American Christian evangelist Billy Graham, often viewed as the most influential preacher of the 20th century, died Wednesday at 99.
Graham had been ailing in recent years and died at his home in Montreat, N.C. He rarely appeared in public anymore, although he attended his 95th birthday celebration in November 2013.
Graham for decades waved a Bible over his head as he preached to more than 200 million people in 185 countries and territories. He staged massive rallies, called the Billy Graham Crusades, that were attended by thousands of people and reached millions through television, radio and satellite. During seven decades of preaching, Graham declared that belief and acceptance of Jesus Christ was the only answer to humanity's troubles.
Crusades around the world
Graham conducted these crusades on every continent except Antarctica. He preached in Soviet-bloc nations before the fall of communism. And in the winter of 1994, Graham delivered sermons in China and North Korea, where he met with those nations' political and religious leaders. As a result of his world travels, the quintessential American preacher concluded that Christianity is no longer strictly a Western religion.
“It's stronger in Africa and Latin America and in Asia than it is in Europe, by far. In Europe, it’s still called Christianity, but it doesn’t have much strength and much power. And I was in Rome and had a talk with the pope about it, and I think he would agree to that — that the real life of Christianity now is in what we call the Third World,” Graham once said.
The evangelist was a spiritual adviser and acquaintance of every U.S. president from Harry Truman in the 1940s to Barack Obama in the 21st century. Graham was often asked to pray or preach at public national U.S. events, such as inaugurations of new presidents.
Former President George H.W. Bush called him “America’s preacher.” His son, former President George W. Bush, said he gave up alcohol after a meeting with Graham.
Former President Jimmy Carter lauded Graham as “broad-minded, forgiving and humble in his treatment of others.”
President Donald Trump said on Twitter, “The GREAT Billy Graham is dead. There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man.
In a more formal statement, Trump said, “He was one of the towering figures of the last 100 years — an American hero whose life and leadership truly earned him the title ‘God's Ambassador.’ Billy Graham was truly one of a kind. We are thinking of him today, finally at home in Heaven.”
Ed Stetzer, a religion professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, which Graham attended in the 1940s, told VOA the evangelist “had a winsomeness about him. And so, he believed in the Gospel, and he believed in the exclusivity of Christ, but he wasn’t mad about it. And when you see people who believe those things and are mad about it, they’re sort of, like, repellent from Christianity. And he was the opposite. He was like a magnet to people.”
In what Graham’s son Franklin said was Billy Graham’s last message to America, a video was played at the 95th birthday party, with the aging preacher saying America was “in great need of a spiritual awakening.”
Graham’s conservative Christian message presaged that of other U.S. televangelists, although none has reached his prominence. In his prime, well before he ended his crusades in 2005, Graham’s booming, quick-speaking style won him admiration throughout the U.S. heartland, where church attendance on Sundays was, and still is in many places, a given at the start of a new week.
Graham demanded his revivals be racially integrated at a time when such practices were still not widespread. He refused to preach in South Africa while apartheid was in force. Graham also befriended Martin Luther King Jr. and once bailed him out of jail.
But Graham was not above criticism. He generally stayed on the sidelines of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and did not attend marches that included many religious leaders — something he later said he regretted.
Graham was caught on tape telling his close friend President Richard Nixon that “Jews don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country.” He was remorseful and apologized for his remarks when they were revealed.
Graham's literal interpretation of the Bible led him to oppose gay rights and condemn homosexuality as a “sinister form of perversion.”
Graham was born in 1918 to devoutly Christian parents on a North Carolina dairy farm. He said he accepted Christ when he was 16 and began preaching two years later under the mentoring of a traveling evangelist who called him to a Christian revival meeting.
Graham was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister in 1940. Within a decade, his preaching style was winning attention. Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst ordered his San Francisco paper, along with other papers under his control, to give the budding evangelist extra coverage. Reporters called him “God’s machine gun.”
Graham’s focus was on spiritually saving lives, calling people to repent for their sins and accept Jesus into their lives.
He believed in a literal heaven and hell. At the end of every crusade sermon, he invited people, whom he called inquirers, to come forward to seek salvation through belief in Jesus. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, would respond at his rallies.
Graham said he was not discouraged that more than 2,000 years after the birth of Jesus, the majority of the world’s population was not Christian.
But for all his flash and theatrics and a marquee name, Graham regarded himself as a genuinely humble man, rejecting big money and million-dollar offers from Hollywood to live simply and stay with God.
In Photos: Billy Graham