The Rev. Billy Graham, the pastor to many of the United States’ modern presidents and the nation’s most noted Christian evangelist, has died.
A spokesman for Graham, whose ministry was long based in the Twin Cities, said he died Wednesday in his home state of North Carolina. He was 99.
Although Graham counseled presidents and played golf with the world’s leaders, the preacher said he was the happiest when seeing ordinary people come forward to accept Christ into their lives.
He was a Southerner by birth and choice, but his ministry headquarters was based in Minneapolis for more than 50 years, starting in 1950. In 2004, he moved it to his native North Carolina, where many of his family members reside.
In his final years, Graham stayed close to home in Montreat, N.C. He suffered from Parkinson’s-like symptoms and fading eyesight caused by macular degeneration. But he still met with religious leaders and other prominent figures almost daily, including President Obama in 2010. Graham’s 30th book, “Nearing Home: Life, Faith and Finishing Well,” was published in fall 2011.
During its Minnesota era, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was so well known that postcards from all over the world bearing merely his picture or the words “Billy Graham” were delivered to its headquarters.
To his admirers he will be remembered as a gentle, quiet evangelist who preached with a deep passion and never changed his message — that the only way to salvation, to keep from dying in sin, he believed, was through a personal acceptance of Jesus Christ.
He took that peculiarly historic American theological concept — decision theology, honed by fire-breathing circuit-riding preachers — and made it palatable in the middle-class, suburban America of the 1950s. Once it was embedded, it grew, and Graham’s reputation with it.
He also will be remembered for his kindred pastoral nature. He was a preacher who spoke from his heart and mind, and who avoided the scandals that scarred others in his profession.
He was truly America’s minister. In 1995 he was called upon to heal the nation’s wounds after the Oklahoma City bombing. He delivered the invocation at seven presidential inaugurations, the last one for Bill Clinton in 1997.
In 1996 he and his wife, Ruth, received Congress’ highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, and immediately turned the occasion into a time to scold Congress for its partisan bickering. He told the powerful that Americans “have lost sight of the moral and spiritual principles on which this nation was established. We have confused liberty with license.”
As his stature increased during his long career, so did his ability to win converts. In 1973, a 10-day crusade in the Twin Cities drew about 320,000 people; more than 350,000 came to a five-day crusade in 1996.
Graham’s autobiography, “Just As I Am,” stayed on the bestseller lists for several months after it was published in 1997. He and Ruth were frequent guests at the White House. He was on the Gallup Poll’s list of most admired living people in the world for 34 years, and has a star in the Hollywood Walk of fame (installed in 1990). There is even a hybrid tea rose named after him in 1997 — Jackson Perkins’ “Billy Graham.”
Some argued that Graham had a high profile because he sought out the famous and powerful. It is true that when he was a young, fiery evangelist in the 1940s, he did seek out the powerful and was rebuffed by President Harry Truman. However, Dwight Eisenhower liked the young evangelist. Decades later Graham had outlived many presidents and had become a national legend, with the powerful coming to him.
His stories were often peppered with the names of famous people, but that was not because he was seeking to drop names. “I saw him with presidents while I was in Washington,” said Al Quie, former Minnesota governor and congressman. “And I saw him with those of us in Congress and with ordinary people off the streets, the homeless, the left-out. I saw him relate to all those individuals with the same respect.” Quie served as chairman of the last Billy Graham crusade in the Twin Cities, in 1996.
Graham enjoyed his friendships with presidents. However, his friendship with Richard Nixon was to prove painful.
His biographer, William Martin, wrote that Graham read excerpts of the Watergate tapes, and “what he found there devastated him. He wept. He threw up.” The Richard Nixon he saw there was not the man he knew, the man he had sparred with over public issues. Martin wrote, “The pain of that perception grew even sharper as Graham confronted the possibility that [other former presidents] might also have shown him only one of several faces. And inevitably, he had to confront his own possible, if unwitting, collusion in helping to do unto others as had been done unto him.”
In his autobiography, Graham described several tender, personal moments of faith and emotion shared by both men, and then added only this:
“Like all human relationships, mine with Richard Nixon was bittersweet. Our laughter was interspersed with tears. We shared both delights and doubts. I prayed for him in agony and in ecstasy. Our disagreements were honest, yet our friendship was close.”
Although he was often tainted by his presidential associations — he was criticized particularly for his association with Nixon after Watergate — Graham was an international force.
From his first record-breaking crusade in England in 1954 to the 1980s, when he preached to huge crowds in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and in China, he was an international political as well as religious power. Along with Pope John Paul, Graham is credited with creating some of the chinks in the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
Graham walked that narrowest of American cultural lines, right down the middle between religious liberals and conservatives. He brought Christian evangelism into the mainstream of American political and social consciousness, yet was scolded by many conservatives for being too liberal. Liberal social justice advocates chided him for not taking more leadership roles to heal the nation’s racial and economic divisions. Martin Marty, a Protestant historian and theologian, argued in 1996 that Graham’s theology was nothing extraordinary, calling him “a second-rank theologian at best.”
However, Marty acknowledged, he “has been a bridge between the old-time religion and the new technologies. He can talk about heaven and hell without inspiring terror. I like to look at the faces of the people who come forward [at crusades]. There is no terror.”
Graham was one of the founders of Christianity Today, an influential conservative magazine that enjoys praise from liberals. It was started as a counter to the Christian Century, which had been started in 1900 by America’s Protestant mainstream theologians.
In addition, the Graham Association magazine, Decision, has more than 1.7 million readers, fewer than Sports Illustrated, but more than Rolling Stone. Association headquarters receives and sends more than 57 million pieces of mail annually. That means 27,403 pieces of mail per hour, every hour, every day. Graham also wrote 17 books and led crusades in every corner of the globe, preaching before millions.
He will also be remembered as a conservative Christian who set the national standard for honest evangelistic businesses, who worked to increase understanding among the world’s Christian groups and who always minded his manners.
His personality, often more than his theology, was the driving force that made him one of the country’s legends. He was educated and articulate, a tall, courtly gentleman with steel-blue eyes that shone with faith-based sincerity.
He used his intellect and deep biblical training in his sermons. He had energy, and in the early years paced and shouted. But as he matured, so did his preaching style. He never changed his message, but he often tempered it to his audience. In the Upper Midwest, he talked of salvation but also of grace.
A story that Graham told on himself about a time he talked with Hubert Humphrey perhaps shows best the evangelist’s style:
It was 1947, he said: “The first time I met Hubert Humphrey I was in the downtown Y, at the swimming pool, and neither one of us had anything on [as was the custom at the time]. He held out his hand and asked me for my vote. He was running for mayor at the time. I said, ‘Well, I’m a resident of North Carolina so I don’t think I can vote for you.’ And he said, ‘Well, maybe someday you can.’ He had a lot of good ideas that I wish now we had followed.”
Why a Minneapolis HQ?
The Graham association was centered in the Twin Cities because he was talked into being president of Northwestern Bible College in Minneapolis, serving from 1948 to 1952. (It is now University of Northwestern - St. Paul, in Roseville.) He met George Wilson; they became fast friends, and Graham used Wilson’s genius for organizing to run the organization.
Wilson ran an impeccable ship. The association’s fiscal and moral integrity has never been questioned, while other evangelists have crashed and burned. The other brilliant decision, made by both men, was not to create a church centered on the evangelist. The Graham crusade always worked with local churches. He wanted to bring people to the faith, but also to use conversions to enliven existing churches, not to create his own.
To honor Graham’s legacy at the school, Northwestern in 2011 named its newest campus building the Billy Graham Community Life Commons.
Graham’s 1996 crusade in the Twin Cities drew the largest crowds ever to the Metrodome. The last evening there were 95,000 people, 70,000 inside and 25,000 in an overflow lot outside.
At that time he talked almost wistfully of his love of Minnesota and his surprise at the warm affection he had received during the five-day crusade. “I wish I could just come and visit each and every one of you and have tea,” he said.
At the end of his autobiography, he wrote, “I look forward to heaven.”
“And most of all, I look forward to seeing Christ and bowing before Him in praise and gratitude for all He has done for us, and for using me on this earth by His grace — just as I am.”
Much of this obituary was written by former Star Tribune staff writer Martha Sawyer Allen, with updates from current staffers. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.