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Evangelist Billy Graham dies at 99

Keith Bedford/REUTERS

Evangelist Billy Graham spoke during the final day of his Crusade at Flushing Meadows Park in New York in 2005.

By Globe Staff 

Billy Graham, the Baptist minister who over six decades preached to some 210 million people the world over and reached countless more through electronic and print media, in the process transforming the dissemination of Christianity, died Wednesday. He was 99.

The Rev. Graham, who long suffered from cancer, pneumonia, and other ailments, died at his home in North Carolina, spokesman Mark DeMoss told the Associated Press.

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A self-described “plain, ordinary preacher from a farm in North Carolina,” the Rev. Graham was the leading figure in the globalization of American evangelicalism, traveling many millions of miles to take his message of salvation to more than 185 countries and territories. He made the Gallup Organization’s list of Ten Most Admired Men in the World 59 times, a record, and his fame and influence as a spiritual leader rivaled the pope’s.

President George H.W. Bush dubbed him “America’s pastor.”

The Rev. Graham delivered the principal address at the National Cathedral prayer service following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He met every chief executive from Harry Truman to Barack Obama and was a confidant of most of them. He met Donald Trump in 2013. President George W. Bush has credited a talk with the Rev. Graham when he turned 40 with his decision to stop drinking and deepen his religious faith.

The Rev. Graham’s magnetic presence owed nearly as much to his striking appearance as to his dynamic personality and religious ardor. His lanky, 6-foot-2-inch frame was topped by a mane of flowing blond hair, a pair of deep-set blue eyes, a hawkish nose, and a jutting jaw, all of which combined to form what one biographer called “the profile for which God created granite.”

Tributes to the Rev. Graham poured in from major leaders, with President 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.’’

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Obama said Graham ‘‘gave hope and guidance to generations of Americans.’’

In 1954, NBC offered him a five-year contract to host a show modeled on Arthur Godfrey’s variety program that would have paid him $1 million a year. Cecil B. DeMille tried to get him to play a part in his film “Samson and Delilah.” In 1957, Paramount Pictures attempted to sign him to a motion picture contract. Although the Rev. Graham refused all such blandishments, he has a star (near Frank Sinatra’s) on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame.

The superstar evangelist has a long tradition in American culture, running from Jonathan Edwards to Dwight Moody to Billy Sunday and many more. The Rev. Graham was the most celebrated in that lineage. He “came to prominence at a unique moment in history and was able to capitalize on emerging media technology in a way that no one ever had or will again,” according to Randall Balmer, a Dartmouth College religion professor.

Indeed, the Rev. Graham used radio, television, film, newspapers, and magazines to win converts. Furthermore, he entered the public eye shortly after World War II, a period notable for Americans’ search for spiritual guidance. At that time, other religious figures such as Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and Dr. Norman Vincent Peale won wide followings. But none exhibited the staying power of the Rev. Graham.

A 2005 Gallup Poll found that 1 in 6 adult Americans claimed to have heard him in person at least once. Slightly more than half of Americans said they’d heard him on the radio, and 85 percent said they’d seen him on television.

Direct and unpretentious, enthusiastic without appearing overwrought, he offered an attractively simple version of Christianity. In his early days of preaching, the Rev. Graham would tell audiences that heaven measured 1,600 miles in height, depth, and width and was the ultimate in upward mobility: “We are going to sit around the fireplace and have parties, and the angels will wait on us, and we’ll drive down the golden streets in a yellow Cadillac convertible.”

Edward Jenner/Globe Staff

Reverend Billy Graham spoke at Tremont Temple. February 16, 1964.

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Over time, the Rev. Graham toned down his vision of the afterlife, deemphasizing its material aspects. Yet he never lost his folksiness or ability to reach listeners on a mundane level. For many years, he concluded his weekly radio broadcast with the words, “And now, until next week, good-bye, and may the Lord bless you real good!”

The Rev. Graham’s willingness — and ability — to appeal to a broad spectrum was a key to his success. He was a religious centrist, happy to include believer and skeptic, Catholic and Protestant, modernist and fundamentalist alike. For those he converted, he had only four rules: Read the Bible every day, pray, bear witness, and go to church.

The very homogenization that made the Rev. Graham’s message so palatable to so many moved others to denounce it.

In 1957, the liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr accused the Rev. Graham of ignoring the “ambiguity of all human virtues, the serious perplexities of guilt and responsibility . . . which each true Christian must continually face.”

Seven years later, Bob Jones Jr., the fundamentalist president of Bob Jones University, said, “I think that Dr. Graham is doing more harm to the cause of Jesus Christ than any living man.”

In answer to such criticisms, the Rev. Graham cited St. Paul: “I become all things to all men that I might win some.”

William Franklin Graham Jr. was born on Nov. 7, 1918, in Charlotte, N.C., the son of William Frank Graham, a dairy farmer, and Elizabeth (Burden) Graham. The young “Billy Frank,” as he was called, once met Babe Ruth and wanted to be a Major League first baseman when he grew up.

When he was 16, he attended a revival meeting in Charlotte and pledged himself to Christ. “I’d never seen anything like it in my life, the big crowd, the singing, the excitement,” he later recalled. He awoke the next morning with “both a kind of song and dread in my heart. I remember the world looked different — even the trees, the grass. Suddenly it all had a purpose. I felt there was a meaning to life, whereas before, it was flat and meaningless.”

After graduating from high school in 1936, he worked as a Fuller Brush salesman — and posted the best sales record in the Carolinas. “Sincerity,” he said 40 years later, “is the biggest part of selling anything, I found out — including salvation.”

For a few months, he attended Bob Jones College (founded by the father of the man who would consider him so dangerous), only to find its strict fundamentalism onerous. “Look here, if you’re a misfit at Bob Jones College, you’ll be a misfit anywhere, Billy,” Jones told the Rev. Graham when he dropped out. “Best you’ll ever amount to is a poor country preacher somewhere out in the sticks.”

He transferred to Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College), near Tampa. He found his vocation there. “I finally gave in while pacing at midnight on the 18th hole [of a golf course]. “ ‘All right, Lord,’ I said, ‘if you want me, you’ve got me.’ ” His raw-boned figure and energetic gesticulating soon earned him the nickname “The Preaching Windmill.” He later acquired a more celebrated nickname: “God’s Machine Gun.”

The Rev. Graham was ordained in 1940 by the Southern Baptist Convention. (He had been raised a Reform Presbyterian.) He earned his bachelor’s degree at Wheaton College in Illinois. While an undergraduate, he met his future wife, Ruth McCue Bell.

In 1943, the Rev. Graham became pastor of First Baptist Church in Western Springs, Ill. A series of radio broadcasts he made led to his being hired by the Youth for Christ movement, evangelizing young people. As he later described it, “We used every modern means to catch the attention of the unconverted — and then we punched them right between the eyes with the Gospel.” From 1946 to 1949, he made six trips to Europe and traveled 750,000 miles.

The Rev. Graham reached a crossroads in 1949. On the way to Los Angeles to mount a crusade, as he called his extended preaching campaigns, he suffered a crisis of faith. He almost immediately overcame it, however, and for eight weeks preached to a total of 350,000 people in his “Canvas Cathedral” (basically, a glorified tent). His preaching drew the attention of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. “Puff Graham,” he ordered his publications.

The taint of sexual or financial scandal that has plagued other evangelists never touched the Rev. Graham. In 1948, while staying in Modesto, Calif., he and his aides signed what became known as the “Modesto Manifesto,” each man pledging never to be alone with a woman other than his wife and to maintain open finances.

To further the latter goal, the Rev. Graham founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1950. Called by one journalist “the IBM of evangelism,” the BGEA grew phenomenally and became the backbone of the Rev. Graham’s operation. In addition to organizing his crusades, it has produced more than 100 films, publishes Decision magazine, and finances international ministries. Its “Hour of Decision” radio program is carried on 581 stations in the United States and more than 400 in another 55 countries. The BGEA reported receiving more than $91 million in contributions in 2016.

The Rev. Graham based the BGEA in Minneapolis, where he was then president of Northwestern Schools (his presidency lasted from 1947 to 1952). Its headquarters are now in Charlotte, N.C.

During his heyday, the Rev. Graham would customarily spend half the year on crusades (usually, six in number) then divide the rest of the year between home, in Montreat, N.C., and attending conferences and meetings.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Thousands filled Boston University’s Nickerson Field for the first day of Reverend Billy Graham’s eight-day crusade in Boston on May 30, 1982.

The Rev. Graham mounted crusades in Boston in 1950, 1964, and 1982. In 1973, he preached to his largest single-day audience, 1.1 million people in South Korea. Ten years later, he had his largest US audience, 250,000 people, in New York’s Central Park.

In 1960, he visited the Holy Land for the first time. That same year, the Rev. Graham refused to mount a crusade in South Africa so long as apartheid was maintained. At a 1952 crusade in Jackson, Miss., the Rev. Graham had pulled down the ropes dividing black people from white people in his audience. He made it a policy of his organization that “We will not hold a segregated meeting anywhere in the world.”

It is testament to the effectiveness of the Rev. Graham’s crusades that Martin Luther King Jr. took them as the model for his program of desegregation in the South: targeting a specific city and planning well in advance a series of mass meetings. The Rev. Graham met with King several times privately and was one of the few white people King encouraged to address him as “Mike,” the name his intimates used. The Rev. Graham quietly offered King support and had aides give organizational advice to his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Still, the Rev. Graham never actively supported the civil rights movement. He saw his calling as above public affairs. Urged in 1958 to run for the Senate, he realized, “Why should I demote myself to be a senator?” Two years later, Richard Nixon wrote him, “I have often told friends that when you went into the ministry, politics lost one of its potentially greatest practitioners.”

Both Lyndon Johnson and Nixon tried to gain political advantage from the Rev. Graham’s friendship. The latter offered him the ambassadorship to Israel (he declined), and the Rev. Graham came to be seen as a bulwark of the Nixon administration. He drew widespread criticism in 1970 when he downplayed the number of US soldiers killed in Indochina by comparing the figure to “the 57,000 killed on the highways last year.”

The Rev. Graham, who officiated at Nixon’s funeral in 1994, was both angered and dismayed after transcripts of the White House tapes were released. “I just didn’t know he used this type of language in talking to others,” he said in a press release. “I rarely have heard Mr. Nixon use words like ‘damn’ or ‘hell,’ and even when he did, he would look over at me and say, ‘Excuse me, Billy.’ ”

It was the Rev. Graham’s own words that created controversy in 2002 when the National Archives released the tape of a 1972 Oval Office conversation with Nixon. “They’re the ones putting out the pornographic stuff,” the Rev. Graham said of Jewish Americans. “A lot of the Jews are great friends of mine,” he added. “But they don’t know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country.”

The Rev. Graham repudiated the remarks and apologized for them.

After Nixon’s resignation, the Rev. Graham said he would avoid any political involvement, but he remained friendly with each succeeding president. The day before the start of the Gulf War, President Bush had him as an overnight guest to the White House. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Rev. Graham seemed to exonerate Bill Clinton of any possible wrongdoing when he said the president “has such a tremendous personality that I think the ladies just go wild over him.”

Responding to his critics, the Rev. Graham said that such presidential relations as he now maintained were private in nature and he decried such efforts to meld politics and religion as those of the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority.

Nonetheless, political controversy touched the Rev. Graham when he visited a 1982 Moscow peace conference.

“There are differences, of course, in religion as it is practiced here, and, let’s say, in the United States,” the Rev. Graham said to the press. “But that doesn’t mean there is no religious freedom.”

Also, he offered a not-so-veiled endorsement of Mitt Romney over Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election.

The Rev. Graham published some two dozen books. Among them are “Just As I Am” (1997), his autobiography; “Angels: God’s Secret Agents” (1975), which sold 1 million copies within 90 days of publication; and “How to Be Born Again (1977), which had a first printing of 800,000 copies, the largest in publishing history up to that time. His most recent was “Nearing Home with Grace” (2013), a meditation on aging and achieving spiritual peace.

Among the many honors awarded the Rev. Graham were the Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion; the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award; the Congressional Gold Medal; and induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, the first nonmusician so honored.

Trying to account for his extraordinary success, the Rev. Graham once said, “This is not Billy Graham, this is not organization, this is not publicity — this is God.”

The Rev. Graham’s wife died in 2007.

He leaves three daughters, Virginia, Anne Morrow, and Ruth Bell; two sons, William Franklin III, who succeeded to his father’s ministry, and Nelson Edman; 19 grandchildren; and many great-grandchildren.

The Rev. Graham’s body will lie in state Monday and Tuesday at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, according to a firm handling the funeral arrangements. A private funeral will be held March 2.

John M. Hurley/Globe Staff

Evangelist Billy Graham with Betsy Loutrel of Cincinnati, OH, chairman of a meeting sponsored by the Wellesley Christian Fellowship at Wellesley College in Wellesley, MA on Feb. 17, 1964.


Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Rev Graham made the Gallup Organization’s list of Ten Most Admired Men in the World 54 times Rev Graham made the list 59 times The story has been updated to reflect this Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.