Rev Billy Graham, known as 'America's Pastor,' dies at 99

Thursday, February 22, 2018

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MONTREAT, NC (AP) — The Rev Billy Graham, the magnetic, movie-star-handsome preacher who became a singular force in post-war American religious life, a confidant of presidents and the most widely heard Christian evangelist in history, died Wednesday at 99.

“America's Pastor”, as he was dubbed, had suffered from cancer, pneumonia and other ailments and died at his home in North Carolina.

More than anyone else, Graham built evangelicalism into a force that rivalled liberal Protestantism and Roman Catholicism in the US. His leadership summits and crusades in more than 185 countries and territories forged powerful global links among conservative Christians and threw a lifeline to believers in the communist bloc.

Tributes to Graham poured in from major leaders, with President Donald Trump tweeting: “The GREAT Billy Graham is dead. There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man.” Former President Barack Obama said Graham “gave hope and guidance to generations of Americans.”

A tall, striking man with thick, swept-back hair, stark blue eyes and a firm jaw, Graham was a commanding presence in the pulpit, with a powerful baritone voice.

“The Bible says,” was his catchphrase. His unquestioning belief in Scripture turned the Gospel into a “rapier” in his hands, he said.

Graham reached multitudes around the globe through public appearances and his pioneering use of prime-time telecasts, network radio, daily newspaper columns, evangelistic films and satellite TV hook-ups.

By his final crusade in 2005 in New York City, he had preached in person to more than 210 million people worldwide. No evangelist is expected to have his level of influence again.

He was a counsellor to US presidents of both parties from Dwight Eisenhower to George W Bush. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honour. When the Billy Graham Museum and Library was dedicated in 2007 in Charlotte, North Carolina, George H W Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton attended.

“When he prays with you in the Oval Office or upstairs in the White House, you feel he's praying for you, not the president,” Clinton said at the ceremony.

Born November 7, 1918, on his family's dairy farm near Charlotte, Graham came from a fundamentalist background that expected true Bible-believers to stay clear of Christians with even the most minor differences over Scripture. But he came to reject that view for a more ecumenical approach.

Ordained a Southern Baptist, he later joined a then-emerging movement called New Evangelicalism that abandoned the narrowness of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists excoriated him for his new direction and broke with him when he agreed to work with more liberal Christians in the 1950s.

Graham stood fast.

His approach helped evangelicals gain the influence they have today.

Graham's path began taking shape at age 16, when the Presbyterian-reared farm-boy committed himself to Christ at a tent revival.

“I did not feel any special emotion,” he wrote in his 1997 autobiography, “Just As I Am”. ''I simply felt at peace,” and thereafter, “the world looked different.”

After high school, he enrolled at the fundamentalist Bob Jones College but found the school stifling and transferred to Florida Bible Institute in Tampa. There, he practised sermonising in a swamp, preaching to birds and alligators before tryouts with small churches.

He still wasn't convinced he should be a preacher until a soul-searching, late-night ramble on a golf course.

“I finally gave in while pacing at midnight on the 18th hole,” he said. “'All right, Lord,' I said, 'If you want me, you've got me.”

Graham went on to study at Wheaton College, a prominent Christian liberal arts school in Illinois, where he met fellow student Ruth Bell, who had been raised in China where her father had been a Presbyterian medical missionary.

The two married in 1943, and he planned to become an Army chaplain. But he fell seriously ill, and by the time he recovered and could start the chaplain training programme, World War II was nearly over.

Instead, he took a job organizing meetings in the US and Europe with Youth for Christ, a group he helped found. He stood out for his loud ties and suits, and his rapid delivery and swinging arms won him the nickname “the Preaching Windmill”.

A 1949 Los Angeles revival turned Graham into evangelism's rising star. Held in a tent dubbed the “Canvas Cathedral”, the gathering had been drawing adequate but not spectacular crowds until one night when reporters and photographers descended.

When Graham asked them why, a reporter said that publisher William Randolph Hearst had ordered his papers to hype Graham. Graham said.

The strain of so much preaching caused the already trim Graham to lose 30 pounds by the time the event ended.

As the civil rights movement took shape, Graham was no social activist and never joined marches, which led prominent Christians such as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to condemn him as too moderate.

Still, Graham ended racially segregated seating at his Southern crusades in 1953, a year before the Supreme Court's school integration ruling, and long refused to visit South Africa while its white regime insisted on racially segregated meetings.




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