In Memoriam: Billy Graham
“America’s Pastor” and Montreat College Friend
By Benjamin Brandenburg
“The impact that Billy Graham had on Montreat College and the local Montreat community cannot be overstated,” says Montreat College President Paul J. Maurer. “He and his wife Ruth were tireless advocates for the college, giving of their time, resources, 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 individuals had as much impact on 20th Century American culture as Billy Graham.
Graham will also be remembered for far more than his crusades. In partnership with his father-in-law Dr. 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.”
"My home is in Heaven. I'm just traveling through this world." Rev. Billy Graham
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. ■
Benjamin Brandenburg is an assistant professor of history at Montreat College.