With the urgency of Armageddon in his flashing blue eyes, evangelist Billy Graham called the world to the altar in a career that spanned more than six decades. By tens of thousands, from across the nations of the Earth, they came.
His message, delivered in a soft, Piedmont drawl as familiar as an old hymn, never varied: Come to Jesus.
If the beliefs he preached are true, Billy Graham’s soul has gone to Jesus. Graham, 99, died early Wednesday at his home in Montreat, N.C., outside Asheville.
Poor health had kept him out of the public eye in recent years, but those praising his life included presidents.
Former President Jimmy Carter said Graham “shaped the spiritual lives of tens of millions of people worldwide. Broad-minded, forgiving, and humble in his treatment of others, he exemplified the life of Jesus Christ by constantly reaching out for opportunities to serve. He had an enormous influence on my own spiritual life, and I was pleased to count Rev. Graham among my advisers and friends.”
Barack Obama, who visited Graham at his home in 2010, said via social media, “Billy Graham was a humble servant who prayed for so many - and who, with wisdom and grace, gave hope and guidance to generations of Americans.”
President Donald Trump tweeted: “The GREAT Billy Graham is dead. There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man.”
Graham had conducted three of his “crusades” in Atlanta. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms offered the city’s condolences and said, in part: “Reverend Graham united his followers in faith and will be remembered fondly by all who claim membership in the universal congregation of peace and goodwill.”
He was born to Frank and Morrow Graham on a farm near Charlotte on Nov. 7, 1918. He made his own trip to the altar in a traveling revival tent at age 16, according to biographer William Martin. Legend says the Charlotte Christian Men’s Club had stood in Frank Graham’s field that year and prayed that God would anoint someone from Charlotte to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Graham went on to do just that, speaking to more than 200 million people in stadiums, parks and arenas on six continents — and to countless millions more via television. His humble beginnings couldn’t have been more different. “Billy Frank,” as his parents called him, rose before dawn to milk cows, biographer Marshall Frady wrote. He drag-raced and parked and necked with girls. A first baseman, he wanted to be a big-league ballplayer. Once, after shaking hands with Babe Ruth at an exhibition game in Charlotte, he went three days without washing his hands.
In a 1994 interview, Graham said that he got a sense of wanderlust from his mother, who kept pictures of Japan’s Mount Fujiyama and a rose window of the Reims Cathedral in France on the wall.
“I used to sit and wonder what it was like outside where I lived,” he remembered. “Did the land look the same? Did they have hills and mountains and streams that looked like ours? I had no idea what Pennsylvania or Ohio or New York looked like.”
Before his pulpit career, Graham traveled the Carolinas selling Fuller brushes. He was the company’s top salesman in the two states before going on to Bob Jones College, according to Martin.
He transferred to Florida Bible Institute in Temple Terrace, where he gave himself to the ministry in a late-night prayer on a golf course. He began to fill in for pastors and preach at dog tracks and saloons, and established himself as chaplain to the Tampa Trailer Park, Martin wrote.
He was a Presbyterian. In 1938, as he conducted his first revival, the minister of the East Palatka (Fla.) Baptist Church coaxed him into the Southern Baptist Convention, setting the course for Graham to become perhaps the best-known Baptist since John The.
The following year, he first saw New York, on a trip to the World’s Fair. “That’s when I first heard of television,” he recalled years later, the newfangled device that would make him one of the best-known figures on the planet.
Graham went from Florida to Wheaton College in Illinois, where he met Ruth Bell, daughter of Presbyterian missionaries to China. They were married Aug. 13, 1943, and two years later had the first of their five children. Ruth Bell Graham died on June 14, 2007.
After graduating from Wheaton, he served a brief stint as a pastor before joining the evangelism organization Youth for Christ.
A Minneapolis rally brought him to the city that remained headquarters of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association until 2001, when his son Franklin Graham decided to move the main offices to Charlotte.
When his traveling revivals came to Atlanta in late October 1950, nearly 495,000 turned out over six weeks. On Sunday, Nov. 5, seated at a table over second base at Ponce de Leon Ball Park, Graham broadcast his first “Hour of Decision” radio program.
The late Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy attended two of the 1950 services. Cathy had only a handful of employees at his Dwarf Grill (later the Dwarf House) restaurant. He enlisted customers to go to the Graham services so they could be recognized as a group there. “I was inspired by him,” Cathy said in a 2006 interview.
As part of his commitment to purity, Graham would never be alone in a room with a woman other than his wife.
He also established strict financial guidelines for himself, after photographs in the Atlanta Constitution during the 1950 crusade. A picture of a grinning Graham appeared next to one of ushers handling bags of money. “I said, ‘That’ll never happen again,’ ” Graham recalled in a 1992 interview. From that time, he said, he never accepted another “love offering,” but assembled a board of businessmen to oversee his ministry and put himself and his staff on salary.
Only once did any hint of financial scandal touch him.
The Charlotte Observer revealed in 1977 that the Graham association controlled a $22.9 million fund that helped support Wheaton College, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Christianity Today and others. The IRS knew about it; his supporters didn’t.
Graham at first justified the secrecy, quoting Matthew 6:3-4, which says to keep your charitable deeds a secret. The following year, though, the association began publishing annual financial reports, and in 1979 Graham co-founded an Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.
His international debut was a 12-week, 1954 crusade in London. British newspapers sneered, according to the Associated Press, calling him a “Yankee spellbinder” and “hot-gospeller.” But two million people attended his 72 rallies.
“Those meetings galvanized us,” Michael Baughen, former Church of England Bishop of Chester, told the AP. “It was like divine adrenaline for a jaded church.”
During the London crusade Graham lunched with Winston Churchill. A year later, he dined with Queen Elizabeth.
Three years later, he launched a record 16-week crusade in New York, during which, according to Martin, he lost 30 pounds. This was his first crusade to hit the television airwaves. ABC aired four consecutive Saturday-night services.
When Graham preached in a communist country, Yugoslavia, for the first time in 1967 a steady rain drenched a crowd of 20,000. He announced he would cut his sermon short. “No. We’ve waited too long for this,” said a voice from the crowd, and he preached on.
Some people credit Graham’s crusades behind the Iron Curtain, arranged in part by an Atlantan, Dr. Alexander Haraszti, with helping to bring about the downfall of governments there.
And long before apartheid’s death, blacks and whites prayed together at a Graham rally in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. He struggled to bring reconciliation in India, Northern Ireland and Korea. He had his biggest rallies in Seoul, South Korea, in 1973, preaching to 3.2 million over five days, including 1.2 million the final day.
Throughout his life, Graham consorted with the meek, the mighty and the almighty. He spent time with Chiang Kai-shek, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Mother Teresa, Jawaharlal Nehru, Prince Rainier, Yitzhak Rabin and the Shah of Iran. He met every president back to Harry Truman and had close relationships with several.
Among the closest was his friendship with Richard Nixon. Of all the accusations surrounding the Watergate scandal, Graham was perhaps most disillusioned by the language his friend used on the White House tapes. “I felt physically sick,” Graham wrote in his memoir. “Inwardly, I felt torn apart.” Of his friend Nixon, Graham said, “I wanted to believe the best about him for as long as I could. When the worst came out, it was nearly unbearable for me.”
Graham himself was tarnished by Nixon tapes the National Archives released, which revealed that in a 1972 conversation he had expressed concern that Jews had a “stranglehold” on American media that needed to be broken. A statement he issued afterward said, in part, “I cannot imagine what caused me to make those comments, which I totally repudiate … Racial prejudice, anti-Semitism, or hatred of anyone with different beliefs has no place in the human mind or heart.”
Graham held two more crusades in Atlanta, in 1973 and 1994.
Developer Tom Cousins, who chaired the 1973 event, recalled years later that civic leaders invited Graham to try to calm the tensions of integration. Graham hesitated, but finally promised to come if the city’s black clergy would extend the invitation, Cousins recalled.
At first, none would. Then Martin Luther King Sr., “Daddy” King, stepped to the forefront and spoke out on behalf of Graham.
Before the 1994 crusade, Graham asked the Rev. Cameron Alexander, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church North, to co-chair it with the late Rev. Frank Harrington. Alexander recalled that he laid down conditions, including: African-Americans should be among the leaders of every facet of the event; Graham should preach that black people and white people should love each other; and the congregation should sing the civil rights favorite “We Shall Overcome” on the last night.
Graham agreed to all.
As the final service neared its close, Alexander remembered, “a 5,000-voice choir led more than 60,000 people. Together we sang ‘We Shall Overcome.’ I will never forget that.”
Former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, himself an ordained clergyman, said Atlanta and the world would be different without Billy Graham, who preached “a gospel of love, a gospel of radical forgiveness, a gospel of salvation, a gospel of a loving God who loves us just as we are.”
Graham held the last of his large-scale crusades in 2005 at Flushing Meadows, N.Y.
But after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans a few weeks later, he traveled there with son Franklin for a “Celebration of Hope.” Speaking from a lectern salvaged from the flood that he had used at his 1954 New Orleans Crusade, he declared that a new New Orleans could rise from the waters.
Graham often protested if attention seemed too focused on him.
At a 2006 fundraising luncheon in Atlanta for a Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, he chided the speakers saying, “There’s been far too much Billy Graham and not enough Jesus.”
At the same event, he recalled his several rounds of brain surgery at the Mayo Clinic. “One night I knew I would not live,” he said. “During the dark hour, I asked the Lord to help me. All of a sudden, all my sins dating back to my childhood came in front of me.”
Then, he said, Jesus cleansed them. Since that night, he said, “I have never had a moment of lack of peace.”
He wrote at the close of his autobiography: “I don’t know the future, but I do know this: The best is yet to be! Heaven awaits us, and that will be far, far more glorious than anything we can ever imagine …”
Billy Graham will be buried at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C., next to his wife, Ruth.
Like his wife, he will be laid to rest in a plywood coffin made by prison inmates.
Funeral arrangements are pending; it is unknown if services will be open to the public.
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