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Billy Graham, renowned Montreat evangelist, dies at 99
MONTREAT - The Rev. Billy Graham, the evangelist who prayed with U.S. presidents and preached the Christian gospel to millions worldwide, died at the age of 99.
Spokesman Mark DeMoss said Graham died Wednesday morning at his home in Montreat, according to the Associated Press.
Graham was the most successful evangelist in 2,000 years of Christian history, as far as the size of his audience. Taking the Great Commission “to preach the gospel to the ends of the Earth,” Graham delivered the same, simple message of God’s love to some 215 million people in 185 countries worldwide over a half century.
His last public appearance was in 2013, at a gala event to mark his 95th birthday.
In his autobiography “Just as I Am,” Graham posed the question he planned to ask when he reached heaven. “Why me, Lord? Why did you choose a farm boy from North Carolina to preach to so many people?”
At 6-foot-3, with his thick mane of hair and a soft Southern drawl, Graham cut an imposing figure on stadium stages around the world and in the halls of power. He and his wife, Ruth, were awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, in 1996, while Graham has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Rev. Billy Graham died at the age of 99. He was known for his charisma, but said "I despise all this attention on me...I'm not trying to bring people to myself, but I know that God has sent me out as a warrior." USA TODAY
Swannanoa Valley residents remember the lesser-known, down-home version of the world-famous evangelist.
Graham used to slip in to First Baptist Church in Swannanoa about once a year to attend services, said Dan Snyder, worship and senior adult pastor there. “There would be such a buzz that Billy Graham was there,” he said. “I remember one Sunday it was his birthday, and I was asked to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him. I don’t think I heard the congregation sing any better than that morning. It was so exciting.”
Graham didn’t particularly want the attention, Snyder recalled of those yearly, random visits. He seemed to want to be able to slip into the service like anyone else, despite the entourage he typically had with him on those Sunday mornings. But sometimes he was successful, especially at the beginning of worship. Then whispers would get around that Graham was sitting in the back, or somewhere, and the energy in the church would change. There was an excitement in the air, Snyder said.
“He didn’t want to interrupt our worship time. He was a person who wouldn’t call attention to himself,” Snyder said. “He was just a humble man who was seeking after God like we all are. He just wanted to be himself during the service.”
Sally Pereira of Black Mountain spent her teen years in Montreat near the Graham family home. “Uncle Billy” and “Aunt Ruth,” as she came to call them, were in Pereira’s house a lot, and she was at theirs, hanging out with their children. Pereira, now 69, describes the Graham house during those days in the 1960s as the most normal one you could have, even as Billy Graham’s fame began to rise. The Graham kids were rambunctious (she remembers some of them sitting on the Montreat Gate, charging tourists a nickel or dime to let them take their picture).
When Pereira’s father died (he was T.W. Wilson, Graham’s friend, colleague and traveling companion), Graham went to the Pereira household in Montreat to comfort the young Sally Pereira (nee Wilson). “He said, ‘let me be your daddy,’” she said, treasuring the memory. He let her cry and comforted her with prayers and promises that her father was bound for heaven.
Eventually, as Grahams’ fame and family grew, the family moved higher up the mountain in Montreat. They bought the house next door to serve as his office and study. Pereira worked there, as part of the early Billy Graham ministries.
She recalls that the office staff would have daily devotions, and Graham often sat in. When he was there during her time to lead, she felt a bit intimidated, she said. Who was she to lead the prayers for a world-famous evangelist?
But Graham bowed his head and followed her lead just like the rest of the office staff. She loved him for that. It underscored Graham’s belief that no one was any more worthy than any other, that despite his gathering fame that he was just another person humbling himself in front of God, she said.
“He was always the one who would say, I’m not the boss, the Lord is the boss,” she said. “He was so humble and loving and concerned about people, one on one and not just when he was holding the big crusades.”
In the Montreat office when she worked there, “if anyone was critical and tried to do a hatchet job on him (publicly), he would say, I want y’all to pray with me that I will never be guilty of what they are accusing me of. He tried never to fight back and lash out. He just wanted his life to disprove the criticism. He wanted to learn from it.”
Even as he became better known, Graham held on to his friends in Montreat and Black Mountain. Sometimes in his more physically fit days, he would would walk down the mountain from his house to Pereira’s house not far from the Montreat Gate.
“He’d stop by our house,” Pereira said, “and holler in, he’d say, ‘Mary Helen (Pereira’s mother), what are you fixing for lunch today?’ And she’s say, ‘I have some squash and lima beans that me and T.W. (T.W Wilson, Pereira’s father) are going to eat, you’re welcome to stay.’ And he’d say, ‘if you don’t mind.’
“He loved home cooking and homemade ice cream. He and daddy, a lot of times in their travels, would try to get to Crackle Barrel so they could have some good country cooking. When we’d pick them up at the Charlotte airport, they’d always tell us to stop at Bridge’s Barbecue in Shelby.”
Pereira remembers that her father and Graham loved to play golf at the Black Mountain Golf Course and have lunch afterward at the Coach House restaurant in town. People in Black Mountain treated the Grahams like anyone else, in part because the Grahams didn’t ask for anything else, she said.
But local residents were protective. When tourists would show up in Montreat and ask for directions to the Grahams’ house, residents would often send them off in the wrong direction, Pereira said. “They treated the Grahams like neighbors. They would make a churn of ice cream and invite them over,” she said.
“I have just been crying my eyes out,” Pereira said of hearing the news that “Uncle Billy” had died. “Everyone has to die, but this is such a shock. I can’t imagine a world without him. But I know that it is not the end. It’s the beginning of eternity.”
Graham became the nation’s chaplain, meeting and praying with every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. He gave the prayer at nine inaugural events. When the nation mourned the shocking losses of Sept. 11, 2001, Graham took the pulpit in Washington National Cathedral and underscored his hopeful message that humans could turn to God for comfort even in the darkest of times.
But mostly, he trotted the globe, holding 417 crusades, drawing overflow audiences in outdoor stadiums and indoor arenas. With music by his team members, choir leader Cliff Barrows and bass soloist George Beverly Shea, the crusades entertained audiences with music from a variety of stars including Johnny Cash, Ricky Scruggs and later Christian rap artists.
But the crowds came mainly to see Graham and to hear his consistent message of a way to find peace of heart through a personal commitment to Christ.
Longtime friend Glenn Wilcox first met Graham playing golf at Biltmore Forest Country Club in 1965. “He was just the most humble man I ever met,” Wilcox recalled. “He’d walk up to a member of the country club and introduce himself, ‘I’m Billy Graham,’ even though everybody knew who he was.
“Billy said, ‘The reason I do that is because it’s polite to say your name, I don’t want to hurt anybody. I’m just trying to help them to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,’” Wilcox said.
Commitment to Christ
Graham was raised in a strict Presbyterian home, but his life changed in 1934 when the 16-year-old attended a tent revival staged by the evangelist Mordecai Ham on Charlotte’s Central Avenue. The teenager stepped forward and committed himself to Christ, in a simple act of faith he would call upon millions over the next decades to do for themselves.
Intent on the ministry, Graham enrolled briefly at Bob Jones College, the fundamentalist school, then located in Tennessee, but found the atmosphere too strict. He transferred to Florida Bible Institute, and Graham was ordained into the ministry by a Southern Baptist Church in 1939.
He went on to Wheaton College in Illinois to further his education, and there met Ruth Bell, the vivacious daughter of missionaries, who had been born in China. They courted and married in Montreat, and spent the first night of their honeymoon in the Battery Park Hotel in Asheville for $5. Graham was unable to afford the $20 at the Grove Park Inn.
Graham pastored a small Baptist church in Illinois and then joined Youth for Christ as a full-time evangelist, making $75. He went into academia, becoming president of Northwestern Schools, a Christian college in Minneapolis. But the flair for evangelism still called.
Graham burst onto the national scene in Los Angeles in 1949. William Randolph Hearst gave the order at his newspapers to “puff Graham,” and media nationwide picked up the story about the photogenic Southerner pounding at his pulpit and listeners’ hearts. The Los Angeles crusade ran for eight weeks, and Graham admitted in his autobiography that he came close to “burnout,” but he followed the California crusade with electrifying rallies on Boston Common.
He also avoided temptations to turn away from his calling. Wilcox said Hollywood producers wanted him for movies while political operatives tried to get him to run for public office. “I’m not a movie star,” Graham told them.
Graham was able to use technology, bringing evangelism into the electronic age of radio, television and film and later into cyberspace with the Internet. His daily newspaper column published in the Asheville Citizen Times and nationwide carried his consistent message.
He founded magazines such as “Christianity Today” and “Decision” to give intellectual weight to his conservative Christianity against liberal theologians. He encouraged other evangelists worldwide with conferences in Amsterdam and elsewhere in Europe to continue the outreach he brought in his crusades.
Where other evangelists have gained the national spotlight but were often disgraced, Graham early on decided to avoid any trace of impropriety by never being in a room alone with another woman other than Ruth. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association led the way with transparency and trustworthy accounting about fundraising and donations.
Although he was a fiery anti-Communist in his preaching, Graham learned early on to avoid mixing politics and religion. After the White House press corps photographed a young Graham re-enacting his prayer with President Harry Truman on the White House lawn, Truman was dismayed that the evangelist had repeated their conversation. From then on, through his White House visits, Graham kept his counsel and prayers private with the commander-in-chief.
He counted himself a friend of Richard Nixon, first when he was vice president and later as the president. Graham was deeply distressed by the events of Watergate and the vulgar language captured on the White House tapes.
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Graham himself was captured on Nixon’s tapes; those came to light in 2002, with remarks about the Jewish ownership of major media outlets. Graham said he did not remember the 1972 conversation, but he apologized publicly and privately to Jewish leaders in Cincinnati at his crusade.
During his long career, Graham came under fire from fundamentalists for his willingness to share his crusade platform with Catholics and other Christian denominations. He also fought early on to bridge the racial divides, integrating his events with both white and black believers.
In 1957, he held a revival meeting in Madison Square Garden in New York that proved so popular, it was extended from six to 16 weeks, his longest rally ever, which packed the rafters most every night. Graham concluded his string of crusades back in New York with a crusade at Flushing Meadows in June 2005.
Graham also brought hope to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He appeared there in March 2006 during a Franklin Graham Celebration, where the mantle of evangelism was passed on to his oldest son and heir to his evangelistic empire.
While Graham circled the globe, Ruth stayed home and raised their five children in Montreat. Each of the five followed in their parents’ footsteps, individually advancing the Christian message.
Ruth Graham died at age 87 in June 2007, just weeks after the opening of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte.
Graham will be laid to rest next to his wife at the foot of a cross-shaped walkway in the prayer garden.
About Billy Graham
Born: William (Billy) F. Graham, Jr., Nov 7, 1918, Charlotte, North Carolina.
Parents: William Franklin Graham, Sr., Morrow Coffey Graham. They were dairy farmers.
Married: Ruth McCue Bell, 1943 (She died in 2007). They met at Wheaton College in Illinois. Bell was the daughter of a missionary surgeon, and she spent the first 17 years of her life in China.
Children: Virginia (born 1945), Anne Morrow (1948), Ruth Bell (1950), William Franklin, III (1952), Nelson Edman (1958).
Ordained: 1939 by Peniel Baptist Church in Palatka, Fla. (a church in the Southern Baptist Convention).
Education: Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College of Florida). Wheaton College in Illinois.
Career: After graduating college, Graham pastored the Village Church of Western Springs (now Western Springs Baptist Church) in Western Springs, Ill., before joining 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 Graham into international prominence. Scheduled for three weeks, the crusade was extended to more than eight weeks.
BGEA: Graham founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1950. It was headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, until relocating to Charlotte in 2003.
Media: Through BGEA, Graham started the weekly “Hour of Decision” radio program, heard around the world for more than 60 years; and television programs that are still broadcast today on national Christian networks. He also started a syndicated newspaper column, “My Answer,” which is still carried by newspapers, including the Citizen-Times, both nationally and internationally. He also founded “Decision” magazine, the official publication of the Association, which has a circulation of more than 425,000.
Books: Graham has written 33 books, many of which have become top 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.
Most admired: Graham is regularly listed by the Gallup organization as one of the “Ten Most Admired Men in the World." In 2015, his made his 60th appearance overall in the list and his 54th consecutively.
Family: Graham lost 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.
Residence: Graham lives in Montreat, a community near Black Mountain.