Famed Christian evangelist Billy Graham dies at age 99

Christians across metro Atlanta remember the life, sermons of Rev. Billy Graham

CHARLOTTE, NC — In the shadows of his childhood home, mourners from across the country and in his home town of Charlotte, North Carolina laid flowers to honor the Rev. Billy Graham’s passing at the Billy Graham Evangelical Library, where the famous evangelist will be laid to rest.

Graham passed away at the age of 99 early Wednesday morning at his home in Montreat, North Carolina.

Shortly after his passing, a hearse carrying Graham’s body was seen leaving his home.

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"You knew he was going to pass, but it was sort of like you thought he was going to live forever in some ways because he's just been there my whole life," a person visiting Graham’s library said.

A son of the south, Graham grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, milking cows on his family's dairy farm, and then delivering the milk after school. At age 16, he dedicated himself to God and began a lifelong journey that would touch millions.

Graham reached more than 200 million people through his appearances and millions more through television and radio.

He called his revival campaigns 'crusades,' and made them bigger than any ever seen before.

Graham held "crusades" across the globe, preaching to more than 210 million people, more than any other human ever.

"Christianity is not a white man's religion and don't let anyone ever tell you that it's white or black, Christ belongs to all people," Graham said to a crowd of thousands while speaking in South Africa in 1973.

Two of those crusades were held here in Atlanta, the first in 1973, the last in 1994 when tens of thousands of people, including president Jimmy Carter packed the Georgia Dome for a week.

“The only bright horizon I see today is the coming again of Christ.  I believe He is coming back,” Graham said.

Graham served as a spiritual adviser to nearly every president dating back to Harry Truman.

President Jimmy Carter joined President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton in Charlotte in May of 2007 for the dedication of the Billy Graham Library. Graham's wife of more than 60 years, Ruth, was too sick to join him, but Carter did speak of her.

In 2010, President Barack Obama visited Graham at his home and the two met for about a half hour in private, according to an article in The New York Times. A White House spokesman said the two had a “private prayer.”

President Donald Trump tweeted about Graham's death Wednesday morning.

President Barack Obama tweeted about Graham's impact to America Wednesday.

Before selling salvation, Graham traveled the Carolinas selling Fuller brushes. He was the company’s top salesman in the two states before going on to Bob Jones College, according to Martin.

Later he transferred to Florida Bible Institute in Temple Terrace, Fla., where he gave himself to the ministry in a late-night prayer on a golf course. He began to fill in for pastors, preach at dog tracks and saloons in central Florida, and establish himself as chaplain to the Tampa Trailer Park, Martin wrote.

In 1938, conducting his first revival, the young Presbyterian preacher was persuaded by the minister of the East Palatka (Fla.) Baptist Church to be dunked into the Southern Baptist Convention, setting the course for Graham to become the world’s best-known Baptist since John The.

The following year he got his first look at New York on a trip to the World’s Fair. “That’s when I first heard of television,” he recalled years later. “They said it was going to come to the whole country. Of course nobody believed them.”

He had little reason then to think that the newfangled device would make him one of the best-known figures on the planet.

Graham went from Florida to Wheaton College in Illinois, where he met Ruth Bell, daughter of Presbyterian missionaries to China. They were married Aug. 13, 1943, and two years later had the first of their five children.

Ruth Bell Graham died on June 14, 2007.

Throughout his life, Graham would feel the conflicting pulls of faith and family. The greatest mistake he ever made, he said, was “in taking too many speaking engagements and not spending enough time with my family.”

Nevertheless, all of his children ended up in some form of ministry. His son Franklin has been named to succeed him by the board of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

After graduating from Wheaton, Graham served a brief stint as a pastor before joining the evangelism organization Youth for Christ. A Minneapolis rally introduced him to William Bell Riley, president of that city’s Northwestern School, a complex including a seminary, Bible school and liberal arts college. The aging minister chose Graham as his successor. Though the academic career did not last, the relationship with the city did. Minneapolis remained the headquarters of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association until 2001, when Franklin Graham decided to move the main offices to Charlotte.

A 1949 crusade in Los Angeles launched Graham into prominence. Several days into services there, a gaggle of reporters and photographers showed up to cover the young evangelist. Puzzled, he asked why. According to Graham’s memoir, “Just As I Am,” a journalist replied, “You’ve just been kissed by William Randolph Hearst.” One story that circulated was that the media magnate sent his editors a directive: “Puff Graham.”

Whatever Hearst’s motivation—and Graham said he never found out — the sudden attention began a climb that never ended, even as age and ill health took their toll.

He brought his traveling revivals to Atlanta on Oct. 30, 1950. Nearly 495,000 turned out over six weeks to hear him preach God as the answer to the communist threat.

“The cross of Christ, if accepted, will spare the nation the coming judgment,” he preached. “It will change this city, will change the home, will change the church, will change the heart.”

On Sunday, Nov. 5, seated before a microphone at a table placed over second base at Atlanta’s Ponce de Leon Ball Park, Graham broadcast his first-ever “Hour of Decision” radio program.

Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy attended two of the 1950 services. At the time, Cathy had only a handful of employees at his Dwarf Grill (later the Dwarf House) restaurant. He enlisted customers to go to the Graham services so they could be recognized as a group there.

“I was inspired by him.” Cathy said in a 2006 interview. “I’d always been accustomed to going to Sunday School and church. I had heard a lot about Billy Graham even at that time.”

Later, Graham established an office near the Atlanta airport for his international operations. Graham’s board would sometimes order lunch for their meetings from Cathy’s nearby restaurant.

Once, delivering the lunch, Cathy asked to meet Graham but was told he was too busy. Another time, however, he was able to chat with Graham, who gave him an autographed book.

“You could feel the presence of the Lord in his presence,” Cathy recalled.

Two years before the Atlanta crusade, Graham and the small group of men who would play a central role in his ministry for more than half a century gathered in Modesto, Calif., to devise a “manifesto” to keep them above reproach.

They chose four principles to guide them: integrity, accountability, purity and humility.

“We prayed about each one and committed our lives to those core values,” songleader Cliff Barrows recalled at a 2006 luncheon in Atlanta.

Barrows said their resolve reminded him of the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns ` in Arlington National Cemetery, where each shift says to the next that the orders remain the same. For Graham and his men, Barrows said, orders remained unchanged throughout their ministry.

As part of his commitment to purity, Graham instituted a policy of never being alone in a room with a woman other than his wife. The only exception in five decades, according to some Graham staff members, was a closed-door session with then-National Council of Churches head, Joan Brown Campbell, in her New York office.

Graham also established strict financial guidelines for himself. Those came following photographs that appeared in the Atlanta Constitution during the 1950 crusade, Graham said. A picture of a grinning Graham appeared next to a photograph of ushers handling bags of money from services in the old Ponce de Leon ballpark.

“I said, ‘That’ll never happen again,’ ” Graham recalled in a 1992 interview. From that time, he said, he never accepted another “love offering,” but assembled a board of businessmen to oversee his ministry and put himself and his staff on salary.

Only once did any hint of financial scandal touch him.

The Charlotte Observer revealed in 1977 that the Graham association controlled a $22.9 million fund that helped support Wheaton College, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Christianity Today and others. The IRS knew about it; his supporters didn’t.

The association was concerned that if the existence of the fund was known, small donations would dry up. Graham at first justified the secrecy, quoting Matthew 6:3-4, which says to keep your charitable deeds a secret. The following year, though, the association began publishing annual financial reports, and in 1979 Graham co-founded an Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.

Graham made his international debut with a 12-week crusade in London in 1954. British newspapers at the time sneered, according to the Associated Press, calling him a “Yankee spellbinder” and “hot-gospeller.” But some two million people attended his 72 rallies.

“Those meetings galvanized us,” Michael Baughen, former Church of England Bishop of Chester, told the AP. “It was like divine adrenaline for a jaded church.”

During the London crusade, Graham lunched with Winston Churchill. A year later, he dined with Queen Elizabeth, the first of many monarchs to make his acquaintance.

Three years later, Graham launched a record 16-week crusade in New York, during which, according to Martin, he lost 30 pounds. This stand marked the first time his crusades hit the airwaves. ABC aired four consecutive Saturday-night services beginning June 1, 1957.

Graham preached in a communist country, Yugoslavia, for the first time in 1967. A steady rain drenched a crowd of 20,000. He announced he would cut short his sermon. “No. We’ve waited too long for this,” said a voice from the crowd, and the evangelist preached on.

Some people credit Graham’s crusades behind the Iron Curtain, arranged in part by an Atlantan, Dr. Alexander Haraszti, with helping to bring about the downfall of governments there.

And long before apartheid’s death, blacks and whites prayed together at a rally Graham held in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. He struggled to bring about reconciliation in India, Northern Ireland and Korea. He had his biggest rallies in Seoul, South Korea, in 1973, preaching to 3.2 million over five days, including a stunning 1.2 million the final day.

Throughout his life, Graham consorted with the meek, the mighty and the almighty.

In his clerical globe-trotting, he spent time with Chiang Kai-shek, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Mother Teresa, Jawaharlal Nehru, Prince Rainier, Yitzhak Rabin and the Shah of Iran.

He met every president back to Harry Truman and had close relationships with several.

Among the closest was his friendship with Richard Nixon. Of all the accusations surrounding the Watergate scandal that brought down the Nixon presidency, Graham was perhaps most distressed and disillusioned by the language his friend used on the White House tapes. “I felt physically sick,” Graham wrote in his memoir. “Inwardly, I felt torn apart.”

Of his friend Nixon, Graham said, “I wanted to believe the best about him for as long as I could. When the worst came out, it was nearly unbearable for me.”

Graham was pulled into the Nixon scandal in 2002 when tapes released by the National Archives revealed that in a 1972 conversation with the president, the evangelist had expressed concern that Jews had a “stranglehold” on the American media that needed to be broken.

In response to the release of the tapes, Graham issued a statement that said, in part, “I cannot imagine what caused me to make those comments, which I totally repudiate… Racial prejudice, anti-Semitism, or hatred of anyone with different beliefs has no place in the human mind or heart.”

Graham held two more crusades in Atlanta—in 1973 and 1994.

Developer Tom Cousins, who chaired the 1973 event, recalled in a 2006 speech that a group of civic leaders decided to invite Graham to bring the community together to try to calm the tensions of integration.

Graham hesitated to return to a city where he had held a previous revival, but finally promised to come if the city’s black clergy would extend the invitation, Cousins recalled.

At first, none would. Then Martin Luther King Sr., “Daddy” King, stepped to the forefront and spoke out on behalf of Graham.

In all of Cousins’ dealings with Graham, the evangelist showed modesty, integrity and concern for others, Cousins said: “This is a man of God.”

Before the 1994 crusade, Graham himself paid a visit to the office of the Rev. Cameron Alexander, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church North, to persuade Alexander to co-chair the revival with the late Rev. Frank Harrington.

Alexander recalled that he laid down his conditions: African-Americans should be among the leaders of every facet of the event; Graham should preach that black people and white people should love each other; the Graham team should leave a lasting legacy in the city; the congregation should sing the civil rights favorite “We Shall Overcome” on the last night.

Graham agreed to all.

As the service neared the benediction on the last night in Atlanta, Alexander remembered, “a 5,000-voice choir led more than 60,000 people. Together we sang ‘We Shall Overcome.’ I will never forget that.”

Former Atlanta mayor and U.N ambassador Andrew Young, himself an ordained clergyman, said Atlanta and the world would be different without Billy Graham.

Graham, he said, preached “a gospel of love, a gospel of radical forgiveness, a gospel of salvation, a gospel of a loving God who loves us just as we are.”

Graham held the last of his large-scale crusades in 2005 at Flushing Meadows in New York.

But after New Orleans was flooded by Hurricane Katrina a few weeks later, he traveled with his son Franklin for a “Celebration of Hope,” one of the first major public events in the post-Katrina city.

Speaking from a lectern salvaged from the flood that he had used at his 1954 New Orleans Crusade, Graham told a group of Louisiana preachers that a new New Orleans could rise from the waters.

A few days later he spoke to a larger group, assuring the crowd that “God loves us with an everlasting love” and that “Christ endured physical and spiritual death so that we could be saved through faith in repentance in him.”

Graham often protested if attention seemed too focused on him.

At a 2006 luncheon in Atlanta to raise support for a Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, the evangelist chided the speakers saying, “There’s been far too much Billy Graham and not enough Jesus.”

At the same event, he recalled a time when he had several rounds of brain surgery at the Mayo Clinic.

“One night I knew I would not live,” he said. “During the dark hour, I asked the Lord to help me. All of a sudden, all my sins dating back to my childhood came in front of me.”

Then, he said, Jesus cleansed them.

Since that night, he said, “I have never had a moment of lack of peace.”

At the close of his autobiography, Graham summed up his feelings: “I don’t know the future, but I do know this: The best is yet to be! Heaven awaits us, and that will be far, far more glorious than anything we can ever imagine…”