Evangelist Billy Graham, Who Reached Millions, Dies At 99

Feb 21, 2018

File photo of the Rev. Billy Graham speaking during the Mission Metroplex at Texas Stadium in Irving, Texas, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2002. Graham on Thursday launched a four-day mission in Dallas-Fort Worth that could hold historic implications because the evangelist has announced no future plans after decades on the preaching circuit.
Credit LM Otero / AP

Evangelist Billy Graham, the North Carolina icon known as “America’s Pastor” who conducted more than 400 crusades and whose sermons were heard by an estimated two billion people, died Wednesday. He was 99.

Graham met with every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, spanned the globe delivering a passionate religious message, and eventually started an influential philanthropic organization. As the crowds crew, crusades reached new places, and Graham elevated to new levels of fame and wealth.

I know that God has sent me out as a Warrior on the five continents to preach the gospel. And I must continue until He gives the signal that I am to stop. -Billy Graham

“I despise all of this attention on me. I wish we could publicize the meetings in some way in which my name were not used,” Graham said during a 2002 film about his life. “I’m not trying to bring people to myself, nor am I trying to interest people in me. But I know that God has sent me out as a Warrior on the five continents to preach the gospel. And I must continue until He gives the signal that I am to stop.”

Graham was born November 7, 1918 in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was the first of four children raised by strict Calvinists on a dairy farm. When he was 15, Graham heard evangelist Mordecai Ham speak about sin. The message connected with Graham. After high school he went to Bob Jones College in Tennessee, transferred to the Florida Bible Institute and become ordained as a Southern Baptist minister in 1939. Soon after, he met his future wife, Ruth and later served as President of a Bible College in Minnesota.  

“But Graham himself really moved very quickly out of the fundamentalist background and really came to embrace a broader stream of sort of conservative evangelic Protestantism,” said Roger Payne, chair of religious studies at UNC-Asheville. “He was one of the first national protestant ministers for example do allow Roman Catholic ministers on the diocese with him.”

He says Graham became a well known evangelist while working with Youth For Christ – an organization with many fundamentalist founders.

Graham Builds A Following Amid Growing National Attention

By 1949, Graham had built a following. He scheduled a crusade in Los Angeles and received significant national attention from one particular newspaper chain.

“The story is the William Randolph Hearst instructed his reporters to puff Graham and so he became a national figure shortly after that time,” said Payne, explaining Graham combined his oratory skill with good historical timing. “Living under the shadow of Soviet atomic weaponry, with the beginning of the Cold War, with the idea that Graham espoused a number of times that Communism was a counterfeit religion, established by Satan – all of those things really fit into a certain view of the world, a certain theology, a certain way of acting that I think really helped propel Graham into the national spotlight.”

By the late 1950s, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was established and Graham had written several books.

“You know I think he’s one of the great communicators of all-time,” said Historian and UNC-Asheville professor Dan Pierce. “Some might characterize him as a salesman, but if he’s selling it’s something he definitely believes in himself.”

Graham’s legacy includes TV specials and meetings at the White House. Graham met with every U.S. President dating back to Harry Truman, a total of twelve. A congressman arranged for Graham and Truman to initially meet. After a visit in 1950, Graham told reporters he had urged the president to fight communism in Korea. That ticked Truman off and those two didn’t meet again. Graham learned from that though, keeping future meetings confidential.

A sign marks the Billy Graham Freeway, which is a portion of I-240 that goes through downtown Asheville.
Credit Matt Bush / BPR

Graham Strikes A Careful Balance Between Religion and Politics

Graham struck a careful balance between religion and politics. During the Dwight Eisenhower Administration, he was a regular White House visitor, where he became close friends with then-Vice President Richard Nixon. In 2002, recorded phone conversations between Graham and Nixon were released. In a conversation about religious relations, the two discussed Mark Tannenbaum, a well-respected rabbi who Graham was getting ready to meet with.

In 2002, recorded phone conversations between Graham and Nixon were released. In a conversation about religious relations, the two discussed Mark Tannenbaum – a well respected rabbi who Graham was getting ready to meet with.

“The thing that you've really got to emphasize to him though, Billy, is this: anti-Semitism is stronger than we think, you know,” Nixon said. “They just--it's unfortunate, but this has happened to the Jews. It happened in Spain, it's happened in Germany, it's happening--and now it's going to happen in America if these people don't start behaving.”

Graham responded: “Well, you know, I told you one time that the Bible talks about two kinds of Jews. One is called ‘the synagogue of Satan.’ They're the ones putting out the pornographic literature. They're the ones putting out these obscene films.”
Graham was 83 when those tapes were released. He said he didn’t have any recollection of the conversation, but apologized for the remarks.

“When the recordings came out an illustrated the Graham sort of had a dark side in that way, with some of the anti-Semitic remarks, I think most people were really surprised and shocked,” Payne said.

Taking A Step Back In Recent Years

In his later years, Graham remained a public figure, but in a much more infrequent capacity. There were big parties to mark his 90th and 95th birthdays. And observers couldn’t help but notice who was on the guest list.

“It looked like more of a partisan event than you would expect in some ways,” said Historian Dan Pierce. “Particularly the presence of Donald Trump and Sarah Palin.”

In 2012, as voters in the state considered an Amendment to the North Carolina constitution, a letter from Billy Graham came out in support of banning same-sex marriage.

“I was struck by the fact that again, speaking from a historical perspective, it wasn’t really characteristic of what I’d seen in the past from him,” Pierce said.

In recent years, as Billy’s son Franklin has led the organization, some say the Association has aligned itself with the neo-conservative political right. Franklin said the message and focus of the organization have remained steady. Scholars like Payne say we will probably never know for certain whether what has been perceived as a shift in philosophy by the organization was driven by Billy or Franklin.

Regardless of how the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has been viewed in recent years, the founder remained a beloved figure for countless people. His words provided hope to many during the best and worst of times. He spoke at the Washington Cathedral days after the 9/11 attacks.

“I’ve been asked hundreds of times in my life why God allows tragedy and suffering,” Graham said. “I have to confess that I really do not know the answer – totally; even to my own satisfaction. I have to accept by faith that God is sovereign and that he is a god of love and mercy and compassion in the midst of suffering.”