Globe-trotting evangelist Billy Graham dies at 99

By Dale Neal • Special to The Smoky Mountain News

Evangelist Billy Graham — a spiritual guide to generations of American evangelicals, a globe-trotting preacher who converted millions to Christianity, and a confidante to presidents — died today at the age of 99.

Graham personally preached the Christian gospel to more people on the planet than any other evangelist in the 2,000 years of Christianity.

Over his long life, Graham spoke before live audiences estimated at nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries worldwide. His sonorous Southern drawl delivered a message of God’s love to millions more in televised crusades that still air on cable television channels.

Although he was a pastor to presidents he never lost his common touch. Graham knew the names of the conductors of the trains that he caught from the Black Mountain depot when he was launching his evangelist career in the 1950s. Graham made Montreat his home base to raise his family and restore his energy during a blistering pace of crusades crisscrossing first the nation and then the world.

He preached 417 crusades over his career spanning more than a half a century. The largest local attendance ever was in Seoul, South Korea, in 1973, with 3,210,000 present over five days.

Back home, he became the nation's informal chaplain, meeting with every president from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama who visited the aging evangelist at his Montreat home. Donald Trump, then a celebrity developer, was among the 800 guests who feted Graham on his 95th birthday soiree at the Omni Grove Park Inn in 2013.


Glenn Wilcox, an Asheville businessman and longtime friend, first saw Graham preach at his famed 1957 crusade at Madison Square Garden, which ran nightly for 16 weeks. Wilcox and his wife, Pauline, were then living in Boone, but made the trip to New York City. They had plans to catch the crusade one night, then catch a Yankees baseball game, then a Giants game. Instead, they skipped the baseball and kept going back to the Garden to watch the fiery Tar Heel proclaim the gospel message and hear Ethel Waters sing.

Wilcox remembers sitting back in the rafters of the famed arena when Graham gave his invitation for people to come forward and accept Jesus Christ as personal savior. “You could have heard a pin drop. I thought this is God's Spirit moving here. Billy is doing it right. It really impressed me.”

Graham crusades ran like clockwork with his team, Cliff Barrows, leading the familiar hymns, and a solo by famed baritone George Beverly Shea, with his trademark rendition of “How Great Thou Art.” Crusades featured popular singers such Graham’s teams worked in advance with local religious leaders to make sure that all those who came forward at Graham’s invitation would find churches to join afterward.

Graham staged a crusade in Asheville in 1977. The Rev. L.C. Ray, pastor and founder of WNC Baptist Fellowship Church on Haywood Street, remembers the hard work that went into staging that event in Asheville's then-new Civic Center. Well before the crusade, Ray and other African-American ministers met with Graham at his Montreat home.

“They were very gracious as Dr. Graham challenged us to lead the effort for a crusade,” said Ray. “He brought in African Americans who might have been on the sidelines."

Dr. John White, the longtime pastor of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, served as chairman of the Graham crusade committee for Asheville.

“I think it was one of the key religious moments in our city, something that none of us will ever forget,” Ray said. “Dr. Graham really gave me a chance to see that faith is about being totally colorblind.”

Early in his career, Graham began preaching the need for racial justice and that Christians especially should demonstrate love for all people. In 1953, at his Chattanooga, Tenn., crusade, Graham tore down the ropes separating whites from blacks. The head usher resigned in anger, but the ropes stayed down.

In 1957, Graham introduced Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a speaker at his Madison Square Garden crusade. Graham and King discussed how evangelism could bring an end to segregation. King urged Graham to continue his ministry, preaching to integrated audiences in the stadiums, while King waged his nonviolent demonstrations in the streets.

A farm boy from outside a once-sleepy Southern town, Graham answered local prayers during the Depression years “that out of Charlotte the Lord would raise up someone to preach the Gospel to the ends of the Earth,” as he recounted in his 1997 autobiography “Just As I Am.”

In 1934, the 16-year-old answered the call of a fiery revival preacher, Mordecai Ham, and committed his young life to Christ, a simple act of faith that he would ask others to repeat over his long lifetime. He also learned how to close the deal as a young salesman for the Fuller Brush Co., selling brushes door to door.

As a young preacher studying at Florida Bible Institute in 1937, Graham would paddle across the river to a little island and practice his preaching to "all creatures great and small, from alligators to birds. If they would not stop to listen, there was always a congregation of cypress stumps that could neither slither of fly away," he wrote.

The altar call he preached to small churches across the South, drawing dozens down at the end of his sermon, would become throngs of thousands in sports stadiums around the world who answered his call to come to Christ.

He joined Youth for Christ, an organization founded for ministry to youth and service members during World War II.

His movie-star handsome looks helped his cause. Writer Wilma Dykeman noted Graham would become known as “The Gabardine Gabriel” and the “Barrymore of the Bible.”

That voice would win attention. Time magazine wrote of the trumpet-lunged North Carolinian in 1949, fresh from the breakout success of his eight-week crusade in Los Angeles. “His lapel microphone, which gives added volume to his deep, cavernous voice, allows him to pace the platform as he talks, rising to his toes to drive home a point, clenching his fists, stabbing his finger at the sky, and straining to get his words to his furthermost corner of the tent.”

Through the years, the message remained the same, the delivery electrifying. "My theme was always the same: God's redemptive love for sinners, and the need for personal repentance and conversion," Graham wrote.

Longtime associates credited not personal charisma to Graham’s success as a speaker, but pointed to divine inspiration. "It's the Holy Spirit that takes the word of God that Mr. Graham is carrying and drives those words into the human condition," said David Bruce, Graham’s longtime executive assistant.

Graham would also credit his wife as a crucial partner in the formation of his Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

Ruth McCue Bell was born in June 1920 to Dr. Nelson and Virginia Bell, medical missionaries serving near Shanghai, China. She spent her childhood in China, a land she would always deeply love, before going to high school in Korea. The Bells returned to Montreat in 1937.

Ruth finished high school and enrolled at the evangelistic Christian Wheaton College in Illinois. The coed had many dates, but her eye soon settled on Graham, a strapping 6-foot-2 North Carolinian, already an ordained Baptist minister at age 21. On their first date, Graham took her to hear Handel's “Messiah.”

Ruth was already filling her journals with poetry about the handsome young man. “With quiet eyes aglow, I'll understand that he’s the man I prayed for long ago.”

But Ruth also believed she was called to be a missionary in Tibet. Graham countered that being a wife and a mother was a holy calling.

“If I marry Bill, I must do so with open eyes. It won't be easy,” Ruth wrote in her journal. “He will be increasingly burdened for lost souls and increasingly active in the Lord’s work. After the joy that I am his by rights, and his forever, I will slip into the background.”

The couple married on Aug. 13, 1943, in Montreat Presbyterian Church and they would honeymoon in the Battery Park Hotel in downtown Asheville. The couple later moved to Montreat to be close to her parents. At first, curious onlookers would spy through their windows to see the famed evangelist. The family later bought a more private retreat on Piney Mountain where Ruth designed their rustic Appalachian home. There, she would raise their five children: Virginia, who goes by “Gigi,” Anne, Ruth, Franklin and Nelson, known as Ned.

But the couple would have little time together as Graham became a full-time evangelist for Youth for Christ and later as he started mounting his own crusades.

While her husband was away, Ruth Graham took to sleeping with his tweed jacket to keep her company, according to her journals.

Once when she was driving a friend up to their mountaintop home in Montreat, she hit the accelerator rather than the brake and sent the car crashing through a fence and down the mountain. Both were unharmed.

Calling long distance from California, Graham was none too happy and wanted her to surrender her driver's license. She began to argue back on the phone.

Billy fell silent on his end, then said, “I don’t recall reading in Scripture that Sarah ever talked to Abraham like this.”

Without missing a beat, Ruth fired back, "Well, I don't recall reading in Scripture that Abraham ever tried to take Sarah's camel away from her."

Ruth would kept her car and license.

Mrs. Graham died in 2007 and was buried at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, where the evangelist will be laid to rest by her side.

But the Graham name will remain attached to the mountains where the couple lived, relaxed and raised their family. At Swannanoa, the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove remains a sanctuary and retreat center set in the mountain landscape that both Billy and Ruth Graham had loved. Ruth had picked out the designs for the stonework of the chapel and surrounding native garden.

In 1996, they endowed the Ruth and Billy Graham Health Center at Memorial Mission Hospital, which later evolved into Mission’s Children’s Dental Program, providing strong healthy smiles for thousands of mountain children. And Interstate 240 winding through Asheville bears the name of the Billy Graham Freeway.

Some wanted Graham to run for the highest office in the land, including the presidents he counseled in the White House. One day while swimming together at Camp David, President Lyndon Johnson said in front of a group of people, “Billy, you ought to be president of the United States. If you do run, I’d like to be your campaign manager.”

Billy laughed and said, “You’re joking.”

Johnson replied, “No, I’m serious. I mean it.”

But Graham stuck to preaching, even as he counseled presidents over the past 50 years. Graham would become particularly close with Richard Nixon, who he called his “Quaker Friend.” But the evangelist admitted he was demoralized by Watergate and Nixon’s culpability in the cover-up of the partisan-inspired burglary. 


Nixon’s secret Oval Office tapes would come back to haunt the evangelist. Graham was secretly recorded in a 1972 conversation with disparaging remarks about Jews in the media. In 2002 when the tape was released, Graham said he did not recall those remarks but apologized to Jewish religious leaders.

At his career’s end, Graham said in hindsight he should have stayed further away from politics. “Becoming involved in strictly political issues or partisan politics inevitably dilutes the evangelist’s impact and compromises his message. It is a lesson I wish I had learned earlier,” he wrote in his autobiography.

Graham preached his last crusade in New York, but he never considered himself retired from the calling he had been given. Wilcox recalled playing a game of golf with his friend at Biltmore Country Club, and brought up the topic of retirement. “He started wagging his finger at me. Look in the Bible and the word ‘retirement’ isn’t in there. Glenn, you have to remember that God has always used older men. He didn’t call Moses until he was 80.”

He remained popular in the public eye well after he was unable to physically lead his crusades. He was a regular fixture in Gallup’s annual polling for the 10 most Admired Men in the World since 1948. Graham always remained humble about his career as the most famous and well-traveled evangelist of the 20th century. In his autobiography, he wrote: I have often said that the first I am going to do when I get to heaven is to ask ‘Why me, Lord? Whey did You choose a farmboy from North Carolina to preach to so many people, to have such a wonderful team of associates, and to have a part in what You were doing in the last half of the 20th century?’

“I have thought about that question a great deal, but I know also that only God knows the answer,” Graham wrote. “As I look back over the years, however, I know that my deepest gratitude is one of overwhelming gratitude.”

That gratitude was returned by Graham’s many local friends and neighbors. “Everyone in Western North Carolina is proud that he made his home here, and raised his family,” Wilcox said.

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