In one of his final network interviews, a reporter asked Billy Graham what he would have done differently in his life. The evangelist's quick response suggested he had been pondering that question for some time. His answer was simple. He would have spent more time in meditation and prayer, and less time traveling and doing speaking engagements. It was a surprising response from “America’s pastor” whose career spanned over 60 years and whose sermons reached millions of people around the world. But Graham often had a way of eluding expectations.
In an age when celebrity evangelism was synonymous with scandal, Graham avoided the pitfalls of his contemporaries. He was never caught up in a sex scandal, like Jimmy Swaggart. Never committed fraud like Jim Bakker. And never tangled with the SEC, like Jerry Falwell. Although he wasn’t completely free of controversy, Graham followed a straight and relatively trouble-free path that seemed never to distract from his consistent message about our deep need to pursue a spiritual awakening.
It has been widely cited that he was a spiritual counselor to 12 U.S. presidents, although his first presidential visit, with Harry Truman, was a disaster and his relationship with Jimmy Carter was considered lukewarm at best. He was closest to Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan once referred to Graham (who was a registered Democrat) as one of the most inspirational spiritual leaders of the 20th century. In 1991, he prayed with George and Barbara Bush in the White House on the eve of the Gulf War.
Despite his global fame as a charismatic preacher, the oldest son of Calvinist dairy farmers had no formal theological training; instead he studied at the Florida Bible Institute and Wheaton College.
It was during his time at those schools when two of his most pivotal moments occurred. When he was a student at the Florida Bible Institute, a campus built on the grounds of a former country club, he was lying on the 18th green staring at the moon and palm trees when he said he got his calling to preach the gospel. At Wheaton College, he met fellow student Ruth Bell, the daughter of medical missionaries. The two dated throughout college and married shortly after graduation. Throughout their time together, she was his soulmate and, amidst the flashbulbs and adoring crowds, kept her husband’s feet firmly on the ground. (Ruth once famously revealed the preacher’s favorite meal: a can of vienna sausages, cold tomatoes, and baked beans — all cold.) The couple had five children together.
Over the 1940s and 50s, Graham ascended from a pastor in Western Springs, Illinois to a Christian icon. His rapid rise to fame was thanks, in some part, to his severe denouncements of Communism — which he referred to as “Godless” and urged Americans to stand strong against it. His message connected with Cold War anxieties, particularly among middle-class Protestants.
A charismatic speaker, his audiences often numbered in the thousands. He spread his message through what he called “crusades,” multi-day gatherings in which he could preach to thousands of followers in stadiums, parks, or convention halls. He conducted over 400 of these crusades in 185 countries.
With so many adoring crowds, temptation was always a risk for someone in Graham’s position. But early on, he vowed to his wife that he would never be alone in a room or a car with any woman other than Ruth. In fact, members of his entourage would enter his hotel rooms ahead of him in order to make sure they were clear of swooning admirers in search of an autograph or a tabloid headline.
One of his most controversial crusades took place in 1959, in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was during the height of social unrest over integration, and Graham refused to allow segregated seating among his audience. Conservative groups pleaded with him, but Graham refused to give in. His steadfast determination made a big impression on a 13-year-old William Jefferson Clinton, who was in attendance with his Sunday school class. “I was just a little boy,” Clinton recalled later, “and I never forgot it, and I’ve loved him ever since.”
More controversy would come later in life. In 2002, the National Archives released 500 hours of audiotape from Nixon’s Oval Office. In one exchange, Graham and Nixon talked about the Jewish domination of the news media and what could be done about it. When asked about the exchange, Graham said he had no memory of the occasion and apologized for the remarks.” If it wasn’t on tape,” he said, “I would not have believed it [was me speaking]. I guess I was trying to please [Nixon]. I felt so badly about myself—I couldn’t believe it. I went to a meeting with Jewish leaders and I told them I would crawl to them to ask their forgiveness.”
Billy Graham retired in 2005, to his home in Montreat, North Carolina. In 2007 his wife passed away from pneumonia and degenerative osteoarthritis. Diagnosed with several illnesses including Parkinson’s disease, prostate cancer, and hydrocephalus, Graham rarely left home in his final years. In one of his last interviews, he said: “My wife is already in heaven. I look forward to seeing her definitely, and in the near future . . . because I know my time is limited on this earth, but I have tremendous hope in the future life.”