“America’s Pastor,” Billy Graham died Wednesday morning at his home in Montreat, N.C. He was 99.
Known best for taking his evangelism to airwaves, television screens, and bookstores, Graham also served as a spiritual counsel to each United States president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, was a leader in the desegregation movement, and founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in 1950, shortly after rising to prominence with his Los Angeles Crusade in 1949.
BGEA has worked toward evangelical education efforts, domestic and international ministries, and disaster response. Graham’s eldest son, Franklin, has served as president and CEO of the organization since 2000 and is also chairman of Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief organization. Spokespersons from both organizations declined comment on Graham’s passing. A recorded BGEA message indicates that a public event will be held at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C. at a date to be determined (TBD). Visitors to websites of BGEA and Samaritan’s Purse are directed to a common memorial page.
“What will be remembered about Billy Graham was that he was the first of the sort of traveling preachers to talk not about guilt and about shame and judgement, but about love,” said the Rev. Mitchell C. Hescox, president and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network . “I think that’s what he’ll be remembered for more than anything else.”
Hescox said that he was saddened this morning to hear that Graham had died, but that he believes that his legacy will live on and that “it’s a joy in that we celebrate a life well-lived.” Graham “typified” what Evangelicals were and are, he said. Organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) existed before Graham’s rise to prominence, but he literally became the figurehead of the Evangelical movement and, though his focus was bringing people to Christianity, he also saw importance in social issues such as the environment. Hescox said that it would be fair to say that Evangelical organizations would not exist as they do today without Graham.
Leith Anderson, president of NAE, described Graham as the “face and voice of Evangelicalism” for more than half a century. Graham was able to transcend politics and religion during his ministry, Anderson said in a statement, and was able to draw admiration from broad audiences on television, radio, and in print. The statement notes that Graham was named one of Gallup’s 10 most admired men 54 times and appeared on the covers of numerous prominent magazines.including Time, Life, and Newsweek.
“Billy Graham loved God, and we loved Billy Graham. We will miss him,” Anderson said.
Dan Busby, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), credited Graham and BGEA for their roles in the creation of the association. Busby described Graham as “one of the most influential religious figures of our age” and an evangelist with an “unmatched” legacy.
“I was saddened to learn of the passing of the Rev. Billy Graham, but I feel deep joy knowing he is now experiencing the peace and presence of his savior for whom he labored so faithfully,” said Busby.
In a statement, former President Bill Clinton described Graham as one of the most important religious leaders in American history. He recalled first seeing Graham 60 years ago as a youth in Little Rock, Ark. as the community debated over school integration.
“He filled a football stadium with a fully integrated audience, reminding them that we all come before God as equals, both in our imperfection and our absolute claim to amazing grace,” Clinton said. “Later as governor, in the White House, and afterward, I saw him live that faith fully in the constant kindness, encouragement, and counsel he extended to Hillary and me.”
Graham preferred baseball to religion and did not enjoy attending church as a North Carolina youth, according to the BGEA memorial site. His path changed in 1934 upon meeting traveling evangelist Mordecai Fowler. He attended Florida Bible Institute, now Trinity College of Florida, and later attended Wheaton College in suburban Chicago where he met his wife, Ruth.
He traveled as a speaker for Youth for Christ for two years before his first crusade in 1947. He gained prominence in 1949 with his Los Angeles Crusade that was extended from three weeks to eight due to hundreds of thousands of attendees. He founded BGEA the following year.
Graham is survived by his sister, five children, 19 grandchildren, and numerous grandchildren. He is predeceased by wife, Ruth, who died in 2007 at the age of 87. Both Grahams received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1996, the highest civilian honor Congress may give to a private citizen. It is estimated that Graham preached to 215 million in 185 countries and territories. He also conducted 400 crusades and authored 34 books during his lifetime.