Billy Graham, North Carolina evangelist with worldwide following, dies at 99

Published 8:54 am Wednesday, February 21, 2018

By Bart Barnes

The Washington Post

Billy Graham, the evangelist whose eloquent oratory and passion for Jesus attracted a worldwide following and made him one of the most influential and best-known religious figures of his time, was found dead Wednesday at his home in Montreat, North Carolina. He was 99.

His death was confirmed by a spokesman, Mark DeMoss. Graham had Parkinson’s disease.

Graham’s ministry spanned more than six decades, and his evangelical “crusades,” as he called them for most of his career, touched every corner of the world. He proclaimed his message of salvation through repentance and commitment to Jesus in the poorest of Third World villages and in the world’s highest centers of power and authority.

In addition to his mass rallies and serving as spiritual adviser to U.S. presidents, he reached millions more through a syndicated newspaper column and best-selling books.

Graham was a frequent guest at the White House, and he delivered the invocations at presidential inaugurations and national political conventions. In the royal chapel at Britain’s Windsor Castle, he preached before Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. He traveled to combat zones in South Korea and Vietnam to pray with U.S. service members.

An accomplished showman with a down-to-earth theology, Graham preached with a burning sincerity, although he generally avoided the exaggerated theatrics of the stereotypical Bible-thumping revivalists of an earlier era.

He was charming, tall and handsome, always immaculately dressed, and he had an engaging smile. As he aged, his hair turned snow-white. His delivery was varied and dramatic, liberally laced with a stream of self-deprecating anecdotes, and he was an extraordinarily effective proselytizer.

“Are you frustrated, bewildered, dejected, breaking under the strains of life?” Graham would ask his audiences. “Then listen for a moment to me. Say yes to the savior tonight, and in a moment you will know such comfort as you have never known.”

Millions accepted his invitations to come forward and “make a decision for Christ” over the years of Graham’s ministry, although his critics liked to cite published statistics that 80 to 90 percent of these people were church members who were reaffirming their faith.

William Martin, a professor of sociology at Rice University, called him “the most powerful evangelist since Jesus” in a 2002 article in Texas Monthly magazine.

Martin, author of a 1991 Graham biography, “A Prophet With Honor,” wrote that Graham was singularly influential in trying to restore American evangelism’s good name.

The profession had become badly tarnished by the middle of the 20th century for a variety of reasons. Among these were the rigid fundamentalist religious dogma held up to ridicule in the Scopes “monkey” trial of the 1920s and the unscrupulous excesses of itinerant evangelists traveling the “tent-and-sawdust circuit” as portrayed in the Sinclair Lewis novel “Elmer Gantry,” which later became a hit movie.

In the 1980s, Graham emerged unscathed amid the scandals of financial duplicity and sexual misconduct that brought down other TV evangelists. He avoided involvement in many of the causes dear to the hearts of such conservative Christian groups as the Moral Majority, arguing that many of these issues, such as opposition to the Panama Canal Treaty, were political questions, not spiritual or moral ones.

“I don’t think politics is part of my work,” he often said, but he nevertheless managed to spend many well-publicized hours in the company of leading politicians.

In 1981, he prayed at the bedside of Ronald Reagan when the president was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt. In January 1991, when the United States began the Persian Gulf War with air attacks against Iraq, Graham spent the night at the White House. The next day, he preached a sermon to the nation’s leaders telling them that “there comes a time when we have to fight for peace.”

In 1989, he delivered the invocation and benediction at George H.W. Bush’s inauguration. Former president George W. Bush said Graham, while on a visit to the family vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine, “planted the seeds” of his Christian conversion.

Graham was especially close to Richard M. Nixon. Years after the fact, it was discovered that in 1960 Graham hosted a meeting of Protestant leaders to discuss ways of preventing the election of John F. Kennedy, Nixon’s Democratic opponent that year for the presidency and a Catholic. But Graham later spoke positively of Kennedy and said his election improved interreligious understanding in the United States.

Graham sat in on the political strategy session in which Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew was chosen as Nixon’s running mate in the 1968 presidential election, which Nixon won.

The minister was a staunch and vocal anti-communist, and he generally supported the war in Vietnam and opposed antiwar protesters. In 1969, he delivered the invocation at Nixon’s presidential inauguration, thanking God that “thou hast permitted Richard Nixon to lead us at this momentous hour of our history.” The invocation went on to decry “materialistic and permissive” ways, which Graham said had created “a whirlwind of crime, division and rebellion.”

Some found the prayer offensive. Christian Century magazine characterized it as a “raucous harangue.” In his 1997 autobiography, “Just As I Am,” Graham said his relationship with Nixon was “not political or intellectual, rather it was personal and spiritual.”

But after Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Graham had second thoughts. “I wonder whether I might have exaggerated his spirituality in my own mind,” he wrote. Nevertheless, Graham officiated at Nixon’s funeral in 1994.

Eight years after Nixon’s death, with the release of 30-year-old tape recordings of an Oval Office conversation, Graham would again be linked in controversy with Nixon. The tapes recorded Graham agreeing with Nixon’s comments that left-wing Jews dominate the U.S. media.

“They’re the ones putting out the pornographic stuff,” Graham says in his Southern drawl. “This stranglehold has got to be broken, or the country’s going down the drain.”

The remarks were especially hurtful because many Jewish leaders had long considered Graham a friend. He apologized, saying: “I don’t ever recall having those feelings about any group, especially the Jews, and I do not have them now. My remarks did not reflect my love for the Jewish people.”

Widely admired among rank-and-file Christians, Graham had been included in the Gallup Organization’s annual list of the 10 most admired people in the world at least 49 times since 1948, more than any other person.

But many academicians and theologians criticized Graham’s message as too literal and overly simplistic, offering a form of “instant redemption” based on emotional appeal.

His interpretation of the Bible was essentially a fundamentalist one, but as his ministry developed, many non-fundamentalist Christian clergy came to regard it as enlightened. Graham always took care to operate within the framework of mainstream Christianity, and he generally left his converts with the exhortation, “Above all, go to church.”

In 1964, Cardinal Richard J. Cushing, then the Catholic archbishop of Boston, declared that no Catholic who heard Graham preach “can do anything but become a better Catholic.”

Graham had at his command the resources of a multimillion-dollar organization, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and affiliates responsible for media outreach through radio, TV, film and publications. His weekly radio program, “Hour of Decision,” was carried by as many as 840 stations around the world. He wrote a syndicated newspaper column, “My Answer,” and dozens of books, many of which became bestsellers.

The Graham organization took in tens of millions of dollars in contributions every year and received more than 11,000 pieces of mail each day. For most of Graham’s ministry it was based in Minneapolis, but in 2003 it moved to Charlotte.

The prominent theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote in Life magazine that Graham “promises a new life, not through painful religious experience but merely by signing a decision card.”

Graham invariably dismissed such criticism, contending that he was only a servant of God, spreading the Gospel as best he knew how. “I’m not here to teach psychology or philosophy or theology,” he said. “I’m here to tell you what the Bible says. We’ve listened to the voice of man long enough. Let’s hear what God has to say.”

Humble beginnings

William Franklin Graham was born Nov. 7, 1918, on a farm near Charlotte. As a boy, he helped out on the farm and took odd jobs to make spending money. He played first base on his high school baseball team and dreamed of becoming a major-league baseball player.

Raised as a Presbyterian, he was an unenthusiastic Christian until he was 17, when he experienced a religious conversion at a revival in Charlotte.

“No bells went off inside me,” he wrote in his autobiography. “No signs flashed across the tabernacle ceiling. No physical palpitations made me tremble. … I simply felt at peace.”

After graduation from high school, he sold Fuller brushes door to door, testing the persuasive skills that would serve him so well later in life, then attended Florida Bible Institute in St. Petersburg.

While there, he honed his pulpit techniques by rehearsing his sermons in a swamp before a congregation of bullfrogs. He was ordained as a Southern Baptist clergyman in 1938, then attended Wheaton College in Illinois, an evangelical institution, where he received a degree in anthropology.

At Wheaton, Graham met Ruth Bell, a fellow student and the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries in China. They were married from 1943 until her death in 2007.

Survivors include his son Franklin Graham, who took over his father’s ministry in 2000; four other children, Gigi Tchividjian, Anne Graham Lotz, Ruth Graham and Ned Graham, all of whom went into some form of ministry; a sister; 19 grandchildren; and numerous great-grandchildren.

After graduating from Wheaton, Graham began his career in the professional ministry as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Western Springs, Illinois. He renamed it the Village Church to give it an interdenominational appeal. Simultaneously, he began a radio ministry, preaching every Sunday evening in an hour-long program over a Chicago station that included his sermon and songs.

Beginning in 1944, Graham was chief preacher at “Youth for Christ” rallies, and three years later he published his first book, “Calling Youth to Christ.” That year, he also accepted the presidency of Northwestern Schools, a complex of religious educational institutions that included a college, a Bible institute and a seminary, under the aegis of the First Baptist Church of Minneapolis.

During this period, Graham was on the road most of the time, pursuing his calling as an evangelist, but the results were unimpressive until November 1949, when he preached in Los Angeles.

In a series of tent rallies that he called a “Canvas Cathedral” campaign, Graham drew national media attention, in part because he caught the eye of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, who had decided that America needed a spiritual awakening. “Puff Graham,” Hearst is said to have wired all his newspaper editors.

In 1950, Graham made his first White House visit, calling on President Harry S. Truman, who was cool to the young evangelist. When Graham suggested that they “have a word of prayer” together, the president answered, “I don’t suppose it could do any harm.”

Leaving the White House afterward, Graham knelt in prayer on the lawn, in a demonstration for news photographers of how he and the president had prayed together. He was not invited back during the Truman administration.

During the 1950s, Graham redoubled his evangelical efforts, and his meetings grew more ambitious. He drew crowds that grew to be in the hundreds of thousands.

By the middle of the decade, Graham was probably the world’s best-known Christian evangelist. He drew 2.1 million during a 16-week crusade in 1957 in New York that included a crowd of 100,000 at Yankee Stadium. He took his message to Central and South America, Europe and North Africa, India, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea.

In 1959, during a three-month revival campaign in Australia, Graham drew 3.2 million people. “His magnetic personality has broken down his most cynical critics,” wrote the Melbourne Herald. His message was invariably direct and uncomplicated.

“I have found that if I say, ‘The Bible says,’ and ‘God says,’ I get results,” his biographer, Martin, quoted him as telling a friend.

Graham made one of his first breaks with the traditional conservatism of his Southern fundamentalist origins over the issue of race. Even in the Jim Crow era, he reached across racial lines and sought integrated audiences for his crusades.

Nonetheless, Graham was not a vocal supporter of the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. He opposed racial segregation, he said, but he declined to attend the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. At other times, he criticized “some extreme Negro leaders [of] going too far and too fast.”

His tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. after the civil rights leader’s assassination in 1968 was restrained. “Many people who have not agreed with Dr. King can admire him for his nonviolent policies, and in the eyes of the world he has become one of the greatest Americans,” Graham said.

With the relaxation of East-West tensions and the Cold War détente in the 1980s, he twice visited the Soviet Union and took his crusades to Eastern Europe and to China. In 1990, he stood before the remains of the battered Berlin Wall and proclaimed himself “the ambassador of the Kingdom of God,” come to lead East and West Germans to Christianity.

In 1993, Graham announced that he had Parkinson’s disease, and there were times when he needed assistance walking across a stage, but his strength seemed to return the moment he grasped the pulpit with his hands.

At the National Day of Prayer service that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a frail and gaunt Graham had to be helped to the pulpit at Washington National Cathedral. “This nation will not be defeated,” he proclaimed in a firm, strong voice.

At a 2002 Texas Stadium mission rally — Graham had dropped the “crusade” terminology in deference to Muslim sensitivities — former President George H.W. Bush called Graham a “genuine American hero” and “personal pastor to America’s first family since as long as I can remember.”

Graham received two of the highest awards an American civilian can receive, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1996.

In 2000, his son Franklin was named chief executive of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and the elder Graham said he was prepared to end his ministry whenever the time came.

“Most of my life has already been lived,” he said. “I’ll be glad when the moment comes when the Lord calls me to heaven. I get tired down here sometimes.”