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Rev. Billy Graham dies at 99; ‘America’s pastor’ had roots in Chicago

The Rev. Billy Graham speaks at his farewell American revival meeting in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in New York, in 2005. | AP

Starting from a tiny basement church in the west suburbs of Chicago, the Rev. Billy Graham created a ministry that spanned the globe.

The Wheaton College graduate, who became the most popular, enduring and influential evangelical leader of the second half of the 20th century, died Wednesday at his home in North Carolina, according to spokesman Mark DeMoss.

Known as “America’s pastor,” he was the unofficial chaplain to the White House, of particular importance during the Johnson and Nixon years.

Graham, 99, had long suffered from cancer, pneumonia and other ailments.

In 70 years spreading the gospel, Graham’s message of personal deliverance through Jesus Christ was conveyed through speeches, books, magazines, radio, television and the Internet.

Through his trademark crusades alone, he preached directly to an estimated 215 million people in 185 countries. During three weeks in June 1962, for instance, 800,000 people attended his Chicago crusade, with 116,000 jamming Soldier Field on a single blisteringly hot day to hear Graham speak.

It was Graham’s influence not on the common believer but on America’s leaders that most distinguished him from other evangelical figures. He ministered to every president, Democrat and Republican, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, who was the first sitting president to visit Graham at his home.

Graham baptized Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom he also urged to run for president while the general was still the supreme allied commander of NATO.

Graham knew Richard Nixon’s mother Hannah before he met the future president. The two men became golfing buddies. Graham spoke at Nixon’s inauguration and at his funeral.

Nixon credited Graham with convincing him to try running for president a second time, in 1968. Graham also was a frequent guest at the Reagan White House.

The Rev. Billy Graham with President John F. Kennedy at the White House on Dec. 12, 1961. | AP

Though most closely associated with Republicans, Graham was a lifelong registered Democrat and was an intimate of Democratic presidents including John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Graham delivered the invocation at LBJ’s inaugural in 1965.

Bill Clinton was an Arkansas teenager when he met Graham, and at one point tithed part of his earnings to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Graham later delivered the benediction at Clinton’s 1993 inauguration and counseled the president during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Graham met Donald Trump only once, at Graham’s 95th birthday party in 2013.

The Rev. Billy Graham with former President Richard Nixon arriving at the Richard Nixon Library on June 25, 1993. | Getty Images

Like all successful evangelicals, Billy Graham built a massive organization designed to distribute his teachings and collect money. His Decision magazine went to nearly 4 million people. His radio program, “The House of Dedication,” at its peak was heard on 900 stations. Crusades were filmed and syndicated in prime time. There was a Billy Graham Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City.

Unlike some high-profile preachers who squandered their success through misbehavior, Graham was scrupulously honest about his personal and financial dealings. His long tenure in the national pulpit was unmarred by any hint of the kind of scandal that ruined the reputations of men such as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart.

Graham was so concerned about his reputation that he discouraged comparisons between himself and his fiery namesake predecessor in the nation’s pulpit, Billy Sunday, because Sunday had been tainted by financial corruption.

The closest Graham came to scandal was in 2002, when the National Archive released White House tapes from 1972 in which Graham was heard agreeing with anti-Semitic comments made by then-President Richard Nixon and adding a few of his own, such as that Jews had “a stranglehold” on the news media. Asked by Nixon what he thought of CBS’s coverage of his first post-Watergate speech, Graham said, “I felt like slashing their throats, but, anyway, God be with you.”

Graham had denied making the remarks after H.R. Haldeman wrote about them in his published diary, suggesting that the former top Nixon aide twisted his words because Haldeman is a Christian Scientist and therefore “did not believe in the reality of sin.” Confronted with the undeniable evidence, Graham said he did not remember making the comments but apologized.

He was born William Franklin Graham in 1918, four days before the Armistice, near Charlotte, North Carolina. His parents belonged to the Reformed Presbyterian Church.

A handbill from a 1941 revival meeting that Billy Graham held as a student at Wheaton College.

As a young man, he worked on his parents’ dairy farm, went door-to-door selling Fuller Brushes and as a teenager embraced Christ at a tent revival. After graduating from Charlotte High School in 1936, he attended Bob Jones College, the ultra-fundamentalist Baptist school in Tennessee. But he found it too restrictive and after three months transferred to Florida Bible Institute at St. Petersburg. (Bob Jones University, as it later became, eventually returned the favor by forbidding its students from attending Billy Graham rallies, finding his brand of religion too liberal.)

Classmates in Florida remembered the future minister going out into the cypress swamp to practice his sermons while standing on a tree stump. He was ordained in the Southern Baptist church in 1939.

Hoping to expand his secular education, Graham moved to Illinois and enrolled at Wheaton College, where he studied anthropology and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1943.

At Wheaton, he met another fervent believer, fellow sophomore Ruth McCue Bell, who had been born in China, where her parents were missionaries. The night they became engaged was the first time the couple kissed. They were married in 1943 and had five children.

The Rev. Billy Graham and his wife Ruth in front of her birthplace in Huaiyin, Jiangsu province, China, on April 19, 1988. | Getty Images

Graham went to work in the pulpit of the First Baptist Church in Western Springs, a modest congregation of 35 souls who met in the basement of their unfinished building. Graham and his bride lived at 214 S. Clay St. in Hinsdale.

A speech he made at Orchestra Hall in 1944 led to the formation of Youth for Christ International, and he became its first full-time evangelist.

The Rev. Billy Graham speaks to over 100,000 Berliners at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, Germany on June 27, 1954. | AP

With his high forehead, intense eyes, wavy hair, dramatic good looks and fiery speaking style, Graham made a deep impression on audiences. He traveled the world, preaching to huge crowds. He once said he would go to Hell to preach if only he could be certain the devil would let him out afterward.

Graham first burst into national fame in 1949, when a Los Angeles tent revival meeting scheduled to run three weeks instead ran eight, was attended by 350,000 people and inspired 6,000 converts. He had a boost from press titan William Randolph Hearst, said to have sent a famous, though perhaps apocryphal, two-word telegram to his Los Angeles bureau: “Puff Graham.”

The future pastor to presidents got off to a bad start with the first of the 11 commanders-in-chiefs he prayed with at the White House. After he met with Truman in 1950, Graham and his evangelical colleagues made the tactical blunder of getting down on one knee outside the White House at the request of press photographers. He had prayed with Truman, but the president had not knelt.

The touchy Truman felt he had been taken advantage of by this slick, Southern preacher with his hand-painted tie and light pistachio suit and refused to see him in the White House again. Graham later apologized to Truman, calling himself “a fool.” Truman waved off the incident, saying that Graham had not been properly briefed.

The Rev. Billy Graham (center) and his son Franklin Graham with three former presidents — (from left) George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter in front of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C., on May 31, 2007. | AP

Graham had better luck with Ike. In 1951, he wrote to Eisenhower and urged him to seek the presidency. Eisenhower later called it “the darndest letter I ever got.”

Eisenhower sought Graham’s advice before he sent federal troops into Little Rock to desegregate the public schools. “Mr. President, I think that is the only thing you can do,” Graham told him. “It is out of hand, and the time has come to stop it.”

When it came to politics, Graham preferred the role of private counselor to that of public advocate. And, as with Nixon, he was more holy yes man than moral conscience. His closeness to leaders encouraged Graham to sit out the major social crises of his day. While he wouldn’t speak to segregated audiences, he also failed to make any sort of strong stand himself on civil rights or later the war in Vietnam.

When JFK was running for president, he asked Graham to make a statement about the acceptability of Protestants voting for a Catholic president. Graham refused, saying he did not want to display a political preference, though Graham soon afterward approached Time magazine and volunteered to write an article praising Richard Nixon, one that was scheduled to run two weeks before the election. At the last minute, Time editor Henry Luce pulled it.

Graham waited two years after the desegregation of Central High School before he went to Little Rock to preach, saying he acted on the advice of others, a common justification for Graham on this issue. In his autobiography, “Just As I Am,” he wrote that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. urged him not to join his civil rights protests.

“You stay in the stadiums, Billy,” Graham quoted King as saying. “If a leader gets too far out in front of his people, they will lose sight of him.”

At a 1965 religious rally in Houston, with his friend Lyndon Johnson in the audience, Graham shrugged off the Peace March on Washington, saying, “It seems the only way to gain attention today is to organize a march and protest something.”

In Chicago during the riots surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention, he condemned “disobedience to law in a free country.”

Graham was faulted for urging people to embrace private morality while criticizing those whose private moralities prompted them to public action.

“A man in transit between epochs and value systems, he has chosen to disengage himself and distract us by shouting about the end of history,” noted religious scholar Martin Marty wrote of Graham in the Chicago Sun-Times in 1965.

Instead, Graham chose to fight the small battles. When a jubilant Nixon declared the week of the Apollo 11 moon landing “the greatest week since the Creation,” Graham objected, citing several episodes from the life of Jesus. Graham was closer to Nixon than with any other president. Born a Quaker, Nixon, like Graham, also had been converted at a tent revival. Nixon did not hesitate to use Graham as a consultant.

Graham was part of the all-night brainstorming session that ended with the selection of Spiro T. Agnew as Nixon’s running mate. Earlier, Graham had publicly urged Nixon to pick a 44-year-old first-time Congressman named George Bush.

As president, Nixon often spoke at Billy Graham rallies, viewing them as a safe audience in those turbulent times. Nixon’s first public speech after sending troops to Cambodia was at a Graham crusade.

Graham’s name frequently was on the rolls of the 10 most admired men in the country — he came in second on the 1969 Gallup Poll list, after Nixon. He was often suggested for political office, but his wife Ruth was against it, prompting Graham to wryly tell a friend, “I don’t think the nation would elect a divorced man” an opinion he altered when his friend Ronald Reagan ran.

Chicago was never a stronghold for Graham’s ministry — which he explained by citing its liberal churches, large and active Catholic population and indifferent news media. But in addition to his successful 1962 crusade, his 1971 rally drew 30,000 of the faithful to McCormick Place, plus, he said in his autobiography, “three or four hundred Satan worshippers,” who he said rushed the stage.

The Rev. Billy Graham stands before the tower at Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College on Oct. 3, 1959. | AP

He was a Wheaton College trustee from 1963 to 1990 and often returned to his alma mater to speak with students and attend events such as the 1980 dedication of the Billy Graham Center, a museum and archive of his life and work. Feeling that too much emphasis was being place on him personally, Graham referred to it only as the “Wheaton Center.” He spoke at four commencements and received an honorary doctorate from the College in 1956.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Wheaton President Dr. Philip Ryken said Graham “proved faithful to the end as a ‘prophet with honor.’ … The Wheaton College family worldwide grieves his death … and rejoices … that this beloved servant of the Lord has completed his journey and is at home with his Savior.”

In recent years, he was troubled by ill health, especially Parkinson’s disease and prostate cancer. He curtailed his activities and turned over control of his worldwide minister to his son Franklin, who after 2001 assumed a role similar to his father’s.

Billy Graham was the author of 30 books. But, as he got older, he worried that he had given too much attention to the world and not enough to his family.

Rev. Billy Graham with his family on his return from his Crusade for Christ tour in the mid-1950s in New York — (clockwise from left: wife Ruth, daughters Anne, Ruth (Bunny) and Virginia. | File photo

“I’ve neglected them,” Graham said in 1998. “I’ve traveled too much, written too many articles, written too many books.”

But as it had been for more than half a century, Graham’s primary concern was always for the welfare of the nation and for matters of the soul.

“I’ve discovered that just because we’ll inevitably grow weaker physically as we get older, it doesn’t mean we must grow weaker spiritually,” Graham said in 2008. “Our eyes ought to be on eternity and heaven —on the things that really matter.”

Graham wrote that he was looking forward to going to heaven, being reunited with his wife Ruth, who died in 2007, and gazing upon the face of Jesus.

He is survived by their five children, Gigi, Anne, Ruth, Franklin and Ned, plus 19 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren.

Contributing: AP

The Rev. Billy Graham addresses a crowd at Stamford Bridge in London at halftime of a soccer match between Chelsea and Newcastle United. | Getty Images