World leaders, evangelical figures, and people of faith around the globe mourned the death and celebrated the life of the Rev. Billy Graham, the “pastor to presidents” who died Wednesday at age 99 at his home in North Carolina.
“The GREAT Billy Graham is dead,” President Donald Trump tweeted shortly after the news broke. “There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man.”
Graham himself once said: “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now.
“I will have just changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”
Graham is believed to have presented the Gospel to more than 2 billion people during his extraordinary ministry, finding time to advise U.S. presidents of both parties for decades while also leading well over 3 million souls to accept the Christian faith.
The reaction to Graham’s death was global and immediate. CBN founder and Chairman Pat Robertson called Graham “my hero and a clear role model.”
“It was my privilege to work as a counselor at his crusade in New York in 1957, and I saw firsthand the incredible anointing that was upon this most gifted preacher,” Robertson told Newsmax. “I doubt very seriously if we will see in our generation anyone like him who walked with such grace and humility, and yet was the confidante of kings, queens, and presidents.”
Former President George H. W. Bush recalled that Graham enjoyed visiting the family retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine, and “loved going really fast in my boat.” He added: “Billy Graham was America’s pastor. His faith in Christ and his totally honest evangelical spirit inspired people across the country and around the world.”
Pastor Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church in Houston called Graham a personal hero in an interview with CNN: “I grew up as a preacher’s kid, in a preacher’s home, and Billy Graham was always our hero — his life of integrity and honesty, and his passion for people.”
Faith and Freedom Coalition founder Ralph Reed remarked, “The entire world and Christendom has lost one of the great figures in its history with the passing of Billy Graham.”
Dr. Ronnie Floyd, president of the National Day of Prayer Task Force called Graham “a giant for God, a one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-generation prophet of God’s truth and Grace.”
And Rev. Dr. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, called Graham “the most influential evangelist in modern history,” adding he has now “stepped into the corridors of eternity.”
Graham had long struggled with failing health, including bouts with cancer and pneumonia. In recent years son Franklin Graham, the president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), and the international Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, warned that his father’s health appeared to be in a steady decline.
“Our family would appreciate your prayers for him,” said Franklin Graham, “that the Lord would strengthen him.”
As recently as 2013, at age 94, the elder Graham once again demonstrated his enduring charisma, as millions nationwide viewed his “My Hope America” program, which predictably aimed to win converts to the Christian faith. In an exclusive interview prior to the airing of that program, the elder Graham told Newsmax it would be “perhaps my last message.”
Graham’s remarkable career nearly ended in tragedy before it could even unfold. As told in his book “The Reason for My Hope: Salvation,” Graham as a young pastor was returning home after giving a speech in Canada when a stewardess approached his seat, leaned over, and nervously whispered that their flight was in jeopardy.
An air-traffic controller had informed the pilot he would have to immediately land their Lockheed Lodestar because a cold front was about to change the driving rain that was already pelting their aircraft into heavy ice and snow. But a blizzard had shut down all the airports in the region, leaving the aircraft with no place to land.
With terrible weather closing in fast, the pilot decided to put the WWII-era aircraft down in a remote, snow-covered field. At the last moment, rather than lower the landing gear, which likely would have caused the aircraft to cartwheel, the pilot chose to land the aircraft on its belly, allowing it to slide across the snow like a sled.
Graham would never forget the blood-curdling cries on that plane as it careened through the snow, and how they turned to hosannas after the aircraft plowed to a stop. They spent a chilly night spent in the plane until a horse-drawn wagon showed up the next morning to rescue them.
Graham’s heartfelt prayers were answered: All passengers and crew escaped unharmed.
The singular career that followed that fateful night was unmatched. According to the BGEA that he founded, Graham’s crusades took him to more than 185 nations, where he preached to live audiences that totaled some 215 million persons — believed to be more than any other person in history.
One documentary aptly described Graham as “God’s ambassador.” Catholic League President Bill Donohue told Newsmax: “I had nothing but admiration for the man.”
“As a Catholic growing up in New York, he was the closest thing in the eyes of Catholics to a Protestant Pope,” recalled Donohue. “We looked upon Billy Graham as a man we held in such high prestige. There was him, and then there was everybody else … He was the unofficial spokesperson for the Protestant community.”
Over the years a dozen U.S. presidents would seek Graham’s counsel and spiritual advice, often during private visits. He seemed to have an uncanny sense of how to relate to them in a personal and genuine way.
“They are just ordinary people,” Graham told Newsmax of the presidents he mentored. “Most of them are seeking to talk to somebody who won’t quote them; whom they can trust and have prayer with.
“They are searching for something to hold on to, something that can give them an anchor in the midst of this turbulent world or the latest political crisis they find themselves in,” he added. “It is a lonely place to be in that level of leadership, and I have always encouraged people to pray for them, asking that they seek God’s wisdom and do His will.”
Beyond his many visits to the White House, Graham stood in solidarity with the U.S. Civil Rights movement. Following the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling, Graham refused to preach to racially divided audiences.
He hosted Dr. Martin Luther King as his guest at the famous 1957 crusade at New York’s Madison Square Garden, and posted King’s bail after the civil rights leader was arrested during anti-segregation protests in the South.
Graham reportedly urged President Dwight D. Eisenhower to use federal troops to protect the Little Rock Nine during the 1957 integration of Central High School in Arkansas. In his waning days, Eisenhower asked Graham to visit him on his death bed.
Graham also corresponded with late South African leader and anti-apartheid figure Nelson Mandela during his 27 years of imprisonment. Graham refused invitations to preach in South Africa until the government agreed to permit fully integrated crowds.
“Christianity is not a white man’s religion,” he declared to the throngs of more than 100,000 that greeted him in Durban and Johannesburg, “and don’t let anybody ever tell you that it’s white or black. Christ belongs to all people.”
For all his readiness to stand up for the Civil Rights movement, however, Graham generally shied away from attending its historic marches — one of his lifelong regrets.
“I think I made a mistake when I didn’t go to Selma,” he told The Associated Press in a 2005 interview. “I would like to have done more.”
Graham was also a stalwart figure in another humanitarian movement, the drive to liberate those crushed by the brutal tyranny of Cold War-era Communism and the Soviet Union. He visited Eastern Europe, urged the eradication of weapons of mass destruction, and preached against the state-enforced atheism of Communist regimes.
In a fiery anti-Communist sermon delivered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 1952, Graham preached: “I believe that the battle today is between Communism and Christianity. And I believe the only way that we are going to be able to win that battle is for America to turn back to God and back to Christ and back to the Bible at this hour.”
Graham’s passion for social justice contributed to his being named to Gallup’s list of the “Ten Most Admired Men in the World” some 60 times, more than anyone else ever.
Among his life’s achievements: He wrote 32 books. His “Hour of Decision” radio program aired internationally for more than six decades. He received the Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion in 1982, the Congressional Gold Medal in 1996, and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation Freedom Award in 2000.
Yet despite Graham’s rise to the pinnacles of power, he always credited his fame and influence to the simple fact that he had obeyed the admonition of Jesus Christ in Mark 16:15: “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.”
“It was God who did this,” Graham would later say.
Graham was born on Nov. 7, 1918 — just four days before the armistice that would end World War I. He grew up during the Depression on a dairy farm outside Charlotte, N.C., the son of William Franklin and Morrow Coffey Graham.
Life on the farm taught Graham the meaning of hard work. But according to the BGEA website, he also found time after chores to sit in the farm’s hayloft, where he would read books on a wide range of subjects.
The day that would change Graham’s life forever came in the fall of 1934. At age 15 he attended a revival meeting led by itinerant evangelist Mordecai Ham. That was when he dedicated his life to serving Christ.
He attended the Florida Bible Institute from 1937 to 1940, just north of Tampa, Fla., and was ordained in the Southern Baptist Convention in 1939.
It was during his studies at Florida Bible Institute, on the 18th green of a local golf course that he committed himself to a lifetime of ministry.
He told the story in “Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham.”
“Did I want to preach for a lifetime?” he wrote. “I asked myself that question for the umpteenth time on one of my nighttime walks around the golf course.
“The inner, irresistible urge would not subside. Finally, one night, I got down on my knees at the edge of one of the greens. Then I prostrated myself on the dewy turf.
“Oh God,’” I sobbed, “’if you want me to serve you, I will.’”
He wrote that while he heard no booming voice from above, “in my spirit I knew I had been called to the ministry. And I knew my answer was yes.”
That “yes” would lead him on to attend Wheaton College, a Christian school west of Chicago, where he would receive his bachelor’s in anthropology in 1943. There he met Ruth McCue Bell, the daughter of medical missionaries serving in China, at Wheaton.
Their relationship would be life-changing for them both. It was Ruth who would keep the world-famous icon grounded even as he met Hollywood stars and royalty.
According to authors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, rumors began to circulate in 1964 that Graham was entertaining the possibility of running for the White House. Ruth decided to squelch that notion straight away. “If you run,” she told him directly, “I don’t think the country will elect a divorced president.”
Graham called his beloved Ruth “my life partner, adding: “We were called by God as a team. No one else could have borne the load that she carried.”
Billy and Ruth got married shortly after their graduation, and would go on to have five children: Virginia (“Gigi”), Anne, Ruth, Franklin, and Ned. Their extended family would ultimately include 19 grandchildren.
Graham’s ascendance to international fame began in 1949, when he scheduled a series of revivals in Los Angeles. His crusade attracted national media coverage, thanks largely to newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst apparently thought Graham would make good copy, and so he directed his editors in no uncertain terms to “puff Graham.”
Other media picked up on the story, and the ensuing deluge of coverage enabled Graham to go viral long before anyone had dreamed of the Internet. The crusade was originally expected to last three weeks. It eventually stretched to eight, with overflow crowds spilling out of the big tent each night.
In “Just As I Am,” Graham would later profess that he never knew precisely why the newspaper baron decided to make him a cause celeb. “Hearst and I did not meet, talk by phone, or correspond as long as he lived,” he wrote.
The Los Angeles Crusade propelled Graham to international prominence. In 1950, he founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the organization that would coordinate his global evangelism. Soon his fame would eclipse even Hearst’s, the eccentric newspaper czar.
Graham’s London crusade ran for three straight months. During the 1957 crusade in Madison Square Garden, the faithful lined up for 16 straight weeks to hear his message of salvation.
Over the course of his ministry, Graham would counsel presidents, meet world leaders, and preach to crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands. But he also would share the gospel with Australian bushmen, villagers in Africa, and tribal members in the Middle East. During the Cold War, he spoke to virtually every Eastern bloc country then suffering under the domination of the now-defunct Soviet Union.
Graham’s storied life was hardly without tragedy, however. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1992. In 2007, he lost his beloved wife Ruth after her long battle with failing health.
“Ruth is my soul mate and best friend,” Graham stated shortly before she died, “and I cannot imagine living a single day without her by my side. I am more and more in love with her today than when we first met over 65 years ago as students at Wheaton College.”
Even in his waning years, Graham remained an influential and formidable figure in both religious and political circles.
In 2010, President Barack Obama visited Graham in his North Carolina home where the two prayed together. But Graham would later offer effusive praise of GOP standard-bearer Mitt Romney, in what some considered a de facto endorsement in the 2012 presidential race.
As recently as December 2010, son Franklin Graham told Newsmax the famous evangelist hoped to one day return to the pulpit. “His entire life has been about sharing this wonderful message of God’s love for the world,” the younger Graham said.
Another example of the elder Graham’s enduring influence is The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Asheville, N.C. Before a single guest drove through its gates, Billy and Ruth Graham prayed over the property. Over three decades, more than 800,000 Christian leaders have studied at the 1,200-acre biblical training and retreat center.
In 2011, Graham was hospitalized for pneumonia. He was readmitted in 2012 due to a lung infection. But even old age and illness were unable to silence the “God’s ambassador.”
In September 2013, he issued an open letter to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani calling on him to release Saeed Abedini, the American citizen and pastor held prisoner there. Abedini was finally released in January 2016.
Graham’s status was such that he even managed to inspire a rare moment of bipartisanship in Congress when he celebrated his 95th birthday. Then Senate Majority leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and then GOP Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ken., both spoke in praise of Graham from the Senate floor.
“Billy Graham has walked the halls of power and counseled presidents and kings,” said McConnell. “But he’s never forgotten his mission in life.”
Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and Rupert Murdoch were among the glitterati who flocked to Graham’s 95th birthday party later that month, which was held in North Carolina.
Said Palin: “Billy Graham changed the world because he has allowed Christ to shine right through him. People would listen to him and could receive His message.”
Reed, the president of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, told Newsmax TV that Graham “was somebody who bridged a lot of divides that others could not bridge between fundamentalists and charismatics,” between those who believed in the “inherency of scripture and others who were of main-line denominations, for lack of a better term.”
He added: “I don’t know any other figure in American Protestantism who has been able to do that without compromising or watering down the Gospel message.”
Among the legacies of Graham’s towering life: Over 70 million copies of his sermons were handed out across the globe. At the height of his popularity, he would receive over 8,000 requests a year to make speeches, and an astounding 10,000 letters a day, according to the Los Angeles Times.
On Wednesday, Billy Graham biographer William Martin of Rice University called him “the key leader and the major spokesman of the evangelical movement during the last half of the 20th century. That movement has become one of the strongest in all of world Christianity and world religion, and he played the major role in that.”
In his 30-minute “My Hope America” special that aired in 2013, Graham preached a familiar message. “I’m asking you to put your trust in Christ,” he said, before leading viewers in his classic prayer of repentance and salvation.
Dwight Parrish, the associate pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in West Asheville, N.C., remarked: “There were tears watching the video, it was so moving. The message has not changed in 60 years. It’s still the same message: that Christ can change a person’s life.”
A footnote to Graham’s life that would be a highlight for anyone else were his encounters with the son of a U.S. president who was known to have a drinking problem. During long walks at the president’s Kennebunkport retreat, he would counsel the young man on his faith.
Graham wouldn’t talk much about those encounters in future years, but they apparently had a powerful effect: The young man said he began faithfully reading a Bible Graham gave him.
George W. Bush would later swear off of alcohol and eventually follow in his father’s footsteps, becoming the 43rd president of the United States. Such was the influence of Billy Graham.
Of all the commemorations of his life offered Wednesday, perhaps the one the great preacher would most embrace was given by megachurch Pastor David Jeremiah, the founder of Turning Point Radio and Television Ministries.
“While his earthly shell may have died,” Jeremiah noted, “he is alive and well, crowned with splendor with the King of Kings at this very moment.
“Today, after 99 years of a life well lived, we rejoice that this child of God is reunited with his father in heaven.”
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