Billy Graham, the charismatic North Carolina pastor who took his evangelizing crusades around the country and the globe, died on Wednesday, according to officials of his organization.
He was 99 years old.
Graham was the first evangelist of note to speak behind the Iron Curtain, and during the Apartheid era he refused to visit South Africa until the government allowed integrated seating at his events. He published dozens of best-selling books, including Angels: God’s Secret Agents and The Jesus Generation, and wrote a weekly column that was syndicated in hundreds of newspapers.
Graham received numerous honors, including the Horatio Alger Award, the George Washington Honor Medal, the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award and the Congressional Gold Medal. A highway in Charlotte bears his name, as does part of Interstate 240 near his home in Asheville, North Carolina. In 1989, he became the first clergyman to be granted a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work as a minister.
Graham also had a major effect on the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. His early crusades were segregated, but once the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, which found public school segregation unconstitutional, Graham integrated the seatings at his revival meetings.
Graham befriended the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as well, and together they preached to more than 2 million people in New York City. When questioned about his views on faith and race, Graham argued there was no scriptural basis for segregation.As his message spread, Graham was granted personal audiences with royalty, dignitaries and many sitting presidents, from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama. Three presidents were even on hand in 2007 for the dedication of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte. Despite being a registered Democrat, Graham opposed the candidacy of John F. Kennedy, and actively encouraged other religious leaders to speak out about the dangers of having a Roman Catholic in the White House.
Though beloved by millions, Graham was not without his detractors. Some fundamentalist Christians took issue with his ecumenical approach to evangelism, and after his 1957 crusade in New York, opponents of Graham’s more liberal theology began calling him “the Antichrist.” According to the biography Billy: A Personal Look at Bill Graham, the World’s Best-Loved Evangelist by Sherwood Eliot Wirt, one Christian educator even said that Graham was “the worst thing to happen to the Christian church in two thousand years.” More recently, detractors blasted Graham’s continued belief that homosexual behavior was a “sinister form of perversion,” and his intolerance against the very presence of gay and lesbian couples within Christianity.
As his health began to fail, Graham decided to announce his retirement in 2005. His final sermon, “The Cross — Billy Graham’s Message To America,” called for a national spiritual awakening.