Rev. Billy Graham, the charismatic preacher who harnessed the power of TV to spread his gospel around the world, has died. He was 99.
Graham died Wednesday morning at his home in Montreat, N.C., according to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
In his heyday, Graham had enjoyed broad reach in American culture. He was famous for having met with every American president since Harry Truman. Rather than affiliate himself with a single church, he preached a non-denominational brand of Protestantism and was endorsed by faith leaders throughout the world.
From the late 1940s through 2005, Graham toured the world with his “crusades” that filled stadiums and arenas. Fans and followers came to hear his message about the importance of seeking salvation and committing to Christianity. Those events were also the source of primetime television specials that made Graham a household name.
Graham’s 1960s meeting with Queen Elizabeth II is depicted in second season of the Netflix drama “The Crown.” Actor Paul Sparks took on the role of the soft-spoken (in private) evangelist. In 2001, Queen Elizabeth II made Graham an honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire.
President Donald Trump hailed Graham as “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.’ ” Trump ordered that flags at the White House, governmental buildings and military facilities be flown at half-staff as a tribute to Graham on the day of his funeral.
Born in North Carolina on Nov. 7, 1918, Graham was raised on a dairy farm outside Charlotte. He felt the calling to ministry at the age of 16 and went on to study theology at the Florida Bible Institute and anthropology at Wheaton College near Chicago.
After a brief period of serving as pastor of a church in Western Springs, Ill., Graham joined the evangelistic organization Youth for Christ, which focused in part on reaching military personnel. That organization gave him a platform to speak at rallies across the U.S. and Europe.
By 1949, Graham had launched his own speaking tour that became known as the Billy Graham Crusade, often held in large tents known as the “Canvas Cathedral.” He made headlines with a stint in Los Angeles that was scheduled to run for three weeks but was extended to eight weeks. In subsequent decades Graham traveled everywhere from India, China and North Korea, to Hungary and other Communist countries in Eastern Europe.
In 1950, Graham launched his weekly “Hour of Decision” radio program that would be a staple of Christian broadcasting for 60 years. In 1957, Billy Graham’s visit to New York City filled Madison Square Garden for an eye-popping 16 consecutive weeks. That caught the attention of ABC News, which produced a TV special on Graham. Later, the Billy Graham Evangelical Association would make time buys on local and national TV outlets for specials derived from his sermons and live events.
All told, Graham led more than 400 crusades that reached an estimated 215 million people in 185 countries, according to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Graham was also a frequent guest on mainstream TV talk shows. He made numerous appearances on “The Tonight Show” during Jack Paar’s tenure as host and made four visits during Johnny Carson’s reign. He appeared as the “mystery guest” on a 1960 installment of “What’s My Line.” During a TV appearance, talk show host David Frost once asked Graham how he’d like to be remembered. “As a person who had integrity, and who was faithful to his calling, and who loved God with all his heart, mind, and soul,” Graham replied.
Graham was the author of more than 30 books, starting in 1947 with “Calling Youth to Christ” and ending in 2015 with “Where I Am: Heaven, Eternity, and Our Life Beyond.”
Graham was married for more than 60 years to Ruth McCue Bell, who died in 2007. Survivors include five children, 19 grandchildren, and 41 great-grandchildren.
(Pictured: President Barack Obama and Rev. Billy Graham in 2010)