Billy Graham, America’s best-known evangelist and a spiritual adviser to 11 presidents who preached to more than 2.2 billion souls in more than seven decades of ministry, died Wednesday at the age of 99.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which has set up a memorial website in his honor, said he died at his home in Montreat, North Carolina, from “natural causes.”
Born Nov. 7, 1918, on a dairy farm near Charlotte, North Carolina, William Franklin Graham Jr. became a believer in Jesus Christ at the age of 16 during a series of revival meetings and went on to lead hundreds of evangelistic “crusades” in which he famously invited members of vast stadium and arena audiences to “come forward and accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior.”
“My one purpose in life is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which, I believe, comes through knowing Christ,” Graham once said.
He counted it a privilege to preach the Gospel “on every continent in most of the countries of the world.”
“I have found that when I present the simple message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ with authority and simplicity, quoting the Word of God, He takes that message and drives it supernaturally into the human heart.”
Graham knew from personal experience the “human heart is the same the world over.”
“Only Christ can meet the deepest needs of our world and our hearts,” he declared. ‘Christ alone can bring lasting peace – peace with God, peace among men and nations.”
‘Jesus coming soon’
On the day of his 95th birthday, Nov. 7, 2013 – celebrated by about 900 people at a hotel in Asheville, North Carolina – Graham released a 30-minute video message broadcast on the Fox News Channel, on other networks and on the Internet titled “The Cross” as part of an outreach called “My Hope America with Billy Graham.” Graham summarized his aim: “With all my heart I want to leave you with the truth that He loves you and wants to forgive you of your sins.”
Graham told WND in an exclusive interview in 2013 he still believed people need to repent of their sins, turn to God and “take the narrow road that Jesus talks about in the Bible.”
He told WND he believed the signs of the end of the age are “converging now for the first time since Jesus made those predictions.”
In his 2013 book “The Reason for My Hope: Salvation,” Graham wrote the second coming of Jesus Christ is “near” and the United States “can’t go on much longer in the sea of immorality without judgment coming.”
“We have been going down the wrong road for a long time,” Graham told WND. “Seemingly, man has learned to live without God, preoccupied and indifferent toward him and concerned only about material security and pleasure.
His wife, Ruth, born in China to missionary parents, died in June 2007 at age 87 after 63 years of marriage. He is survived by their five children, Virginia Leftwich “Gigi” Graham Tchividjian, Anne Graham Lotz, Ruth Graham, William Franklin Graham III and Nelson “Ned” Graham. He also leaves 19 grandchildren and more than 28 great-grandchildren, including grandson Tullian Tchividjian, who succeeded Rev. D. James Kennedy as senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
His oldest son, Franklin Graham, succeeded him as president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 2000. Franklin Graham also directs the major international Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse.
When his wife died at their mountaintop home in Montreat, North Carolina, near Asheville, Graham stated he and his “life partner” had been “called by God as a team.”
“No one else could have borne the load that she carried,” he said. “She was a vital and integral part of our ministry, and my work through the years would have been impossible without her encouragement and support.”
Graham said that in their final years together they “rekindled the romance of our youth, and my love for her continued to grow deeper every day.”
“I will miss her terribly and look forward even more to the day I can join her in Heaven,” he said.
The couple met as students at the evangelical liberal arts school Wheaton College, near Chicago. Graham said that when their eyes first met as he came across her walking down a road, “I felt that she was definitely the woman I wanted to marry.”
Hour of decision
One of America’s most recognizable figures, Graham was listed as No. 8 on Gallup’s list of the most admired people of the 20th century. According to his staff, he preached the Gospel to live audiences of an estimated 215 million in more than 185 countries and territories. In addition – through the use of television, video, film and webcasts – he spoke to a combined audience of more than 2.2 billion.
His weekly radio program, “Hour of Decision,” was broadcast for more than 50 years, and his city Gospel events were seen in prime time on television.
Along with his syndicated newspaper column, “My Answer,” and monthly Billy Graham Evangelistic Association magazine, Decision, Graham was the co-founder of the leading evangelical magazine Christianity Today in 1956.
|Franklin and Billy Graham at Cleveland Stadium in June 1994|
Graham also launched World Wide Pictures, producer and distributor of more than 130 films.
He wrote 27 books, which included numerous best-sellers. Among them were his memoir, “Just As I Am,” released in 1997. His 1983 book “Approaching Hoofbeats: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” was on the New York Times best-seller list several weeks. In 1977, “How to Be Born Again” was released with the largest first printing in history, more than 800,000 copies. The book followed “Angel’s God’s Secret,” which sold more than 1 million copies in 90 days.
Graham came to faith in 1934 when he was persuaded by an employee of the family farm to attend a series of revival meetings in Charlotte led by evangelist Mordecai Ham.
After high school, Graham entered Bob Jones College – now Bob Jones University – which then was located in Cleveland, Tennessee. The young student was nearly expelled, however, and dropped out after only one semester, because he thought the school was too legalistic.
The school’s founder, Bob Jones Sr., famously told Graham: “At best, all you could amount to would be a poor country Baptist preacher somewhere out in the sticks.”
But Jones said: “You have a voice that pulls. God can use that voice of yours. He can use it mightily.”
Graham transferred to the Florida Bible Institute – now Trinity College of Florida – in Temple Terrace, Florida. Graham said in his book “Just As I Am” he “received [his] calling on the 18th green of the Temple Terrace Golf and Country Club.” He graduated with a Bachelor of Theology degree.
He then attended Wheaton College, where he graduated in 1943 with a degree in anthropology. Graham said that during his time at Wheaton he came to believe the Bible was the infallible word of God, citing Henrietta Mears of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, California, as a key influence.
Graham served as pastor of Village Church in Western Springs, Illinois, near Wheaton, from 1943 to 1944. During that time he succeeded his friend, well-known pastor Torrey Johnson of Midwest Bible Church in Chicago, as host of the radio program “Songs in the Night.” He recruited singer George Beverly Shea for the program, who later became a fixture in his Gospel crusades.
In 1947, Graham became the youngest person to serve as a college president when he took the helm of Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota, at age 30.
Later, he became a traveling evangelist with the newly founded evangelical group Youth for Christ International, co-founded by Torrey Johnson and evangelist Charles Templeton.
He rose to national prominence in 1949 as the lead evangelist in a series of circus-tent revival meetings in Los Angeles that drew the interest of legendary news mogul William Randolph Hearst, who famously sent a telegram to his news editors with the instruction: “Puff Graham.”
With increased exposure, the revival meetings originally scheduled for three weeks, ran eight weeks, and Graham soon became a household name.
Graham, a registered Democrat, developed influential relationships with 11 presidents, from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, but was careful not to endorse any candidate.
In 2012, however, Graham broke from form and endorsed Republican Mitt Romney for president. In full page ads and a dedicated website, his “vote biblical values” campaign urged voters to support candidates who oppose abortion and back traditional marriage.
The campaign didn’t mention candidates by name, but Graham met with Romney and pledged he would “do all I can to help you.”
|President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan greet Billy Graham at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington in 1981|
He met briefly with President Obama at Graham’s home, April 25, 2010, and prayed with him.
“Like others before him, President Obama shared how lonely, demanding and humbling the office of president can be, and how much he appreciated the counsel of people like Mr. Graham and the prayers of so many citizens,” said Graham spokesman Larry Ross.
Graham presented Obama with two Bibles, one for him and the other for first lady Michelle Obama, according to Ross.
Graham “concluded with a prayer for the president, his family and his administration.”
In November 2009, Ross disclosed the two men spoke for the first time when Obama called Graham from Air Force One to offer good wishes on the evangelist’s 91st birthday.
Graham shared Scripture verses with the president, Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”
Graham told Obama “he would continue to be in prayer for him,” Ross reported.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and her family dined with Graham at his home that month. Franklin Graham told reporters his father had followed her career and “liked her strong stand on faith.”
“Daddy feels God was using her to wake America up,” the younger Graham said.
During the two-and-a-half hour visit, Palin told Billy Graham how she became a Christian as a girl at a Bible camp, and she quizzed him on the presidents he knew.
She also asked him what he believed the Bible says about Israel, Iran and Iraq.
Graham described Ronald Reagan as the president to whom he was closest.
A close friend of the Bush family, Graham prayed with George H.W. Bush as the first bombs of Desert Storm fell on Baghdad in 1991.
The elder Bush told ABC’s Charlie Gibson during a 2007 interview at his home in Kennebunkport, Maine, that Graham also helped him address questions about the afterlife.
“I don’t think the president is any different than anybody else when it comes to wonder,” Bush said. “Especially as you get older. … I find myself thinking about it more and more: What’s it going to be like?”
The senior Bush invited Graham to hold a series of Bible studies at the family home.
George W. Bush recalls that at a time when he was a cynic and a heavy drinker with many questions about faith, Graham had an “enormous influence” on his life.
Regarding religion, Bush described himself as a person who would “listen but never hear.”
“Billy Graham helped me understand the redemptive power of a risen Lord,” he said in a Fox News Channel interview.
Graham also developed a friendship with Bill Clinton.
Clinton recalled attending a Graham crusade in Little Rock, Arkansas, when he was 13 and becoming so moved he sent a portion of his allowance to Graham’s ministry for years afterward.
Graham’s spiritual counsel to presidents didn’t begin well, however. In 1950, decked out in a pastel suit and white buck shoes, he prayed with President Truman, then reenacted the prayer to the press, kneeling on the White House lawn. An angry Truman, a fellow Southern Baptist, called Graham a “counterfeit” publicity seeker and refused to speak to him for many years.
Graham later apologized and retold the story to emphasize his commitment to not reveal details of his conversations with world leaders.
Graham was particularly active in Richard Nixon’s White House, regularly advising the president and leading private church services there. Graham turned down an offer from Nixon to become ambassador to Israel. After Nixon’s role in Watergate emerged through White House tapes, which captured his profane speech, Graham expressed profound disappointment.
He wrote of Nixon in 1997, “Looking back these forty-five years later, considering all that has intervened, I wonder whether I might have exaggerated his spirituality in my own mind.”
Later, Nixon’s tapes inflicted damage on Graham when segments declassified and released in 2002 captured the evangelist apparently agreeing with Nixon that Jews had a “stranglehold” on the American media. Graham issued a statement of apology amid criticism from Jewish and fellow evangelical leaders.
“Although I have no memory of the occasion, I deeply regret comments I apparently made,” said Graham, a long-time supporter of Israel. “They do not reflect my views, and I sincerely apologize for any offense caused by the remarks.”
Graham admitted, “I guess I was trying to please,” and he noted he went to a meeting with Jewish leaders and “told them I would crawl to them to ask their forgiveness.”
In 1979, when Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority gathered strength, Graham refused to join.
“I’m for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice,” he explained. “We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.”
But he regularly was called on at times of national mourning, leading prayer, for example, at national services following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
After holding what he called his last crusade, in New York City, Graham and son Franklin held a “Festival of Hope” in New Orleans in March 2006 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
‘Give him power and authority’
Graham developed a close friendship with Martin Luther King Jr., who credited him with helping reduce tensions between blacks and whites in the South.
“Had it not been for the ministry of my good friend Dr. Billy Graham, my work in the civil rights movement would not have been as successful as it has been,” King said.
Graham’s decision in 1952, in the face of fierce criticism, to stop holding segregated crusades had a profound influence.
In 1957, King opened in prayer at one of Graham’s services in New York City and came to a meeting of Graham’s team to, in the words of the evangelist, “help us understand the racial situation in America more fully.”
King prayed at Madison Square Garden, where 2.3 million attended over 16 weeks: “We thank Thee this evening for the marvelous things that have been done in this city, and through the dynamic preaching of this great evangelist. We ask Thee, oh God, to continue blessing him. Give him power and authority. And as we look into him tonight, grant that our hearts and spirit will be open to the divine inflow.”
In 1965, amid heightened racial tensions in the South, Graham canceled a tour of Europe to preach in Alabama, regarding his ministry as an effort to work with King to break down racial barriers.
In his autobiography, Graham recalled the moment he heard of King’s assassination in 1968.
“I was almost in a state of shock. Not only was I losing a friend through a vicious and senseless killing, but America was losing a social leader and a prophet, and I felt his death would be one of the greatest tragedies in our history.”
Graham said he couldn’t “point to any single event or intellectual crisis that changed my mind on racial equality.”
“At Wheaton College, I made friends with black students, and I recall vividly one of them coming to my room one day and talking with deep conviction about America’s need for racial justice.”
The greatest influence, he said, was his study of the Bible, “leading me eventually to the conclusion that not only was racial inequality wrong but Christians especially should demonstrate love toward all peoples.”
Spreading the Gospel
Graham drew praise as well as strong criticism for his de-emphasis of theological and political differences between Christians, explaining his primary aim was to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ as widely as possible.
Forays to countries that repressed Christianity drew censure from many fellow evangelicals.
When he began his ministry, he called communists “Satan worshippers,” but in May 1982 he went to Moscow to discuss peace and nuclear disarmament at a conference run by the state-controlled church.
Despite the communist nation’s documented, systematic persecution of Christians in the underground church, Graham emphasized “there are millions of people in the Soviet Union that go to church on Sunday and practice their religious faith.”
“I’m not an expert. … I learned that there are two sides to all these questions,” he said.
Meanwhile, demonstrators outside the Billy Graham Center at his alma mater, Wheaton College, carried signs reading “Billy Graham has been duped by the Soviets” and “Russian Baptists tortured as Graham praises the torturers.”
Later, Graham issued a statement saying there had been “apparent distortion and actual misquotes” about what he had said at the conference.
“Freedom is relative,” his statement said in part. “I don’t have freedom in the United States to go into a public school and preach the Gospel, nor is a student free in a public school to pray, or a teacher free to read the Bible publicly to the students. At the same time, we have a great degree of freedom for which I am grateful.”
Hope for the world
In a rare television interview late in his life, Dec. 22, 2010, the Fox News Channel’s Greta van Sustern asked Graham, “At age 92, do you have hope for the world, for the nation?”
“I have a tremendous amount of hope,” Graham replied, his once smooth, booming voice now measured and gravelly. “I’m a believer in Jesus Christ, who was raised from the dead, and I believe he’s alive right now.
“My wife is already in heaven,” he continued. “I look forward to seeing her in Heaven, definitely, because I’m 92 now, and I know that my time is limited on this earth.
“But I have tremendous hope in the fact I’ll be in the future life, and I’ll be there because of what Jesus Christ did for me on the cross and by the resurrection.”