From tent revivals to the White House
As a young man, he practiced his sermons by preaching to the alligators and birds in the swamp. At his height years later, he was bringing the word of God into living rooms around the globe via TV and dispensing spiritual counsel – and political advice – to U.S. presidents.
The Rev. Billy Graham, dubbed “America’s Pastor” and the “Protestant Pope,” died Wednesday at his North Carolina home at age 99 after achieving a level of influence and reach no other evangelist is likely ever to match.
More than anyone else, the magnetic, Hollywood-handsome Graham built evangelicalism into a force that rivaled liberal Protestantism and Roman Catholicism in the United States.
The North Carolina-born Graham transformed the tent revival into an event that filled football arenas, and reached the masses by making pioneering use of television in prosperous postwar America. By his final crusade in 2005, he had preached in person to more than 210 million people worldwide.
All told, he was the most widely heard Christian evangelist in modern history.
“Graham is a major historical figure, not merely to American evangelicals, but to American Christianity in general,” said Bill Leonard, a professor at Wake Forest University Divinity School in North Carolina. Graham was “the closest thing to a national Protestant chaplain that the U.S. has ever had.”
Bishop George V. Murry of the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown extended his condolences and prayers on the death of the Rev. Billy Graham: “A true spiritual leader, Rev. Billy Graham brought the word of God to a world often darkened by sin and hatred. May his soul rest in peace.”
Graham had two crusades in Cleveland, in 1972 and 1994. The Vindicator sent a reporter to provide local coverage of the 1994 crusade.
A tall figure with swept-back hair, blue eyes and a strong jaw, Graham was a commanding presence in the pulpit with a powerful baritone voice. His catchphrase: “The Bible says ...”
Despite his international renown, he would be the first to say his message was not complex or unique. But he won over audiences with his friendliness, humility and unyielding religious conviction.
He had an especially strong influence on the religion and spirituality of American presidents, starting with Dwight Eisenhower, whom he urged to run for office and baptized at the White House. George W. Bush credited Graham with helping him transform himself from carousing, hard-drinking oilman to born-again Christian family man.
His influence reached beyond the White House. He delivered poignant remarks about the nation’s wounds in the aftermath of Sept. 11 during a message from Washington National Cathedral three days after the attacks. He met with boxer Muhammad Ali in 1979 to talk about religion. He showed up in hurricane-ravaged South Carolina in the 1980s and delivered impromptu sermons from the back of a pickup truck to weary storm victims.
In the political arena, his organization took out full-page ads in support of a ballot measure that would ban gay marriage. Critics blasted Graham on social media Wednesday for his stance on gay rights.
Graham wasn’t always a polished presence in the pulpit. After World War II, as an evangelist in the U.S. and Europe with Youth for Christ, he was dubbed “the Preaching Windmill” for his arm-swinging and rapid-fire speech.
His first meeting with a U.S. president, Harry Truman, was a disaster. Wearing a pastel suit and loud tie that he would later say made him look like a vaudeville performer, the preacher, unfamiliar with protocol, told reporters what he had discussed with Truman, then posed for photos.
But those were early stumbles on his path to fame and influence.
His first White House visit with Lyndon Johnson, scheduled to last only minutes, stretched to several hours. He urged Gerald Ford to pardon Richard Nixon and supported Jimmy Carter on the SALT disarmament treaty. He stayed at the White House with George H.W. Bush on the eve of the first Persian Gulf War.