveling evangelist, and he kept up a full schedule of citywide campaigns across the country.
It was in Los Angeles in 1949 that Graham vaulted to national prominence, and for the next 50 years, his signature contribution to American evangelism would be the large arena campaigns – later called crusades – organized by his team in cooperation with local churches.
In his lead sermon during that Los Angeles appearance, Graham spoke of the coming judgment with an urgency and authority that drew an estimated 350,000 people. He paced in front of the crowds preaching hell and damnation. But the fire of redemption burned in his sermons.
“I sincerely believe that it is the providence of God that He has chosen this hour for a campaign – giving this city one more chance to repent of sin and turn to a believing knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ,” Graham said.
When L.A. radio announcer Stuart Hamblen decided to convert, it caught the attention of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, who told one of his reporters to go out and “puff Graham.”
Graham, then just 30, became a celebrity.
Time and Life magazines ran stories, as did The Associated Press and two London newspapers. Capacity crowds greeted Graham at his next campaigns in Boston and Columbia, S.C.
That year, Graham was invited to visit with President Harry Truman. It was an inauspicious beginning to a 50-year post as unofficial White House chaplain.
After meeting with Truman for 20 minutes, Graham confided everything that took place to reporters — a gaffe that offended the president, and one Graham would never repeat.
But those days were full of fits and starts.
In 1950, he formed the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which to this day helps prepare the crusades and, more importantly, handles their finances.
Graham had grown uncomfortable with the haphazard way his crew was handling money. It didn’t help that the Atlanta Constitution wrapped up coverage of Graham’s campaign that year by running two photos side-by-side: One of Graham grinning broadly as he waved goodbye; another of crusade ushers hauling off four bulging money sacks full of “love offerings.”
Although Graham used part of the donations to buy a wooded tract and build a home in Montreat, he decided that from then on he would be an employee of the association’s board of trustees and draw a salary comparable to that of a minister in a large city church.
That was his practice for the rest of his life. In 1996, he received $101,250 in salary and a $33,750 housing allowance, nothing like the millions big-name evangelists draw today.
Graham also laid down other ground rules. In the “Modesto Manifesto” of 1950 he and his staff pledged to avoid the pitfalls other traveling evangelists had fallen into. They would abide by three strict rules: They would avoid being alone with women other than their wives; they would turn over all the money collected at crusades to the local sponsors; and they would depend on crowd estimates of local officials to avoid the appearance of inflating their numbers.
In 1950, Graham also signed a 13-week contract with ABC for a radio program titled “The Hour of Decision,” which aired Sundays at 3 p.m. Graham drew on the news of the day for the show. He wanted to illustrate how the Bible could be brought to bear on current issues. The show continues to this day, airing reruns of Graham sermons on an estimated 700 stations nationwide.
Historians consider Graham’s 16-week Madison Square Garden crusade in 1957 the pinnacle of his preaching career.
“There was an electric dynamism about the man speaking to middle America,” said Joel Carpenter, a historian of American evangelism and provost of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. “He had a closely attuned ear to popular culture and the hopes and fears of his generation. He wanted to make the hope of the gospel speak to the anxiety of his generation.”
Graham believed sin was the major problem facing the world. “You’re in the grip of a supernatural power that the Bible calls Satan,” he said. The answer was repentance and a personal relationship with Jesus.
Graham once said he offered a balm to the five troubles of the modern world: emptiness, loneliness, guilt, fear of death and a search for something to believe in.
“We live in a hurting world – whether it’s in marriage, politics or whatever, the pieces just aren’t fitting together anymore,” Graham said, “and they never will until people finally turn toward and discover faith in Christ.”
Civil rights movement
In the 1960s, Graham was criticized for not marching with Martin Luther King Jr. Uncomfortable with some of King’s protests and arrests, Graham shied from bold pronouncements.
“Billy Graham was always non-confrontational,” said biographer Martin. “He felt everybody ought to be nice.”
But Graham did invite King to the stage at Madison Square Garden, and the two led a prayer together. And while Graham never took a political stand on civil rights, he did try to integrate crusades whenever possible. In 1953, he personally removed the ropes separating the white and black sections at a Chattanooga, Tenn., crusade. Later that year, he vowed never to allow another segregated crusade.
By the 1960s, Graham had established a presence in the White House that would span 30 years, providing counsel to every president. His relations with Richard Nixon were the most wounding, especially as Watergate unfolded and later the impeachment proceedings.
Afterward, Graham tried to avoid partisan politics.
In religious circles he will be best remembered for molding the movement known as “the New Evangelism.”
“New Evangelism,” according to Martin, Graham’s biographer, “marked itself off from old-line fundamentalism by its tolerance of theological differences among essentially like-minded believers.”
The movement’s goal was to spread the Gospel to as wide an audience as possible. New Evangelism didn’t shy from appealing to the unconverted masses. It liked advanced technology, and it put a positive spin on Christianity.
“Fundamentalism has failed miserably with the big stick approach,” Graham said. “Now it’s time to take the big love approach.”
Not everyone appreciated Graham’s comments.
Hard-nosed fundamentalists resented his actions and thought he had compromised his scruples, especially in reaching out to liberal Protestants, Catholics and Pentecostals. He developed good relations with a number of Catholic bishops and had warm friendships with the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, a high-church Anglican on the one hand, and with Oral Roberts, a Pentecostal leader, on the other.
“He believed being a religious conservative doesn’t mean you can stop being gracious,” said Carpenter, the Calvin College provost.
A toll on his family
Graham wasn’t just successful. He was driven and ambitious, exacting a price in his personal life. His five children – born between 1945 and 1958 – rarely saw him, and their upbringing was left almost exclusively to his wife.
Ruth Graham said she enjoyed staying home with the children. But the strain of her husband’s absence was obvious. Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, spoke of being reared by a single mother. And his son, Franklin, led a rebellious life before his conversion to Christianity in 1974.
In later years, Graham acknowledged that if he had to do it over again he would have devoted more time to his children.
“I missed so much by not being home to see the children grow and develop,” he wrote in his autobiography. “The children must carry scars of those separations too.”
Although Graham slowed down in his later years, he took pride in continuing to break records. In March 1995, the 76-year-old evangelist’s message at a crusade in Puerto Rico was beamed via satellite to as many as 1 billion people in 185 countries and was simultaneously translated into 116 languages.
Such ambitious projects took a toll on the evangelist’s health, as did his advancing years. A few months later, in June 1995, Graham fainted at a Toronto crusade. In 2000, he was forced for the first time to cancel his appearance at an international conference in Amsterdam. He had just received two shunts to help drain excess water from his brain and felt too weak to cross the Atlantic.
But in 2005, Graham ascended the pulpit one last time for a three-day crusade in Queens, ending his tenure as preacher to the nation at the place where he reached the pinnacle of his career: New York City.
Apart from touring Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and presiding over the dedication of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, he remained secluded in his mountaintop home and made few public appearances. President Barack Obama dropped in on him for the first time in 2010, more than a year after he took office.
Legacy in North Carolina
Through his career, Graham never forgot his home state or the South, rivaling Coca-Cola and Elvis Presley as the region’s top export.
He preached four crusades in Charlotte – the last in 1996. In 1997, Graham addressed a joint session of the North Carolina General Assembly – his second address before state legislators.
Several institutions across the state are named in his honor, including an evangelical training center in the Blue Ridge Mountains and a wing of an Asheville hospital for critically and chronically ill children, known as the Ruth and Billy Graham Children’s Health Center.
In 1996, Gov. Jim Hunt named Interstate 240 in Buncombe County the Billy Graham Freeway.
In 2005, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association moved its headquarters to Charlotte. Two years later, the Billy Graham Library was dedicated nearby, burnishing his image as one of the Queen City’s most famous sons.
But it was Graham’s distinctive personal style – what some have coined his “moral transparency” – that transcended time and place and brought millions of believers into the Christian fold.
Frances May of Durham accepted Graham’s altar call during a crusade in Charlotte in 1958. Like many fans, she went on to attend all his North Carolina crusades, occasionally volunteering with his evangelistic association.
“I see him as an earthly father reflecting the heavenly father,” she said.
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