The Rev. Billy Graham

American Icons, Celebrities, People
on April 9, 2006

Editor's Note: This article was first published in 2006.

After the Rev. Billy Graham completed a successful crusade in England in 1954, he received word that Prime Minister Winston Churchill wanted to meet privately with him. Though exhausted after addressing 100,000 people packed into London’s massive Wembley Stadium, the evangelist agreed to visit Britain’s elder statesman the next day.

"We sat down and he said, ‘I couldn’t fill Wembley Stadium even if I brought Marilyn Monroe here. How do you do it?’" recalls Graham, 87. "I told him it was the work of the Holy Spirit."

The conversation quickly turned serious, as Churchill cited newspapers filled with news of murder and war, leaving him feeling hopeless. "I had a New Testament in my pocket, and I took it out and read several passages to him," Graham says. As Churchill listened, Graham said a prayer for the world leader, acknowledging that the Scriptural promise of Christ’s Second Coming was the only hope for both the world and its people.

Although the world has changed drastically in the 52 years since meeting Churchill, Graham holds fast to the same great hope that he’s shared with more than 210 million people in more than 185 countries and territories during hundreds of evangelical crusades and missions. "My hope is based on the Scriptures, and the Scripture hasn’t changed," he says. "God loves you, Christ has died on the cross for you, and your sins will be forgiven; and you will know with certainty you are going to heaven. That is the hope that I share with millions of people who have accepted Jesus as Savior and Lord."

Final crusade
After six decades of traveling the world to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Graham last year completed what he called his last crusade, attracting 230,000 people over three days in New York. Over the past few years, he’s slowed considerably, settling into at-home life with his wife, Ruth, 85, in their log house on 200 acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Montreat, N.C. (pop. 630). Now, after being gone for months at a stretch each year for decades, he enjoys remaining mostly at home, preaching only on special occasions. Preaching is, after all, his calling—one that he will continue, in some shape or fashion, as long as he is physically able.

"I will preach as long as I have strength," he vows. "Nowhere in the Bible do I find any of God’s servants retiring."

Graham has battled Parkinson’s-like symptoms for a dozen years and deals with hearing and vision loss. He had surgeries six years ago at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to treat his hydrocephalus and relieve the pressure from fluid on his brain. But he doesn’t complain. Despite relying on a walker for mobility, he still creates an imposing presence with his 6-foot-3-inch frame and clear blue eyes that have retained their ever-youthful sparkle as he sits in his kitchen, near a stone fireplace decorated with country jugs and copper pans, facing a framed print that reads, "God loves you and I’m trying."

Ruth, who can no longer walk because of hip and back deterioration, has taken advantage of the unseasonably warm day to leave the house on an outing with the assistance of aides. The couple, who married in 1943 and have five children, 19 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren, spend most of their time together, either praying, reading the Bible, watching television or just holding hands in silent gratitude for life’s blessings, including each other.

"She has good days and bad days, and in a way, I have the same," he says. "I have a wonderful staff that takes care of us."

His impressive mane of hair has turned white; his deep, resonant voice has grown soft. But his message, and his passion for delivering it, is the same as when he left his hometown of Charlotte, N.C., to begin his career as a young preacher, embarking on a life’s journey that would take him places he never expected to see.

His spectacular sojourn is the centerpiece of a new Graham documentary, airing Easter week on PBS and Easter weekend on the Biography Channel, which reveals rare footage and a personal glimpse at the remarkable man who has served as a confidant to numerous U.S. presidents and a religious ambassador to leaders around the world. In addition, Graham recently released his 25th book, The Journey: How to Live by Faith in an Uncertain World, which took three years to complete. "The new book has the whole of what I believe and how to live the Christian life and what the hope is in my heart," he says.

"I have hope for America; I am optimistic," he says. "We have a strong country, in spite of all the problems. I think we are unfortunately bogged down in this war in Iraq, and I trust it can come to a peaceful solution. The Middle East is the tinderbox of the world, and always has been."

"There will always be division"
While many are concerned about growing division in America over the war and other political issues, Graham says the nation has overcome far greater rifts during its history. "Even during World War II and the Depression, there was a great division in the country," he says. "I can still remember it because I lived through it. People were divided politically and religiously."

He is confident the nation will reunite in time, but never completely. "We will never be totally united as some people think we will," he says. "There will always be a political division. There’s great division all through our history."

Graham’s vision for America is one of "peace and unity. Spiritual awakening would be No. 1," he says. "I think many people are praying that that will take place. And I think God will answer that prayer."

Still, Graham is bothered by "the fraud and the materialism and the shifting signs of our morality" that he sees today. "We have a great deal of depression today, discouragement, bewilderment, marital tensions," he says. "We have left the foundation that I think America had in the beginning, which is largely based on the Scriptures." Over the last two years, he has immersed himself in biographies of the founding fathers, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and John Quincy Adams. "I’ve been amazed at how often they referenced God in their writings or in their speeches. I think that we’ve gotten away from those foundations, and that is why we need a moral and spiritual revival."

Heaven bound
Despite retiring from much of public life, Graham’s work continues through the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which has about 500 employees, and over which his son, Franklin, serves as president and CEO. An internationally known evangelist in his own right, Franklin also is president and CEO of Samaritan’s Purse, a nondenominational evangelical Christian organization that helps victims of war, poverty and natural disasters around the world.

"I think he’s doing a much better job than I ever did," Graham says. "He got his degree in business, but he preaches the Gospel and he’s very bold with it."

As he prepares to celebrate his 71st Easter as a Christian, Graham focuses not on his physical discomforts, but the glorious new journey that he believes awaits him on the other side of death. As he shared with Churchill on that day back in 1954, he remains convinced that God—and the promise of the Scriptures—provide the only hope, for both the world and for individuals.

"I have hope for myself because I know I’m going to heaven," he says. "I’m looking forward to going to heaven, very much so. I think about it every day; so does my wife. We hope we can join hands and go together."