World renowned evangelist Billy Graham died Feb. 21 at 7:46 a.m. while sleeping peacefully in his home in Montreat, N.C. He was 99 years old. Graham’s doctor said, “He just wore out,” according to the Graham family’s spokesperson.
The decorated Southern Baptist and North Carolinian revivalist, who earned the nickname “America’s Pastor,” was buried March 2 beside his wife, Ruth, on the northeast side of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C.
Billy Graham Evangelistic Association photo
Billy Graham at home in Montreat, N.C., with his dogs surveying the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Graham was best known for spreading the word of Jesus Christ to untold crowds around the world through itinerant preaching and evangelistic crusades.
“My one purpose in life is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which, I believe, comes through knowing Christ,” said Graham.
One in six adults in the U.S. have heard Graham preach in person, according to a 2005 Gallup poll.
Graham reportedly preached the gospel to more people in live audiences than anyone else in history – nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories. Hundreds of millions more were reached through radio, television, video, film and webcasts.
His ministry spanned seven decades. He launched several influential Christian organizations and initiatives, including the Billy Graham Crusades, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), the “Hour of Decision” radio program, Billy Graham Library and Christianity Today magazine. Graham also authored more than 30 books.
Two-thirds of Protestant churchgoers have come into contact with Graham’s ministry, according to a recent survey by Lifeway Research.
Born Nov. 7, 1918, he spent his early life on a dairy farm in Charlotte. He became a Christian at age 15 under the preaching of Mordecai Ham, a traveling evangelist who visited North Carolina for a series of revival meetings. Graham signed a “decision card” handed out at the event that read, “I receive Him as my personal Savior,” on Nov. 1, 1934.
“I didn’t have any tears, I didn’t have any emotion, I didn’t hear any thunder, there was no lightning,” he told TIME magazine. “But right there, I made my decision for Christ. It was as simple as that and as conclusive.”
Billy Graham Evangelistic Association photo from Pittsburg, 1968
“Many times I have been driven to prayer,” Billy Graham once said. “When I was in Bible school I didn’t know what to do with my life. I used to walk the streets…and pray, sometimes for hours at a time. In His timing, God answered those prayers, and since then prayer has been an essential part of my life.”
He preached his first sermon in 1937 at Peniel Baptist Church in Palatka, Fla., and was ordained by that congregation two years later. Graham went on to graduate from Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College of Florida) in 1940 and receive a bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., where he met Ruth and developed an acquaintance with a classmate who also became a notable evangelical, Carl F.H. Henry.
Ruth, the daughter of a missionary surgeon, spent her first 17 years in China. She and Graham were married shortly after their graduation on Aug. 13, 1943.
For two years Graham pastored in Illinois at The Village Church of Western Springs (now Western Springs Baptist Church), while also taking a post in 1944 as the first full-time evangelist with Youth for Christ. The organization was dedicated to youth and servicemen outreach during World War II.
The Grahams’ first child, Virginia, nicknamed “Gigi,” was born in 1945, the same year they moved to Montreat, N.C.
In 1947, Graham held his first evangelistic crusade in Grand Rapids, Mich., and quickly rose in popularity as a traveling preacher.
He burst onto the national stage in 1949 after a three-week tent revival in Los Angeles had to be extended due to overflowing crowds. Eager attendees filled the “Canvas Cathedral” each night for more than eight weeks.
Two more daughters were born into the Graham family around that time: Anne in 1948 and Ruth in 1950.
Graham’s itinerant ministry came under the umbrella of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association upon its founding in 1950. Originally headquartered in Minneapolis, Minn., it was moved to Charlotte in 2005.
He also served as president of Northwestern Bible College (now University of Northwestern) from 1947-1952.
The BGEA’s “Hour of Decision” radio program was first broadcast across 150 stations in 1950 from a crusade in Atlanta. The show aired for 60 years, reaching a peak of nearly 1,000 radio stations across the globe in five languages.
“God called me to preach, and I will never do anything else as long as I live,” he once told CBS in an interview. “I believe I have a calling from God and a command from Christ to go to the whole world.”
As the African-American Civil Rights Movement began to wash over mid-century America, Graham used his ministry to support the effort. In 1953, he held his first racially integrated crusade in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Graham’s travel expanded internationally in 1954 with a crusade in London, England. He preached in a communist country, Yugoslavia, for the first time in 1967.
“All over the world I have been privileged to see people respond in faith to the simple yet profound message of God’s love in Jesus Christ. They have come from every conceivable social, racial, political and ideological background, for Christ transcends the boundaries that divide us,” he later wrote.
Evangelical magazine Christianity Today began publication in 1956 under Graham’s leadership, with Carl Henry as the first editor. Their stated purpose was to rally evangelical Christians against the heave of both fundamentalism and liberalism, according an editorial in the first issue. The publication continues into 2018 as evangelicalism’s flagship periodical.
Graham’s evangelistic call swelled to new heights in 1957 when he began broadcasting crusades on television. His longest running crusade – 16 weeks – occurred that year at one of the world’s premier venues, Madison Square Garden in New York City.
As Graham’s influence continued to grow, so did his family. The Grahams had two more children, sons William “Franklin” in 1952 and Nelson “Ned” in 1958, giving them five in all.
The BGEA started printing Decision Magazine in 1960 to solidify Graham’s evangelistic impact and inform readers about the organization’s outreach efforts.
The following four decades of Graham’s ministry revealed the breadth of his fame.
He became a household name, appearing on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and earning a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. His friendship with country music’s “Man in Black,” Johnny Cash, added to the popularity of them both.
Graham walked the halls of power. He received the Presidential Medal of Honor from Ronald Reagan in 1983 and met Pope John Paul II in 1993. He collected numerous awards, acclamations and honorary doctorates from Christian and secular institutions.
One of Graham’s 31 published books, his Just As I Am autobiography, appeared on three top best-seller lists simultaneously.
He was selected for Gallup’s “Ten Most Admired Men in the World” list more than 60 times.
The Billy Graham Library was opened in 2007, two years after the BGEA headquarters were relocated to Charlotte.
The 40,000-square-foot multimedia complex was dedicated with remarks from three former U.S. presidents: George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
His wife, Ruth, died that same year. She was 87. They were married for nearly 64 years.
“Ruth was my life partner, and we were called by God as a team,” he said. “No one else could have borne the load that she carried. 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.”
He preached at more than 400 crusades, simulcasts and evangelistic rallies in more than 185 countries.
From their three girls and two boys, they had 19 grandchildren and numerous great grandchildren.
Graham preached his final sermon in a video titled, “My Hope America,” shown at his 95th birthday celebration.
“Our country is in great need of a spiritual awakening,” he proclaimed.
A 2010 survey by LifeWay Research revealed that Graham was by far the most influential living preacher among Protestant pastors. “My legacy, I think, will just be as the Apostle Paul said, in the hearts of the people,” he once told the Charlotte Observer.
“I don’t think it will be some building or some organization or some place where my name is prominent. I think it’s going to be the hearts of people whose lives have been touched or changed as a result of the gospel that we were able to proclaim.”
Multiple commentators have called Graham’s death the end of an era.
“God raised up Billy Graham for a specific time and purpose in history,” said Milton Hollifield Jr., executive director-treasurer of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
He was probably the last evangelical figure to marshal support from a broad swath of the American population, according to Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “He dominated 20th century American evangelicalism,” said Mohler, “and remained a major figure on the world stage throughout most of the 20th century in a way that we can envision no evangelical leader in our times.”
Billy Graham’s absence will be felt by many.