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Minister to millions: How Rev. Billy Graham became nation's chaplain
Rain fell and cameras clicked as a military honor guard carried the casket of the late Rev. Billy Graham from the U.S. Capitol to a waiting hearse outside. (Mar. 1) AP
At a ceremony honoring the late Rev. Billy Graham at the U.S. Capitol, President Donald Trump shared a special memory of his father taking him to see the prolific preacher. USA TODAY
The Rev. Billy Graham received a rare tribute by the nation's political leaders under the Capitol Rotunda in Washington. The pine casket carrying Graham is lying in honor in the Rotunda on Wednesday. (Feb. 28) AP
The pine casket carrying the Rev. Billy Graham has arrived at the U.S. Capitol for a rare salute by the nation's political leaders. Graham will lie in honor in the Rotunda Wednesday. (Feb. 28) AP
Former President Bill Clinton visited the late Rev. Billy Graham's boyhood home in North Carolina to pay his respects to the pastor who ministered to presidents as far back as Dwight Eisenhower. (Feb. 27) AP
Former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura, were among thousands of people from all walks of who filed slowly past the casket of the Rev. Billy Graham on Monday to pay their final respects. (Feb. 26) AP
Hundreds of people stood in line during a light rain Monday to pay their respect to the late Rev. Billy Graham at his restored boyhood home in North Carolina. (Feb. 26) AP
Mourners stopped by the Billy Graham Library on Saturday to pay tribute to a man who touched their lives, even if they never met him. His casket arrived later that day where his family was waiting to receive him. (Feb. 24) AP
Rev. Billy Graham's body will lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on Feb. 28 and March 1, and Members of Congress and the public will be able to pay their respects to the man called "American's Pastor." (Feb. 22) AP
The Rev. Billy Graham, counselor to presidents and the most widely heard Christian evangelist in history, has died at age 99. (Feb. 21) AP
The Rev. Billy Graham will lie in repose for two days next week and a funeral will be held on March 2. (Feb. 21) AP
The Rev. Billy Graham, counselor to presidents and the most widely heard Christian evangelist in history, has died in his Montreat, North Carolina home on Wednesday at age 99. Locals in the small town remember him fondly. (Feb. 21) AP
The Rev. Billy Graham was famous as the minister to presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. But biographer Grant Wacker says the North Carolina preacher would have been leery or too close an association with the current occupant of the White House. (Feb. 21) AP
Evangelist Billy Graham has been preaching for more than 60 years and met with every U.S. president since World War II. USA TODAY
Billy Graham Was One of America's Richest Pastors. Here's What We Know About His Money Time
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
Billy Graham celebrates his 95th birthday today with a big gala tonight and a nationally broadcast sermon that many say could be his last. USA TODAY
Rev. Billy Graham publicly thanked a dear friend of his at his 95th birthday party. VPC
George Beverly Shea, whose booming baritone voice echoed through stadiums and squares during a decades-long career with evangelist Billy Graham, died April 16, 2013, in Asheville, N.C. He was 104. Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times
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The Rev. Billy Graham might have been history’s most successful Christian, at least in obeying the commandment of Jesus to preach the Gospel around the globe.
Graham preached to 210 million souls in 185 countries over a career of more than 50 years. He reached millions more with his television, radio, newspaper, video, movie and Internet messages. The nation’s informal chaplain, he prayed with every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, and he offered invocations at nine presidential inaugurations.
But one-on-one, whether speaking to a U.S. president or a poor man, Billy Graham came across as a kind-hearted man with a soft Southern drawl, courteous and compassionate. In 2002, behind the scenes at a crusade in Dallas, he rose stiffly from a sofa to greet reporters from the Asheville Citizen-Times.
“I’m old,” he apologized, his hands unsteady with the Parkinson’s disease that afflicted his later years. Just minutes later, Graham would take the stage, helped to the podium with a walker. But once behind his familiar spot on center stage, with his Bible spread on the podium, Graham’s voice never wavered. After half a century of preaching, his simple message of God’s love could still electrify thousands in the stands and bring hundreds to the field to accept Christ at the evening’s end.
Graham looked to the divine for that transformation from frail old man to world’s most famous and effective preacher. “I thank the Lord. He handles that when it’s time. I have to give him credit,” Graham said.
“When he’s standing in the pulpit, he’s totally reliant on the Holy Spirit,” said David Bruce, Graham’s long-time executive assistant.
Year after year, decade after decade, his preaching brought millions down from stadium seats to make their commitment to Christ. The Rev. Buddy Corbin, former pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, still remembers the power of that invitation to “just come.” Corbin recalled taking a girl on a date to the 1961 Graham crusade at the Orange Bowl in Miami when he was 14.
Corbin was already a committed Christian, but at the invitation, “she poked me and we held hands and went down front,” he said. “They were singing ‘Just As I Am.’ I felt this wonderful energy — that’s the only way to describe it.”
Coming to believe
The eldest son of Frank and Morrow Graham, Billy Graham was born Nov. 7, 1918, four days before the Armistice that ended World War I. His family called him “Billy Frank,” and he settled into chores on the dairy farm and regular Presbyterian services
But Graham dated his true faith to the moment he stepped forward at the invitation of traveling Baptist evangelist Mordecai Ham, who shook up Charlotte in a series of tent meetings in 1934.
“No bells went off inside me. No signs flashed across the tabernacle ceiling. No physical palpitations made me tremble. I wondered again if I was a hypocrite, not to be weeping or something,” Graham wrote of that life-changing moment in his autobiography.
“I simply felt at peace. Quiet, not delirious. Happy and peaceful.”
Over his lifetime, Graham wanted to share that peace with the world.
He put aside early ambitions to be a baseball player or a dairy farmer like his father and focused on becoming a preacher.
In 1936, after his first job as a Fuller Brush salesman, he went off to school at Bob Jones College, and then located in Cleveland, Tenn. But Graham found the school’s fundamentalism too rigid, and transferred to the more ecumenical Florida Bible Institute, which later became known as Trinity College.
He would paddle out across a Florida lake to a little island to practice sermons while standing on a cypress stump — his first efforts to hone the preaching style that would later win millions to his faith.
In 1938, Graham, who had been baptized as a child in the Presbyterian church, was baptized once more and ordained as a Southern Baptist minister.
Marriage and ministry
He continued his education at Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts school near Chicago. There the lanky Southerner met his lifelong love, Ruth Bell, the daughter of missionaries to China. Graham proposed to Ruth along the Blue Ridge Parkway while they were visiting her relatives in Black Mountain.
On June 13, 1943, they were married in Gaither Chapel in Montreat.
After a short stint pastoring a small church in Western Springs, Ill., Graham became a traveling evangelist with Youth for Christ in 1945, making $75 a week. While Ruth made their home in Montreat with Gigi, the first of their five children, Billy Graham spent six months on the road preaching to students and servicemen across the U.S. and Europe.
Graham served for a few years as president of Northwestern College, but felt his true calling was in full-time evangelism.
Graham first burst onto the national scene in 1949 with his eight-week crusade in Los Angeles. Preaching in his “Cathedral of Canvas,” Graham caught the attention of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who supposedly ordered his editors to “puff Graham” — to play up the Southern evangelist.
In 1950, Graham and his associates formed the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, a nonprofit that received all the contributions flowing into the ministry. Rather than take up love offerings for himself, Graham became a salaried employee of the association, making no more than a typical minister of any large-city church.
By 1955, Graham was named among the “Ten Most Admired Men in the World” in Gallup Poll, the first of 47 times he would make the list.
Crowds kept flocking to his crusades, which were extended night after night. A crusade in London ran for 12 weeks, and in 1957 Graham filled Madison Square Garden nightly for 16 straight weeks, attracting more than 2 million attendees, with 55,000 recorded decisions for Christ. In June, ABC began televising Graham’s Saturday night services live. Millions tuned in.
He invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to give an opening prayer one night at Madison Square Garden. Graham refused to hold segregated crusades even in the South.
While he took on issues of the day, Graham learned to steer clear of politics. He embarrassed himself early in his career by reconstructing his first and only meeting with Harry S. Truman, kneeling on the White House lawn to re-enact prayers for the benefit of the press photographers.
From then on, Graham would resolve not to trumpet his private audiences he had with every president since Truman.
The nation’s chaplain
Graham’s inaugural experience began with his attendance at President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s swearing-in ceremony in 1953, although he did not participate in a presidential inauguration until he preached an inaugural sermon for President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. He went on to participate in seven other inaugurations, including prayer and worship services for Presidents Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and has offered inaugural prayers for Presidents Nixon, Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
When he led the prayer in the National Cathedral for the second inauguration of President George W. Bush, Graham had participated in nine inaugurations, tying Chief Justice John Marshall’s record of participation in the inaugurations of six presidents in nine ceremonies in the nineteenth century.
Graham has been invited to participate in a tenth inaugural, but illness prevented him from leading the invocation at President George W. Bush’s first inauguration in 2001.
Graham was particularly close to the Bush family, and vacationed with the clan at their compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. In a 1985 beachside walk with George W. Bush, Graham offered the spiritual counsel that helped Bush stop drinking and turn his life around, ultimately toward the governor’s mansion in Texas and then the White House.
Of all the presidents, Graham was perhaps closest to Richard Nixon, whom Graham called his “Quaker friend.” Graham was shocked and disappointed when the White House tapes came to light in 1973, revealing Nixon’s efforts to cover up the Watergate burglaries (as well as his foul language).
Graham himself was heard on the White House tapes released in 1990s, agreeing with Nixon about how Jews controlled the media. Graham, already frail and suffering from many health issues, said he did not remember the conversation, but apologized. “Racial prejudice, anti-Semitism, or hatred of anyone with different beliefs has no place in the human mind or heart,” he said.
He later met with Jewish leaders, seeking reconciliation and forgiveness.
Behind the Iron Curtain
Graham was known as a staunch anti-communist in his early ministry, but he refused to let the Cold War clash between capitalism and communism keep him from his mission. In 1959, he made his first foray behind the Iron Curtain as a tourist to Moscow, hoping someday to return and openly proclaim his Christian message. In 1967, he preached for the first time in Yugoslavia. In 1977, he led meetings in Hungary, and the following year in Poland. In 1982, Graham returned to Moscow to preach in Eastern Orthodox churches.
In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Graham was able to fulfill his 30-year-old dream, preaching to the Russian people in a crusade that filled Moscow’s Olympic Stadium.
Graham was able to make other missions to communist countries, preaching in China, where Ruth Graham had been born, and even in North Korea, one of the world’s most closed societies, in 1992 and 1994.
Back home, Graham had became the nation’s informal chaplain, providing comfort after the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and preaching at the National Cathedral after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Into his 80s, Graham continued to accept invitations to lead his trademark crusades, filling arenas and football stadiums, returning to cities he had preached in earlier in his career. He made no plans to retire from preaching, but he did relinquish his other duties. In 2000, Graham ceded his post as the head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to his eldest son, Franklin.
Faltering health, stronger faith
But mortality caught up with the human preacher. He developed Parkinson’s disease, then prostate cancer. He later underwent surgery for fluid on the brain as doctors put a shunt in his head.
As his health faltered, Graham found himself recommitting to his faith, even after 50 years of evangelism. In his first crusade after the Sept. 11 attacks and amid the anthrax scare, Graham spoke to a stadium in Fresno, Calif., about his own fears of mortality he had experienced while resting at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Asheville.
“One night after an operation, I knew I was dying, or at least I thought I was,” he said. “Then I began to think of all the disobedience I had for my mother and father, and all the things in my life that I could have done better. I was in a Catholic hospital, so there was a cross on the wall. And I thought of Jesus on the cross, and I yielded myself anew. I had the greatest peace I’ve ever had in my life. And I still have it tonight.”
In his later years, Graham hobbled to the pulpit with the aid of a walker, usually accompanied by his son Franklin.
Graham would preach about 20 minutes each night, but converts still came down at the invitation while Graham silently prayed on stage, his head with its white mane of hair solemnly bent.
The crusade schedule dwindled to twice a year. In 2005, he returned to New York, the scene of his career-changing Madison Square Garden crusade, to preach at his 417th and final crusade.
Graham later made brief appearances at the Rev. Franklin Graham’s evangelistic festivals in the hurricane-devastated New Orleans and at Camden Yards in Baltimore in 2006.
Ready for heaven
With no commitments to crusades, Graham was able to stay at home in Montreat in his later years, rekindling his romance with wife and ministry partner, Ruth.
“I am so grateful to the Lord that he gave me Ruth and especially for these last few years we’ve had in the mountains together,” Graham said. “My wife Ruth was the person to whom I would go for spiritual guidance. She was the only one in whom I completely confided,” Graham said.
Graham was able to keep evangelizing by example with the opening of the Billy Graham Library in his hometown of Charlotte in 2007. Franklin has envisioned the library as a place for the Graham legacy to live on long after his parents’ deaths. Ruth was too ill to attend the ceremony, and after her 88th birthday, she slipped into a coma and died on June 14, 2007.
Ruth and Billy Graham decided to be buried together in the prayer garden of the library at the end of a cross-shaped walkway, a testament to their faith that they would live forever with Christ. But Graham, ever humble despite his worldwide fame, also said he would have questions in the afterlife.
“I have often said that the first thing I am going to do when I get to heaven is to ask, ‘Why me, Lord? Why did you choose a farm boy from North Carolina to preach to so many people?’” Graham wrote in his autobiography.
Graham also knew he would have to wait for his answer, but he also believed his ministry would not end even with his death. “I also look forward to serving God in ways we can’t begin to imagine, for the Bible makes it clear that Heaven is not a place of idleness,” Graham wrote.