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Billy Graham, influential evangelist and friend to U.S. presidents, dies at 99

He preached the gospel around the world and served as a counselor to decades of American leaders.

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The Rev. Billy Graham, one of the most influential religious figures in U.S. history and a trusted adviser to decades of U.S. presidents, has died. He was 99.

Graham was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1992.

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For decades starting with Harry Truman, Graham would be seen at the side of U.S. presidents as he served as a valued counselor, during both their brightest days and their sleepless nights. “People in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to,” the evangelist said in 2011.

As a religious figure, Graham extended his influence beyond the Southern Baptist community to become a respected figure around the world. “Billy Graham stood in the glare of public scrutiny with U.S. presidents and other heads of state more than any other Christian leader,” wrote Stephen Rankin of the “Confessor-in-Chief” in 2014.

Noting that technology had made it possible for an evangelist to preach to everyone and anyone, he said, “It has literally become possible to proclaim the Gospel to the entire world.” And, that the evangelist did: On his website, it was claimed that Graham had “preached the Gospel message to more than 215 million people in over 185 countries.”

William Franklin Graham was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Nov. 7, 1918. As a youth, he dreamed of playing baseball, but after studying at Bob Jones University, the Florida Bible Institute and Wheaton College, he began his career as a pastor in the Chicago suburbs. He was soon preaching about Christ to eager servicemen returning from the carnage of World War II.

In July 1945, he became a preacher for Youth for Christ International, a crusade that combined traditional values, patriotism and some modern razzle-dazzle.

Emphatically patriotic and disdainful of communism and other “isms,” Graham proved to be the right person for an unsettled age, drawing large crowds. In 1949, he drew national attention with an eight-week crusade in Los Angeles.

“Billy Graham seemed fated to reign as the unifying figure behind evangelical Christianity,” wrote Barbara Cady in “Icons of the 20th Century.” “No one was more energetic and wholesome, no one more staggeringly handsome and charismatic.”

For Graham, the Bible was universal truth, and Christ represented the path to salvation. “Choose this day the road to travel into eternity,” he preached. “Don’t think there are three choices — yes, no and wait — for you may never have another opportunity.”

The idea that a high-tech modern world could undermine these truths was repellent to him. “The great all-prevailing Truth stands for time and eternity,” he preached.

Even if there was nothing particularly new about his message, it resonated with many.

“What Billy Graham may have revived in modern times, above all,” wrote Paul A. Carter in 1974’s “Encyclopedia of American Biography,” “is revivalism itself.”

Billy Graham is pictured here. | Getty Images

“When he appeared on the national scene at the end of World War II,” Carter continued, ‘Graham’s style of evangelism — fervent, vivid, Biblical — was widely believed to be a quaint survival of folk religion soon destined to disappear. Graham has quite clearly shown otherwise.”

Television expanded his reach, as did the more than 30 books he wrote. His preaching would take him around the globe, even behind the Iron Curtain amid the Cold War. He visited American troops during wartime. And his evangelism would take him to Washington, where Graham was a counselor to American leaders.

“Graham’s meetings with every President since Harry Truman were no accident: Both the preacher and the presidents had their reasons — sometimes spiritual, sometimes political, usually both — for getting together,” wrote Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy in Time magazine in 2010, after President Barack Obama paid a visit to Graham.

In 1952, Graham became the first to hold formal religious service on the Capitol steps. That was part of a five-week crusade in Washington and a heady time for Graham and other modern evangelists.

“If I could run for president of the United States today, on a platform of calling the people back to God, back to Christ, back to the Bible, I’d be elected,” he said, according to William Martin in “With God On Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America.” “There is a hunger for God today.”

The Rev. Billy Graham (left) and President Lyndon B. Johnson pray at the annual presidential prayer breakfast in Washington on Feb. 17, 1966.

The Rev. Billy Graham (left) and President Lyndon B. Johnson pray at the annual presidential prayer breakfast in Washington on Feb. 17, 1966. | John Rous/AP Photo

Though Truman was the first to welcome Graham to the Oval Office, Eisenhower was the first president to get close to him, seeking Graham’s help with an inaugural prayer. In turn, Graham helped persuade Eisenhower of the merits of holding a National Prayer Breakfast, which began in 1953. Graham would counsel Eisenhower after a heart attack and, years later, as he was dying.

Different presidents had different reasons for connecting with Graham. Ronald Reagan, for instance, was a friend, dating back years before he became president.

“My father has never sought really to be the friend of presidents,” the Rev. Franklin Graham, his son and successor, said in 2004. “It has just happened to come his direction.”

Graham offered guidance during tough times. President Gerald Ford discussed his plans to pardon Richard M. Nixon, President George H.W. Bush invited him to the White House at the start of the first Gulf War, and President Bill Clinton sought Graham’s counsel during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Perhaps most dramatically, Graham counseled President Lyndon Johnson soon after the assassination of President John Kennedy. “In their first visit, scheduled for 15 minutes but stretched to five hours, the two farm boys who had ridden their talent, ambition and energy to the pinnacle of their respective professions found they had more to offer each other than either had ever imagined,” according to “With God On Our Side.”

Graham frequently visited Johnson at the White House and his ranch in Texas. “Johnson struggled with doubts about his salvation,” Rankin wrote. “On one of many car rides around the ranch, he parked the car and asked Graham to share the gospel with him once again. “

In 1965, Johnson asked Graham to go to Selma, Alabama, to help calm racial tensions there. Graham would officiate at LBJ’s funeral in 1973.

President George W. Bush credited Graham’s guidance for leading him to faith in Christ, and Graham would serve as a witness to his character. “I believe in the integrity of this man,” Graham said late in the 2000 campaign. “I’ve known him as a boy. I’ve known him as a young man. And we’re very proud of him.”

In 2010, Obama visited Graham at his home in Montreat, North Carolina. Obama later recalled the visit: “91 years old at the time, facing various health challenges, he welcomed me as he would welcome a family member or a close friend. This man who had prayed great prayers that inspired a nation, this man who seemed larger than life, greeted me and was as kind and as gentle as could be.”

Because of his reputation, Graham was someone who connected the dots in Washington. When GOP presidential nominee Nixon wanted to convey a message to President Johnson in 1968, it was Graham who did so. When a newly elected Georgia governor went to Washington, it was Graham who introduced Jimmy Carter to President Nixon.

Carter had met the evangelist when he was working in 1955 as a Graham volunteer on behalf of integration in Georgia. Early in his public life, Graham had become a supporter of civil rights, holding integrated crusades in otherwise segregated places.

“In 1953, after the sponsoring committee of his Chattanooga crusade balked at his demand that seating be open to all, he went to the crusade tabernacle and personally removed the ropes marking the section reserved for blacks,” according to “With God On Our Side.”

In 1957, Graham encouraged Eisenhower to send troops to Arkansas to compel the admission of black students to Little Rock Central High School. Graham also preached with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., though Graham’s abhorrence for the disorder of public protest would keep him from attending events such as the March on Washington.

Graham consistently professed neutrality in political matters, though there were times that didn’t seem to hold true.

In 1960, for instance, Graham was clearly supportive of Nixon, his longtime friend. He was troubled by Kennedy’s liberalism and wary of having a Catholic president.

Nixon lost, but Graham remained close to him and after Nixon was elected in 1968, Graham was a strong presence in Nixon’s presidency. The two frequently discussed political and theological matters, and Graham clearly backed Nixon during his 1972 reelection campaign. “You know how I love you,” Graham told the president in a 1973 phone call after a Nixon speech.

The Rev. Billy Graham addresses 18,000 people in Dallas on June 13, 1974. The evangelist preached to more than 215 million people around the world.

The Rev. Billy Graham addresses 18,000 people in Dallas on June 13, 1974. The evangelist preached to more than 215 million people around the world.

Watergate tainted Graham’s legacy a bit. For one thing, Graham was overheard making anti-Semitic remarks on one of Nixon’s Oval Office tapes. (Graham apologized when the tape surfaced.) For another, he remained a steadfast supporter of Nixon deep into the scandal. “When the worst came out, it was nearly unbearable for me,” he later said of Nixon’s deceptions.

Graham did have his critics. Some progressives objected to his conservatism on social issues and found his viewpoint tainted by his relentless anti-communism. He would also find himself criticized by fundamentalists who thought his outlook too generous to those of other faiths. “To this day,” wrote Bruce Bawer in the 1997 book “Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity,” “fundamentalists despise Graham as a sellout because he affirms the value of Catholic and Jewish faith.”

Regardless, there was no doubt that he had done much to shape spiritual life in America. His many honors included a Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded in 1983 by Reagan. Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

In 1955, Graham placed in the top 10 of the Gallup Poll’s most admired men in America. In 2017, he was still on the list, tied for fourth with Sen. John McCain and Elon Musk. It was Graham’s 61st time on the list, by far the most ever.

“He has reached out to all people — black or white, American or foreign, man or woman — for opportunities to serve God,” Jimmy Carter said in 2007. “My testimony is that I am just one of tens of millions of people whose spiritual lives have been shaped by Billy Graham.”

The evangelist’s wife, Ruth Bell Graham, died in June 2007.

“As I look back,” Graham wrote in 2012, “I see how God’s hand guided me. I sense His Spirit with me today, and most comforting is the knowledge that He will not forsake me during this last stretch as I am nearing home. If that doesn’t give me a sense of hope, nothing else will.”

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