CHARLOTTE, N.C. (TNS) — Billy Graham, the Charlotte-born preacher whose pioneering talent for combining old-time religion and modern media made him the most famous evangelist in American history, died Wednesday at his home in Montreat.
Son Franklin Graham, in a memo to the staff at the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), said the elder Graham, who was 99, died at 7:46 a.m. "due to complications of his advanced age."
In the memo, Franklin Graham, who now heads the BGEA, also said that his father's death "signals the passing of an era. But because of his faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ and God's blessing upon the BGEA's commitment to preach the Word in season and out of season, our worldwide evangelistic ministry continues around the world."
And he announced in the memo the Bible verse the ministry will use for Billy Graham's services is Revelation 14:13: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, that they may rest from their labors and their works follow them."
Growing up on a dairy farm near what is now Park Road Shopping Center, Graham's first idea of heaven was playing baseball and courting girls. But after answering the altar call at a revival during the Depression, he went on to become a pastor to U.S. presidents and a globe-trotting preacher whose crusades altered lives.
In a career spanning more than 60 years, he took his simple Christian message to more than 84 million people in almost 60 countries _ including multitudes of spiritually starved believers behind the communist Iron Curtain. Add those who heard him live, via satellite, and the numbers jump to 210 million people in 185 countries.
Always Billy, never the Rev. Graham, the humble but media-savvy Southern Baptist minister had little use for clerical garb or heavy theology. He even bypassed churches, preferring to deliver his spellbinding sermons in stadiums packed with people hungry to hear how much God loves them and how that very night they were being called to surrender their lives to Jesus Christ.
Over the decades, Graham also became the unofficial White House chaplain, participating in nine presidential inaugurations between 1965 and 2005 and offering spiritual guidance — and occasionally political advice — to Republican and Democratic presidents.
Mindful of Graham's popularity, they often sought his blessing for their sometimes controversial decisions. This coziness with power brought Graham criticism in the 1960s and '70s, when he refused to challenge President Johnson on Vietnam and defended President Nixon throughout the Watergate scandal.
Even into his 90s, when Graham rarely strayed from his mountaintop home in Montreat, presidents and presidential candidates came to him for prayer time and a photo opportunity. President Barack Obama visited in 2010. Two years later, Mitt Romney, then Obama's GOP challenger, showed up, coming away with a virtual endorsement — a public sign to evangelical voters that it was OK to vote for a Mormon.
Also in 2012, a picture of Graham and words attributed to him were prominently featured in newspaper ads urging voters to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Some Graham scholars at the time accused Graham's son, Franklin, of using his father's image to boost his own conservative causes and favored GOP candidates. But the younger Graham, who had by then inherited the leadership of the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, disputed that, saying "Nobody kidnaps my Daddy."
America's religious revival
Graham made his first national splash on the eve of the 1950s, a decade in which America — then fighting a Cold War against atheistic communism — added "under God" to its Pledge of Allegiance and started printing "In God We Trust" on its paper currency.
The preacher who came to be called "America's pastor" thrived in this climate of religious revival: His image showed up on magazine covers and in living rooms via the infant medium of television.
Evangelical Christians who had been ridiculed since the Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920s for believing in the literal truth of the Scriptures suddenly saw Graham — one of their own — reading the Bible in the White House with President Eisenhower.
But if Graham's charisma and friends in high places made him seem as contemporary as Elvis or "I Love Lucy," his message to the masses was as old as the call to conversion in the letters of that other famous evangelist, Paul.
Jesus died on the cross for your sins, Graham told his audiences. Now it was decision time: Will you repent, turn your life over to Jesus and be saved?
"Time is running out!" he'd insist in that courtly Southern accent, holding the Bible open with one hand and chopping the air with the other. Graham would then issue his altar call, inviting those in attendance to come forward and commit their lives to Jesus.
"Don't worry, they'll wait for you," he'd say as hundreds, even thousands, made their way down from the upper decks as the choir sang "Just As I Am" — a 19th-century English hymn that became part of the soundtrack for his crusades.
His style and plain Gospel message put off some intellectuals and theologians. But Graham never deviated from his approach. As he got older and times changed, though, his style softened. He went from a fiery by-the-Book conservative Protestant to a friend of other faiths, from a hawk on the Vietnam War to an advocate of nuclear disarmament, and from a finger-pointing voice-of-doom preacher to a gentle grandfather-figure who emphasized God's love.
In the 1950s, Graham charged that Satan was the mastermind behind communism; in the 1980s, he defied many of his fellow evangelicals by traveling to Moscow to preach and attend a Soviet-approved peace conference.
"Here's a man who's never stopped growing," observed Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, a left-leaning evangelical journal. "He listens. He's changed and been touched by the people he's preached to."
Inflience, humility to the end
Americans never tired of Graham and came to expect his soothing words in times of national crisis. After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, it was the white-haired Graham who gave the sermon at National Cathedral in Washington.
And scholars, whatever their criticisms of Graham, agree he had a profound, even historical, impact on religion and culture.
"He formed a towering redwood on the American religious landscape," Wacker said. "We'll hear the echoes of his ministering for generations."
Beyond organizing crusades, Graham helped create today's thriving evangelical Christian culture by birthing magazines (Christianity Today), co-founding seminaries (Gordon-Conwell) and calling international conferences to encourage grass-roots preachers (like the one in 1974 in Lausanne, Switzerland).
Biographer Martin called Graham "one of the most influential religious figures of the 20th century _ there's Billy, a couple of popes and Martin Luther King. It's a short list."
And Bill Leonard, former dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University, goes even further: "the most enduring public evangelist in American history."
But what was it about Graham that made him such an icon?
Not the profundity of his sermons, Graham watchers say. He wasn't a religion scholar or a theologian.
Rather, he was an evangelist who was able to nimbly navigate the modern American cultural landscape. He preached to everybody from presidents to construction workers, golfed with Bob Hope, bantered with Woody Allen and Johnny Carson on TV, and _ in 1989 _ became the first member of the clergy to get a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.
Graham the personality exuded humility and sincerity and found new ways to connect with everyday people in language they understood.
"That was his genius," Balmer said. "He was (modern) America's first religious celebrity."
Others, though, say Graham's greatness was that he let God use him.
"People don't ponder his sermons," Campolo once said. "But when he gets up there, you sense a power go over the congregation in the stadium."
And yet, said Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Matthews, Graham never took credit for that power or let it go to his head:
"I think he's the one man who could endure the amount of adulation that he has received and still say honestly and sincerely, 'Why me?' " Land said. "It is his impenetrable humility that made it so that God could use him."
"I have been asked: 'What is the secret?' " Graham told interviewers. " 'Is it showmanship, organization or what?'
"The secret of my work is God. I would be nothing without him."
But why had God chosen him, a farm boy from Charlotte?
Graham's answer: "That's one of the questions I'll ask the Lord when I see him."
Former Observer religion editor Ken Garfield contributed to this report.