William Franklin Graham Jr. was an American evangelical Christian evangelist and an ordained Southern Baptist minister. He has been called one of the most influential preachers of the 20th century. He repudiated segregation and, in addition to his religious aims, helped shape the worldview of a huge number of people coming from different backgrounds leading them to find a relationship between the Bible and contemporary secular viewpoints. Graham preached to live audiences of nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories through various meetings, including BMS World Mission and Global Mission. He also reached hundreds of millions more through television, video, film, and webcasts.
Graham was a spiritual adviser to American presidents and provided spiritual counsel for every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. He was particularly close to Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson (one of Graham’s closest friends), and Richard Nixon. He insisted on racial integration for his revivals and crusades in 1953 and invited Martin Luther King Jr. to preach jointly at a revival in New York City in 1957. Graham bailed King out of jail in the 1960s when King was arrested in demonstrations. He was also lifelong friends with another televangelist, the founding pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, Robert H. Schuller, whom Graham talked into doing his own television ministry.
William Franklin Graham Jr. was born on November 7, 1918. He was the eldest of four children born to Morrow (née Coffey; 1892–1981) and William Franklin Graham Sr. (1888–1962). Graham grew up on a family dairy farm near Charlotte, North Carolina, with his two younger sisters and younger brother. In 1933, when he was fourteen, as Prohibition in the United States ended, Graham’s father forced him and his sister Katherine to drink beer until they got sick. This created such an aversion that both avoided alcohol and drugs for the rest of their lives.
In 1943, Graham graduated from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois with a degree in anthropology. It was during his time at Wheaton that Graham decided to accept the Bible as the infallible word of God. Henrietta Mears of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood (Hollywood, California) was instrumental in helping Graham wrestle with the issue. He settled it at Forest Home Christian Camp (now called Forest Home Ministries) southeast of the Big Bear area in Southern California. A memorial there marks the site of Graham’s decision. On August 13, 1943, Graham married Wheaton classmate Ruth Bell (1920–2007), whose parents were Presbyterian missionaries in China. Ruth Graham died on June 14, 2007, at the age of 87. The Grahams were married for almost 64 years.
A complicated man…
After his close relationship with Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, Graham tried to avoid explicit partisanship. He declined to sign or endorse political statements, and he distanced himself from the Christian right…His early years of fierce opposition to communism gave way to pleas for military disarmament and attention to AIDS, poverty and environmental threats. Graham was a registered member of the Democratic Party. In 1960 he was opposed to the candidacy of John F. Kennedy because as a Catholic he was bound to follow the Pope. Graham worked “behind the scenes” to encourage influential Protestant ministers to speak out against him. Graham met with a conference of Protestant ministers in Montreux, Switzerland during the 1960 campaign, to discuss their mobilizing congregations to defeat Kennedy. According to the PBS Frontline program, God in America (2010), Episode 5, Graham also organized a meeting in September 1960 of hundreds of Protestant ministers in Washington, D.C. to this purpose; Norman Vincent Peale led the meeting. This was shortly before Kennedy’s speech on the separation of church and state in Houston, Texas, which was considered to be successful in meeting concerns of many voters. Graham leaned toward the Republicans during the presidency of Richard Nixon whom he had met and befriended as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower. He did not completely ally himself with the later religious right, saying that Jesus did not have a political party. He gave his support to various political candidates over the years. Graham refused to join Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in 1979, saying: “I’m for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.”
According to a 2006 Newsweek interview, “For Graham, politics is a secondary to the Gospel…When Newsweek asked Graham whether ministers – whether they think of themselves as evangelists, pastors or a bit of both – should spend time engaged with politics, he replied: ‘You know, I think in a way that has to be up to the individual as he feels led of the Lord. A lot of things that I commented on years ago would not have been of the Lord, I’m sure, but I think you have some – like communism, or segregation, on which I think you have a responsibility to speak out” In 2012, Graham publicly endorsed the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. Shortly after, apparently in order to accommodate Romney who is a Mormon, references to Mormonism as a religious cult (“A cult is any group which teaches doctrines or beliefs that deviate from the biblical message of the Christian faith.”) were removed from Graham’s website. Observers have questioned whether the support of Republican and religious right politics on issues such as same-sex marriage coming from Graham – who stopped speaking in public or to reporters – in fact reflects the views of his son, Franklin, head of the BGEA. Franklin denied this, and said that he would continue to act as his father’s spokesperson rather than allowing press conferences.
Among his numerous awards and honors, in 1983, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and in 2001, Queen Elizabeth II awarded him an honorary knighthood. The honor was presented to him by Sir Christopher Meyer, British Ambassador to the US at the British Embassy in Washington D.C.
Billy Graham died today at 8 a.m. EST, at his home in Montreat, North Carolina. He was 99 years old.