Billy Graham, who transformed American religious life through his preaching and activism, becoming a counsellor to presidents and the most widely heard Christian evangelist in history, died today. He was 99. Graham, who long suffered from cancer, pneumonia and other ailments, died at his home in North Carolina, according spokesman Mark DeMoss.
More than anyone else, Graham built evangelicalism into a force that rivalled liberal Protestantism and Roman Catholicism in the United States. His leadership summits and crusades in more than 185 countries and territories forged powerful global links among conservative Christians, and threw a lifeline to believers in the communist-controlled Eastern bloc.
Dubbed “America’s pastor,” he was a confidant to US presidents from Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush.
In 1983, President Reagan gave Graham the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour. When the Billy Graham Museum and Library was dedicated in 2007 in Charlotte, former Presidents George HW Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton attended.
“When he prays with you in the Oval Office or upstairs in the White House, you feel he’s praying for you, not the president,” Clinton said at the ceremony.
Beyond Graham’s public appearances, he reached untold millions through his pioneering use of prime-time telecasts, network radio, daily newspaper columns, evangelistic feature films and globe-girdling satellite TV hookups. Graham’s message was not complex or unique, yet he preached with a conviction that won over audiences worldwide.
“The Bible says,” was his catch phrase. His unquestioning belief in Scripture turned the Gospel into a “rapier” in his hands, he said.
A tall, striking man with thick hair, stark blue eyes and a firm jaw, Graham was a commanding presence at his crusades. He would make the altar call in his powerful baritone, asking the multitudes to stand, come down the aisles and publicly make “decisions for Christ,” as a choir crooned the hymn “Just As I Am.”
By his final crusade in 2005 in New York City, he had preached in person to more than 210 million people worldwide. No evangelist is expected to have his level of influence again.
“William Franklin Graham Jr. can safely be regarded as the best who ever lived at what he did,” said William Martin, author of the Graham biography “A Prophet With Honor.”
Born November 7, 1918, on his family’s dairy farm near Charlotte, North Carolina, Graham came from a fundamentalist background that expected true Bible-believers to stay clear of Christians with even the most minor differences over Scripture. But as his crusades drew support from a widening array of Christian churches, he came to reject that view.
He joined in a then-emerging movement called New Evangelicalism, that abandoned the narrowness of fundamentalism to engage broader society. Fundamentalists at the time excoriated the preacher for his new direction, and broke with him when he agreed to work with more liberal Christians in the 1950s.
Graham stood fast. He would not reject people who were sincere and shared at least some of his beliefs, Martin said. He wanted the widest hearing possible for his salvation message.
“The ecumenical movement has broadened my viewpoint and I recognize now that God has his people in all churches,” he said in the early 1950s.
In 1957, he said, “I intend to go anywhere, sponsored by anybody, to preach the Gospel of Christ.” His approach helped evangelicals gain the influence they have today. Graham’s path to becoming an evangelist began taking shape at age 16, when the Presbyterian-reared farmboy committed himself to Christ at a local tent revival.
“I did not feel any special emotion,” he wrote in his 1997 autobiography, “Just As I Am.” ”I simply felt at peace,” and thereafter, “the world looked different.”
After high school, he enrolled at the fundamentalist Bob Jones College, but found the school stifling, and transferred to Florida Bible Institute in Tampa. There, he practiced sermonising in a swamp, preaching to birds and alligators before tryouts with small churches.
He still wasn’t convinced he should be a preacher until a soul-searching, late-night ramble on a golf course.
“I finally gave in while pacing at midnight on the 18th hole,” he said. “‘All right, Lord,’ I said, ‘If you want me, you’ve got me.'” Graham, who became a Southern Baptist, went on to study at Wheaton College, a prominent Christian liberal arts school in Illinois, where he met fellow student Ruth Bell, who had been raised in China where her father had been a Presbyterian medical missionary.
The two married in 1943, and he planned to become an Army chaplain. But he fell seriously ill, and by the time he recovered and could start the chaplain training program, World War II was nearly over.
Instead, he took a job organising meetings in the US and Europe with Youth for Christ, a group he helped found. He stood out then for his loud ties and suits, and a rapid delivery and swinging arms that won him the nickname “the Preaching Windmill.”