“America’s Pastor,” the Rev. Billy Graham dies at 99

MONTREAT, N.C. — The Rev. Billy Graham, who transformed American religious life through his preaching and activism, becoming a counselor to presidents and the most widely heard Christian evangelist in history, died Wednesday. He was 99.

Graham, who long suffered from cancer, pneumonia and other ailments, died at his home in North Carolina, according to spokesman Mark DeMoss.

More than anyone else, Graham built evangelicalism into a force that rivaled liberal Protestantism and Roman Catholicism in the United States. His leadership summits and crusades in more than 185 countries and territories forged powerful global links among conservative Christians, and threw a lifeline to believers in the communist-controlled Eastern bloc. Dubbed “America’s pastor,” he was a confidant to U.S. presidents from Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush.

In 1983, President Reagan gave Graham the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. When the Billy Graham Museum and Library was dedicated in 2007 in Charlotte, former Presidents George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton attended.

Beyond Graham’s public appearances, he reached untold millions through his pioneering use of prime-time telecasts, network radio, daily newspaper columns, evangelistic feature films and globe-girdling satellite TV hookups. Graham’s message won over audiences worldwide.

Born Nov. 7, 1918, on his family’s dairy farm near Charlotte, Graham came from a narrow fundamentalist background but, as his crusades drew support from a wide variety of Christian churches, he joined in a then-emerging movement called New Evangelicalism that abandoned the narrowness of fundamentalism to engage broader society. He would not reject people who were sincere and shared at least some of his beliefs, wanting the widest hearing possible for his salvation message. His approach helped evangelicals gain the influence they have today.

Grahamás path to becoming an evangelist began taking shape at age 16, when the Presbyterian-reared farmboy committed himself to Christ at a local tent revival.

After high school, he enrolled at the fundamentalist Bob Jones College, but soon transferred to Florida Bible Institute in Tampa. There, he practiced sermonizing in a swamp, preaching to birds and alligators before tryouts with small churches. He still wasn’t convinced he should be a preacher until a soul-searching, late-night ramble on a golf course.

“I finally gave in while pacing at midnight on the 18th hole,” he said. “All right, Lord,” I said, “If you want me, you’ve got me.”

Graham, who became a Southern Baptist, went on to study at Wheaton College, where he met fellow student Ruth Bell. The two married in 1943.

Graham’s evangelism star began rising during a 1949 Los Angeles revival. He had been drawing adequate, but not spectacular crowds until one night when reporters descended at the behest of then legendary publisher William Randolph Hearst, who had ordered his papers to hype the evangelist. Graham said he never found out why.

The publicity gave him a national profile. And he went on to hold massive crusades here and abroad and became America’s most famous religious leader.

Ruth Graham, who raised their children nearly alone as her husband went on crusades, died in June 2007 at age 87. He will be buried by her at the Billy Graham Museum and Library. His son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, runs the ministry today.