The Rev. Billy Graham, best known as the dynamic evangelist who preached the Gospel to millions over a career that spanned decades, passed away on February 21 at his home in Montreat, North Carolina. He was 99. While his life and legacy as an evangelist and public figure will be celebrated nationally and internationally, he will also be remembered as a civic leader, college supporter, good neighbor, and loving husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather by those in the local Montreat community.
“The impact that Billy Graham had on Montreat College and the local Montreat community cannot be overstated,” said Montreat College President Paul J. Maurer. “He and his wife Ruth were tireless advocates for the college, giving of their time, money, and spiritual guidance over the course of more than 60 years. Even as Billy rose to the level of a national and international figure, he and Ruth maintained deep roots in the local Montreat community as loyal friends, neighbors, and civic leaders.”
During his long life, Billy Graham moved from rising evangelist in the 1940s, to evangelical movement leader in the 1950s, to national political figure in the 1960s, to American celebrity in the 1970s, to global icon in the 1980s and 1990s. Graham’s brand of ecumenical Christian evangelism reached millions through his radio and TV shows, syndicated column, movie company, thirty-three books, and stadium-scale gospel crusades. Few Americans had as much impact on 20th Century American culture as Billy Graham.
Despite Graham’s ascension to global prominence, the boy raised on a farm outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, never lost his sense of place. In 1943, Graham married his Wheaton (Illinois) College classmate Ruth Bell (1920-2007), whose Presbyterian missionary parents had settled in Montreat, and Ruth graduated from Montreat College’s high school program in 1936. After graduating from Wheaton, the Grahams made a home for their growing family on Montreat’s Little Piney Ridge. Their mountaintop home became a peaceful refuge from Graham’s increasingly busy schedule of evangelistic crusades, which emerged as an iconic American religious experience after the sensational success of his 1949 Los Angeles Crusade. While Graham and his team would travel the world over the next half century, he would keep coming home to rest and to pay special spiritual attention to the people of Western North Carolina, both personally and professionally—as seven full-scale crusades in Greensboro, Asheville, and Charlotte attest.
Graham will also be remembered for far more than his crusades. In partnership with his father-in-law L. Nelson Bell, he worked to create a new, vibrant multi-denominational evangelical movement that rose to prominence in the postwar era. Graham’s leadership helped birth institutions like the National Association of Evangelicals and the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, humanitarian organizations like World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse, and the prominent Christian media voice Christianity Today. Graham’s support of Christian higher education proved important for dozens of faith-based colleges and universities.
Specifically, the Grahams were intimately involved with the growth and sustenance of Montreat College. In 1943, Billy and Ruth Graham were married in Montreat College’s Gaither Chapel, which was renamed Graham Chapel in their honor in 2015. The Grahams were common fixtures at convocations, banquets, and building dedications at the college just down the ridge from the Graham home. They raised funds to help build the L. Nelson Bell Library in the early 1970s. Their significant personal and financial support during crucial moments helped Montreat College grow into the fully accredited four-year liberal arts institution that it is today. Ruth served on the college’s Board of Trustees from 1972 to 1981 and was named a trustee emerita in 1981. She was also awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award in 1967. Billy and Ruth’s son Franklin Graham graduated from Montreat College in 1974, and their grandson Will Graham served on the college’s Board of Trustees from 2007 to 2016. In 1991, Montreat College awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters to Billy Graham for “a commitment to preaching the Gospel throughout the world and for a lifetime of dedicated and unselfish service to others.”
Throughout his ministry career, Graham’s care for the people surrounding him pushed him into a number of important cultural developments, to which the evangelist proved remarkably adept at adopting for his Gospel aims. At his momentous 1957 crusade in New York City, Graham’s controversial decision to work with Catholics and mainline Protestants opened up a long-dormant conversation into the ways Christians could productively work across denominational divides for the good of the Gospel. On race issues, Graham was more progressive than most of his fellow Southerners, but he remained a moderate throughout the Civil Rights era. He bravely began to desegregate his crusades in the 1950s, and he modeled a way for millions of conservative heartland Americans to move towards an acceptance and embrace of racial equality. One way he did this was through music. While Graham remains closely associated with the deep-barrel baritoned “Just as I Am” of his music leader George Beverly Shea, Graham’s music ministry showed remarkable adaptability. And multi-racial and multi-generational musical sensibility became increasingly evident at his crusades through regular appearances by artists from a wide array of musical traditions, including Johnny Cash, Ethel Waters, Mahalia Jackson, and DC Talk, as well as Korean, Hungarian, Latino, Hawaiian, and Native American music.
Graham also became a celebrity in the political world. His sermons were famous for their unchanging consistency, but they nearly always began with a preamble that focused on problems of the world. Beginning in the 1950s, Graham developed a special relationship with a long line of American presidents, particularly Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Over the decades, many prominent politicians would brave the curvy and narrow mountain roads to visit him at his home in Montreat. Barack Obama’s 2010 visit continued a close relationship between the pastor and the office of the president that stretched all the way back to the Truman administration. While Graham often served as a personal pastor and confidant to very human presidents, he eventually began to question those politically complex relationships, especially after he and the rest of the American public were made privy to the dark side of his friend Richard Nixon’s administration through the revelations of the Watergate scandal. In 2011, when asked if he could go back and do anything differently, Graham told Christianity Today, “I would have steered clear of politics.”
Graham’s lifetime witnessed momentous changes, and he was central to many of them, but his most significant impact may have occurred outside of the United States. By the time he retired in 2005, Graham had preached to nearly 215 million people in person in more than 185 countries and territories, and to additional hundreds of millions through electronic broadcasts. Graham first took his modern campaign to Europe in 1954. While large sections of the European press initially dismissed the man they called the “Atomic-Gospeler” and the “Coca-Cola Gospeler,” he eventually won over much of the skeptical press as Europeans learned from Graham what it meant to identify as both Christian and modern. In the 1960s and 1970s, Graham’s trips increasingly took him beyond the West, where his crusades would continue to set numerous attendance records. In South Africa, he held that nation’s first large scale integrated event in 1973. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the formerly staunch anti-Communist took his revival campaigns into the Communist Bloc. He was the first Christian, Eastern or Western, to publicly preach behind the Iron Curtain after World War II, culminating in giant gatherings in Budapest and Moscow. He also received unprecedented invitations to Beijing and Pyongyang in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Throughout all of Graham’s years in the public arena, even as many of his fellow Christian leaders fell victim to scandals, Graham’s marriage to Ruth and his organizations’ sound finances remained remarkably scandal-free, a testament to the integrity of both Graham and his team. Not surprisingly, he has been a fixture on lists of the ten most-admired people in America or the world since the 1950s.
As the mature Graham entered his twilight years, he was able to witness the explosive growth of Christianity in the southern hemisphere, a moment in Christian history that has surpassed all others in terms of the number of converts to the Christian faith, and his team was vital to that process. In addition to his own crusades, Graham’s team did the extensive work of training and empowering indigenous leaders to participate in worldwide evangelistic endeavors. In the end, perhaps the greatest heavenly gift that the North Carolina native received was that he was able to participate in the unprecedented growth of a vibrant—and truly global—Christian community.
Written by Benjamin Brandenburg, Assistant Professor of History at Montreat College