(Updated Feb. 22, 11 a.m.)
Longtime evangelist Billy Graham died early this morning (Feb. 21) of natural causes, according to a spokesman representing the Graham family. He was 99 years old. As a Southern Baptist and North Carolina native, Graham was well-known for spreading the gospel to millions of people around the world through itinerant preaching and evangelistic crusades.
William "Billy" F. Graham
"My one purpose in life is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which, I believe, comes through knowing Christ," said Graham, according to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) website.
Graham has 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 – through various meetings, including Mission World and Global Mission. Hundreds of millions more have been reached through television, video, film, and webcasts.
'A titanic figure'
Milton Hollifield Jr., executive director-treasurer of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, said, "Although it is natural to be saddened when hearing that evangelist Billy Graham has died, I also rejoice that he is now in the presence of the Lord he loved and served throughout his life.
"Numerous times Mr. Graham stated that he was anxious to go to heaven. God raised up Billy Graham for a specific time and purpose in history and empowered him to proclaim God's Word all over the world. Billy Graham believed that his primary purpose in life was to help people come to a personal relationship with God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I am thankful that he was always true and faithful to this calling of God upon his life and ministry."
Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), said, "An epic era of evangelical history has come to an end.
"Billy Graham was not only a titanic figure in evangelicalism, but in world history and perhaps represents the last of a kind. He dominated 20th century American evangelicalism 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."
SBTS established "The Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Ministry" in 1993 at Mohler's inauguration, at which Graham spoke. It is the only graduate school the famed evangelist granted permission to use his name.
Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, said he is "deeply saddened" to hear of Graham's death.
"He was a friend, a colleague, and mentor to me," said Rainer, "and I will miss him dearly."
A legacy of faithfulness
Born Nov. 7, 1918, four days before World War I ended, Graham was raised on a dairy farm in Charlotte, N.C.
In the fall of 1934, at age 15, Graham became a Christian through the ministry of Mordecai Ham, a traveling evangelist, who visited Charlotte for a series of revival meetings.
Ordained in 1939 by a church in the Southern Baptist Convention, Graham was educated at the Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College in Florida). In 1943 he graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and married fellow student Ruth McCue Bell, daughter of a missionary surgeon, who spent the first 17 years of her life in China.
After graduating from college, Graham pastored in Illinois at The Village Church of Western Springs (now Western Springs Baptist Church), while becoming the first full-time evangelist for Youth for Christ, an organization founded for ministry to youth and servicemen during World War II.
He preached throughout the United States and in Europe in the immediate post war era, emerging as a rising young evangelist.
The Los Angeles Crusade in 1949 launched Mr. Graham into international prominence. Scheduled for three weeks, the meetings were extended to more than eight weeks, with overflow crowds filling a tent erected downtown each night.
Graham founded the BGEA in 1950, headquartered in Minneapolis, Minn., until relocating to Charlotte, N.C., in 2003.
He has written 31 books, many of which have become best sellers. His autobiography Just As I Am, published in 1997, achieved a "triple crown," appearing simultaneously on the three top best-seller lists in one week.
Graham's counsel has been sought by several presidents, and his appeal in both the secular and religious arenas is evidenced by the wide range of groups that have honored him, including numerous honorary doctorates from many institutions in the U.S. and abroad.
Graham was preceded in death by his wife of nearly 64 years, Ruth Bell Graham, in June of 2007. Together they had three daughters, two sons, 19 grandchildren and numerous great grandchildren. At his death, Graham lived in their home in the mountains of North Carolina.
Graham's body will be transported from Morris Funeral Home in Asheville, N.C., to the BGEA headquarters in Charlotte on Feb. 24. An arrival ceremony will take place around 3 p.m. at the Billy Graham Library.
His body will lie in repose in a closed casket Feb. 26-27 from 8 a.m. till 10 p.m. at the Graham family's home place, where it will be available for public viewing.
He will then be transported to the United States Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., to lie in honor Feb. 28-March 1 for members of the public and Capitol Hill community to pay their respects, according to House Speaker Paul Ryan's press office. Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will participate in a bicameral service in Graham's honor.
A private funeral service will be held March 2 in a tent in the parking lot of the Billy Graham Library. Graham's son, Franklin, will deliver a message for the ceremony, accompanied by remarks from other family members. A tent was chosen as the venue for the event in honor of the renowned Los Angeles "Canvas Cathedral" revival in 1949.
A private interment service will follow the funeral, conducted by Donald Wilton, pastor of First Baptist Church in Spartanburg, S.C., and David Bruce, Graham's executive assistant.
Graham has been a member of First Baptist Spartanburg since 2008 and was regularly visited by Wilton.
The Billy Graham Library will be closed through March 5.