The world’s best-known evangelist, the Rev. Billy Graham, has died. He was 99.
From the gangly 16-year-old baseball-loving teen who found Christ at a tent revival, Graham went on to become an international media darling, a preacher to a dozen presidents and the voice of solace in times of national heartbreak. He was America’s pastor.
Graham retired to his mountain home in Montreat, N.C., in 2005 after nearly six decades on the road calling people to Christ at 417 all-out preaching and musical events from Miami to Moscow. His final New York City crusade in 2005 was sponsored by 1,400 regional churches from 82 denominations.
He took his Bible to the ends of the Earth in preaching tours he called “crusades.” Presidents called on Graham in their dark hours, and uncounted millions say he showed them the light.
“The GREAT Billy Graham is dead,” President Trump tweeted Wednesday. “There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man.”
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, noting Graham’s humble beginnings, said that “because he yielded himself to God, he was used to accomplish the extraordinary — forever impacting the lives of countless people.”
On the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance following the 9/11 attacks, Graham spoke of the “mystery of iniquity and evil,” of “the lesson of our need for each other” and, ultimately, of hope.
“He was so real, he made Christianity come true,” said Susan Harding, an anthropologist at the University of California-Santa Cruz. “He was homespun, historical and newsworthy all at once. He could span the times from Christ to today, from the globe to you, all in one sentence.”
Grant Wacker, a Duke University professor of Christian history, says Graham represented “what most decent churchgoing people thought and ought to think.
“His reputation was untouched by sex or financial scandals. When anti-Semitic comments came to light as transcripts of conversations with Richard Nixon surfaced, Graham was promptly and deeply apologetic.
He never built a megachurch, set up a relief agency, launched a political lobby or ran for office. Yet he redefined American Protestant life by popularizing Christianity’s core message — Christ died for your sins — downplaying denominational details and proclaiming the joys found in faith.
Graham was, however, drawn to power. Eventually, he met, prayed with, comforted and joked with 12 U.S. presidents. He found a fine balance that allowed him to become America’s pastor, Democrat or Republican. North or South.
When President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky came to light, Graham called for forgiveness. Clinton told Peter Boyer of The New Yorker, “He took sin seriously. But he took redemption seriously. And it was incredibly powerful the way he did it.”
Former president George W. Bush has said it was a conversation with Graham that turned him from his drinking ways when he was young.
“I’ve never called him on a specific issue, but his influence is bigger than a specific issue, as far as I’m concerned. He warms your soul,” Bush told an ABC 20/20 special on the preacher and politics.
He brought to the microphone a “corny but effective humor,” Wacker says, which made him a convivial talk-show guest. Graham logged more than 50 radio or television interviews with Larry King alone. YouTube has a tape of Woody Allen interviewing the evangelist, who draws almost as many laughs as the caustic, agnostic comedian.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association he founded, now led by his son, Franklin, used every communications innovation possible to carry the Gospel to any willing heart on Earth. More than 214 million people in 195 cities and territories heard God’s call in Graham’s voice and witnessed him deliver the Gospel in person or by satellite links. His projects included founding Christianity Today magazine in 1956 and writing more than 30 books.
High among his numerous honors: The Congressional Gold Medal awarded to Billy and his beloved wife, Ruth, in 1996, the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to him in 1983 and the Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion in 1982. He even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“Fundamentalists saw him as excessively liberal, and liberals saw him as too literalist in talking about sin and salvation. His wonderful balance between them is critical to his legacy,” says John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, a sister publication of Christianity Today magazine.
Graham’s last decades were slowed by illness and injury. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1989, felled by broken bones, bouts of hydrocephalus and rounds of pneumonia.
Age, illness and bone-breaking falls left him struggling to deliver 20-minute sermons.
Graham’s last crusade, in June 2005 in New York City, drew 242,000 people to Flushing Meadows; 8,786 made a new commitment to Christ and thousands more renewed or rejoiced in their faith.
Then he retired to his Montreat, N.C., mountaintop log cabin home where his five children grew up mostly without their traveling father to spend his days with Ruth. They shared Bible study, devotions and an endless recycling of the movie musicals she loved to watch. Those were bittersweet days, with Ruth bedridden and Billy relying on a walker. Their frequent prayer was, “Help me, Lord.”
At her funeral in June 2007, Graham called Ruth the finest Christian he ever knew.
Now, his son, Franklin, is leading The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and becoming a confidant of President Trump, including speaking at his inauguration.
Billy Graham lived through the explosion of religious diversity in America, the rise of the human potential movement and the trend to personalized spirituality.
Yet he remained steadfast in his response. In 1996, when he and Ruth were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, he once more shared his faith in God with some of the most powerful men on Earth:
“As Ruth and I receive this award, we know that some day we will lay it at the feet of the one we seek to serve.”
Quotations: Billy Graham’s most notable quotes
Billy Graham often was called upon to soothe the nation in stressful times.
Here’s a collection of notable quotes during his life:
Prayer service after the Oklahoma City bombing, April 23, 1995: “Some of you today are going through heartache and grief so intense that you wonder if it will ever go away. But I want to tell you that our God cares for you and for your family and for your city. For God loves you, and he shares in your suffering.”
Upon receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, May 2, 1996: Graham spoke of sin and repentance, saying: “We are a society poised on the brink of self-destruction. But what is the real cause? What is the problem? The problem is within ourselves.”
National Day of Prayer and Remembrance, Sept. 14, 2001: “We’ve always needed God from the very beginning of this nation, but today we need him especially. We’re facing a new kind of enemy, we’re involved in a new kind of warfare, and we need the help of the spirit of God.”
He spoke of the best in a troubled soul at Richard Nixon’s funeral, April 27, 1994:
Alluding only obliquely to the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation, Graham focused on another “more personal,” “more intimate” and “more human side” to Richard Nixon. “He always had a compassion for people who were hurting.”
Far from the crowds, he was frank and open about his own history and views. In interviews with USA TODAY in 1998 and 2005 he spoke of:
Power and presidents:
“I will be a friend to men of both parties, but I would never say that I was, even indicated that I was, for one or the other. I am for God. I don’t think there’s any hope for the world except in God.”
“I would not call myself today a fundamentalist. I have changed. I fellowship with all groups who claim to know God. I have warm friends among Jewish leaders and Catholic leaders and the various Protestant denominations that in the earlier years of my ministry, I thought I was a heretic or something if I went out of my way to greet them.”
“It’s going to be quite a revealing thing at the Last Judgment when we see everyone standing naked before God.”
Whether God protects America:
“The Lord said, ‘I will never forsake you.’ No matter how sinful we are, how bad we are, God loves us. …I believe he sent his son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross for us because he loves us, and he doesn’t have any termination to that love.”
16 lesser-known facts about Billy Graham, including that time he went skinny dipping with Lyndon B. Johnson
The Rev. Billy Graham’s prolific writings and widely broadcast sermons reached hundreds of millions of people worldwide. In honor of the legendary evangelist’s life, here’s a list of facts you may not have known about the Southern Baptist minister.
1. Graham was the son of a dairy farmer in North Carolina. He grew up dreaming of becoming a professional baseball player but said of himself, “The talent for baseball obviously was not there.”
2. At the age of 15, Graham made a personal commitment to Christ at a tent revival meeting featuring traveling evangelist Mordecai Ham.
3. Graham held his first citywide crusade in 1947 in Grand Rapids, Mich. The mass meetings attracted thousands of people in one venue to hear Graham speak. In all, Graham held more than 400 crusades in 185 countries and territories across six continents — reaching 215 million people, according to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
4. Graham received an offer to host a nationwide Christian radio program in 1949 but said he would only do it if he could raise $25,000 in one night to start the process of buying air time. At a crusade in Portland, Ore., the funds came in and the radio program “Hour of Decision” got its start. The program is now aired on 1,200 radio stations, featuring messages from Graham and his son, Franklin.
5. In the summer of 1957, Graham preached nightly for 16 consecutive weeks in New York’s Madison Square Garden to a packed audience. He shared the lessons of Sodom and Gomorrah from the Bible, substituting “New York” for the names of the cities of sin, The New York Times reported.
6. Graham was the author of 33 books, including his 1997 best-selling autobiography, Just As I Am.
7. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association started the TV Telephone Ministry in 1980, for people to call in while watching the “Billy Graham Classics” programs on TV and talk to trained volunteers about topics including “drug abuse, depression, and God’s will.” The call center at Graham’s association headquarters has grown from a few phones to 200, with other call centers throughout the country.
8. Graham’s role as a counselor to American presidents is widely known. But perhaps most extraordinary is just how many presidents he has advised. Graham has met with every occupant of the Oval Office since 1950, starting with Harry Truman, which amounts to 12 of the 43 men who have ever served in the nation’s highest office.
9. Shortly after President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn into office in 1963, he invited Billy Graham to the White House. The pair didn’t have bathing suits and reportedly went skinny dipping in the pool.
10. Graham helped George W. Bush stop drinking. The first time the pair met, Bush, who was much younger at the time, was drunk after having several beers and glasses of wine, he told CNN. His father, George H.W. Bush, invited the preacher to the family’s compound in Maine. The pair spoke about religion, which helped start a turning point in Bush’s life.
11. While at Wheaton College, Graham met future wife Ruth, the daughter of missionaries in China. They were married in 1943, until her death in 2007. After her death at the age of 87, Graham said, “When it comes to spiritual things, my wife has had the greatest influence on my ministry — she was the greatest Christian I ever knew.”
12. To eliminate even the suspicion of infidelity, Graham vowed never to meet, travel or eat alone with any woman other than his wife.
13. During the Civil Rights era, Graham integrated his revival meetings, inviting both blacks and whites to attend. He said, “Christianity is not a white man’s religion, and don’t let anybody ever tell you that it’s white or black. Christ belongs to all people. He belongs to the whole world.”
14. He became a target of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s after planning an integrated crusade in Birmingham, Ala., in the aftermath of a church bombing that killed several black children. “The Ku Klux Klan went around and knocked out our signs,” Billy Graham recalled. “The state police had to send policemen with us wherever we went — before my car and after my car. The police were also in the rooms around me because they were afraid we would get shot.”
15. Graham was consistently listed on Gallup’s poll of the “10 Most Admired Men in the World.” Although he’s never been No. 1, Graham has made the list 56 times since 1955.
16. Graham received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1989.