, Washington, United States, Feb 21 – Reverend Billy Graham, the influential Southern preacher who became a spiritual advisor to several US presidents and millions of Americans via their television sets, died Wednesday. He was 99.
The one-time backwoods minister who eventually became the world’s foremost Christian evangelist, spread a message of spiritual redemption at tent and stadium revival meetings, in a career that spanned decades.
Graham, who died at his home in Montreat, North Carolina, “changed our country and the world,” President Donald Trump said in a statement. “He was one of the towering figures of the last 100 years — an American hero whose life and leadership truly earned him the title ‘God’s Ambassador.'”
Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama described Graham as “a humble servant who prayed for so many — and who, with wisdom and grace, gave hope and guidance to generations of Americans.”
“Billy Graham was America’s pastor,” said former president George H. W. Bush.
The Southern Baptist preacher was close to the Bush family, and former president George W. Bush said a private meeting with Graham in 1985 helped him quit drinking.
More recently he was portrayed in the Netflix drama series “The Crown” as giving counsel to the young Queen Elizabeth II as she confronted the burdens of rule.
Graham was a pioneer of “televangelism” to convert souls to Christianity as television got off the ground in the 1950s.
Born on November 7, 1918, he was raised as one of four children on a dairy farm in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Graham had a spiritual awakening in 1934 and enrolled in the Florida Bible Institute, now Trinity College of Florida. He was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1939.
In 1950, he founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in Minneapolis, Minnesota and launched a weekly “Hour of Decision” radio program.
– Advisor to US presidents –
His ministry led him to preach the gospel around the country — and the world.
Over the course of his career, he was consulted by presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. For a time he was Richard Nixon’s chaplain and golf partner. George H.W. Bush invited him to pray at the White House in 1991 for guidance through the first long day of the Gulf War.
But of all the US leaders — almost all of whom have described themselves as practicing Christians — Graham found only Jimmy Carter to match him in dedication to his faith.
“Carter alone among the presidents… taught the Bible throughout his life, wrote books of religious meditations, and needed no help with Scripture or its challenges,” wrote authors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy in a Graham biography, “The Preacher and the Presidents” published in August 2007.
Carter described Graham in a personal tribute as “broad-minded, forgiving, and humble in his treatment of others, he exemplified the life of Jesus Christ by constantly reaching out for opportunities to serve.”
Graham also has been credited with helping hasten the end of segregation in his native south by refusing to preach to segregated audiences after 1953.
He and his wife Ruth Bell Graham — the daughter of a missionary, who grew up in China — had five children.
One son, William Franklin Graham III, now heads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“My father,” tweeted Graham’s son following his passing, “was once asked, ‘Where is Heaven?’ He said, ‘Heaven is where Jesus is and I am going to Him soon!'”
Graham’s wife Ruth, although married for nearly 64 years to the world’s most famous Baptist preacher, remained a lifelong Presbyterian. She died in June 2007, aged 87.
Seen as a comforting presence during times of crisis, Graham led a national prayer service for the September 11, 2001 attacks. He also presided at graveside services for president Lyndon Johnson in 1973 and spoke at Nixon’s funeral in 1994.
His participation in a record number of presidential inaugurations underscored his legendary political connections. He wrote 31 books, most of which have been translated into several languages.
– ‘Invincible innocence’ –
While he never snagged the top spot, Graham was on Gallup’s list of most admired men more than any other — 55 times since 1955, the polling institute said in December 2011.
Among his many honors, he was presented with an honorary knighthood in 2001 and received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1996.
“My greatest comfort comes from knowing that I belong to Christ, and that no matter what happens, he will never leave me or forsake me. He will be with me as long as I’m on this Earth, and some day I will go to be with him in heaven forever. I look forward to that day,” he once told the Minneapolis Tribune.
Graham had his detractors: noted Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr challenged his preaching as far too simple and not reflecting the complexity of human existence.
And one-time associate Charles Templeton, a former evangelist turned atheist, wrote that “much of what he says in the pulpit is puerile nonsense.”
But he added: “There is no feigning in him: he believes what he believes with an invincible innocence. He is the only mass evangelist I would trust.”
Unlike other high-profile evangelists, Graham managed to escape sex and money scandals by keeping a meticulous watch over his staff and finances.
He suffered from a host of ailments late in life, including Parkinson’s disease and prostate cancer. In 1995, weakened by illness and old age, he turned over operation of his ministry to his eldest son.