The Rev. Billy Graham, the charismatic North Carolina pastor who took his evangelizing crusades around the country and the globe, died on Wednesday morning, according to officials of his organization. He was 99 years old.
Graham served as a counselor or minister to a dozen U.S. presidents, and he preached to an estimated 215 million people in 185 countries around the world during his life. His message reached millions more as he maintained a near-constant presence on radio, television and the internet.
He also wrote more than two dozen books, including his 1997 memoir,” Just as I Am,” which was a New York Times bestseller.
Graham died just before 8 a.m. at his home in Montreat, North Carolina, surrounded by family, according to a spokesman for Samaritan’s Purse, the nondenominational evangelical Christian organization headed by Graham’s son Franklin.
The longtime evangelist appeared on Gallup’s list of most admired men and women 60 times since 1955 — every year the research company asked the question.
Born William Franklin Graham, “America’s pastor” came from modest means and grew up on a dairy farm in Charlotte, North Carolina. He found his spiritual path at 16, charmed by the traveling minister and temperance movement leader Mordecai Ham. Graham later moved to Florida and was ordained there in 1939.
He met his future wife, Ruth McCue Bell, while they attended Wheaton College, and they married in 1943. Together they would raise five children, and she would become a trusted adviser.
“When it comes to spiritual things, my wife has had the greatest influence on my ministry,” Graham said of Bell, who died in June 2007.
Graham was known for his sense of humor and for maintaining a nonpartisan Christian view, which earned him some criticism. But his dedication to ministry and unity is long evident and best remembered in his refusal to pay heed to segregation policies, forcing churches to integrate for his services.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. counted Graham as a close friend and ally, once remarking, “Had it not been for the ministry of my good friend Dr. Billy Graham, my work in the Civil Rights Movement would not have been as successful as it has been.”
His son, Franklin Graham, took over his ministries, while Graham returned to a quiet life in North Carolina — not far from the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte.
“My home is in Heaven,” Graham habitually said. “I’m just traveling through this world.”
Vice President Mike Pence called Graham one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century.
“Billy Graham’s ministry for the gospel of Jesus Christ and his matchless voice changed the lives of millions,” the vice president said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry also tweeted his condolences, calling Graham “an extraordinary man.”
The archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, recalled the influence Graham had on his household in the 1950s and 1960s.
“There was no question that the Dolans were a Catholic family, firm in our faith, but in our household there was always respect and admiration for Billy Graham and the work he was doing to bring people to God,” Dolan said in a statement.
“Whether it was one of his famous Crusades, radio programs, television specials, or meeting and counseling the presidents, Billy Graham seemed to be everywhere, always with the same message: Jesus is your Savior, and wants you to be happy with Him forever.”