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Billy Graham's life

He was the world’s evangelist. Like no other person in history, Billy Graham’s life and his dedication to the Great Commission allowed billions to hear the good news. During his lifetime, Dr Graham preached to nearly 215 million people in live audiences in more than 185 countries around the world. An estimated two billion people have heard his messages through television, video, film and the internet.

He once said: “My one purpose in life is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which I believe comes through knowing Christ.” It is this passionate sense of calling which was his conviction throughout his life, and which enabled him to lead many people to Christ.

Dr Graham himself made a personal commitment to Christ in 1934 at the age of 16 after hearing travelling evangelist Mordecai Ham speak in his home town of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Born on 7 November, 1918, four days before the end of World War I, he grew up on a dairy farm. A hard grafter, he also found time to hide himself away in the hayloft reading books for hours on end.

He was ordained five years after his conversion and studied at Florida Bible Institute before graduating from Wheaton College in Illinois. It was at college that he met Ruth McCue Bell – the woman who was to become his wife and partner through his life-long ministry.

Ruth, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries to China had never intended to get married, but fell in love with Dr Graham straight away. The pair were married in 1943, soon after graduating and went on to have three daughters, two sons, 19 grandchildren and many great grandchildren.

Speaking on her death in June 2007, after 64 years of marriage, Dr Graham said: “Ruth was my life partner. We were called by God as a team. No-one else could have borne the load that she carried.”

Ruth is said to have been the constant rock that was to keep him humble and in check while he had the attention of heads of states, kings and queens and while Hollywood stars often beckoned. When rumours spread in 1964 that Dr Graham was to run for the presidency, she is believed to have told him: “If you run, I don’t think the country will elect a divorced president.”

Theirs was a life never out of the spotlight. Soon after they were married, he was travelling and gathering thousands of people, eager to hear him speak. The first of the mass evangelistic rallies that were to form an integral part of his ministry over the decades was a crusade in Los Angeles in 1949. At first, around 6,000 were gathering each night to what was initially supposed to be a three-week campaign. But with amazing conversion stories spilling out from the crusade, a few weeks later an estimated 40,000 gathered to hear him speak at Boston Common. At this point, he was just 31 years old.

Many of his subsequent crusades around the world also had to be extended, including the Greater London Crusade (the “Harringay Crusade”), which ended up lasting 12 weeks.

Despite being a man of God dedicated to doing His will and frequently citing the Bible as the only source of truth, Dr Graham’s counsel was frequently sought by presidents and monarchs. Within a short time of starting his ministry, he was meeting with presidents at the White House, the Queen at Buckingham Palace and movie stars and millionaires.

President George Bush Snr once called him “America’s Pastor” and it seems many of the US’ 20th century presidents saw him that way. Eisenhower invited Dr Graham to be with him on his deathbed, while he also counselled presidents including Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, the Bush presidents, and Barack Obama.

He was a great friend to President Nixon during his tenure and acted as an adviser and led some of the private church services at the White House. But Dr Graham criticised him in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. They did however reconcile following President Nixon’s resignation.

In April 2010, President Obama became the 12th US president to meet Dr Graham, but the first to meet him at his mountaintop retreat in Montreat, North Carolina. The two men are reported to have prayed for each other, and Dr Graham presented him with two Bibles – one for himself and one for the first lady.

He was one of the planet’s most famous men and was regularly listed by the Gallup organisation as one of the ‘Ten Most Admired Men in the World’, in which he appeared 54 times from 1948 onwards. His face has graced the covers of international publications including Time magazine and Newsweek.

That humble dairy farmer from North Carolina who hid himself away to read books authored 27 of his own, with his memoirs Just As I Am, published in 1997 achieving the great feat of the ‘triple crown’: appearing simultaneously on the three bestseller lists in one week. Other books included Approaching Hoofbeats: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, How to be Born Again and The Jesus Generation.

Among his many awards over the past 60 years were the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation Freedom Award (2000) for contributions to the cause of freedom, the Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion (1982) and the Speaker of the Year Award in 1964. In December 2001, he was presented with an honorary knighthood from the Queen for his international contribution to civic and religious life over six decades.

Billy Graham will be remembered for many generations to come as one of the greatest men that ever lived. Not only does his legacy include humanitarian work, counselling heads of state, befriending the rich and the famous, being named on countless ‘greatest’ and ‘most influential lists’, but he will forever be remembered as a man who wanted to do the will of God and who led more people than ever before into relationship with Jesus Christ.

But as we mourn the loss of this great man, we must also remember his words: “My home is in heaven. I’m just travelling through this world.”