US evangelist Billy Graham, who counseled presidents and preached to millions across the world from his native North Carolina to communist North Korea during his 70 years in the pulpit, died on Wednesday at the age of 99, Reuters reports, citing a spokesman.
Graham died at 8 a.m. EST (1300 GMT) at his home in Montreat, North Carolina, according to Jeremy Blume, a spokesman for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
According to his ministry, he preached Christianity to more people than anyone else in history, reaching hundreds of millions of people either in person or via TV and satellite links.
Graham became the de facto White House chaplain to several US presidents, most famously Richard Nixon. He also met with scores of world leaders and was the first noted evangelist to take his message behind the Iron Curtain.
“He was probably the dominant religious leader of his era,” said William Martin, author of A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story. “No more than one or two popes, perhaps one or two other people, came close to what he achieved.”
Graham found himself at times in controversy over his disapproving stand on gay rights, as well as a over a secretly recorded conversation with Nixon in which the cleric complained that Jews had too much influence on the US media. In the later years of his career he intentionally muted his political beliefs to focus on the Gospel.
Graham was no longer a close associate of presidents in recent years but many former US leaders paid tribute on Wednesday. President Donald Trump said on Twitter: “The GREAT Billy Graham is dead. There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man.”
With his steely features and piercing blue eyes, Graham was a powerful figure when he preached in his prime, roaming the stage and hoisting a Bible as he declared Jesus Christ to be the only solution to humanity’s problems.
His influence was fueled by an organization that carefully planned his religious campaigns, putting on international conferences and training seminars for evangelical leaders, Martin said.
Graham’s mastery of the media was ground-breaking. In addition to radio and publishing, he used telephone lines, television and satellites to deliver his message to homes, churches and theaters around the world.
Some 77 million saw him preach in person while nearly 215 million more watched his crusades on television or through satellite link-ups, a Graham spokeswoman said.
Graham started meeting with presidents during the tenure of Harry Truman. He played golf with Gerald Ford, skinny-dipped in the White House pool with Lyndon Johnson, vacationed with George H.W. Bush and spent the night in the White House on Nixon’s first day in office.
George W. Bush gave Graham credit for helping him rediscover his faith and in 2010, when it was difficult for Graham to travel, Barack Obama made the trip to the preacher’s log cabin home in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
Graham’s ties to the White House were mutually beneficial. His reputation was enhanced as preacher to the presidents, while the politicians boosted their standing with religiously inclined voters.
“Their personal lives – some of them – were difficult,” Graham, a registered Democrat, told Time magazine in 2007 of his political acquaintances. “But I loved them all. I admired them all. I knew that they had burdens beyond anything I could ever know or understand.”
In the early half of his career, Graham often spoke his mind on social and political issues of the day, including his strong anti-communist sentiments. He dismissed Vietnam War protesters as attention-seekers and, while he eventually refused to hold segregated revival meetings, he did not take an active role in the 1960s civil rights movement.
But Graham’s politics were not as overt as those of some religious leaders who came after him, such as Pat Robertson, who ran for president in 1988, and Jerry Falwell, co-founder of the Moral Majority, an organization whose purpose was to promote Christian-oriented politics.
As he grew older, Graham said he felt he had become too involved in some issues and shifted to a middle-of-the-road position in order to reach more people. He did, however, dive into the gay marriage issue in 2012 when he came out in support of a state amendment to ban same-sex marriages in North Carolina.
He also met with Republican Mitt Romney in October 2012 and told him he supported Romney’s run for the presidency.
William Franklin Graham was born on Nov. 7, 1918, into a Presbyterian family and was known as Billy Frank while growing up on a farm near Charlotte, North Carolina.
In his later years, Graham suffered a host of health problems, including Parkinson’s disease, a broken hip, a broken pelvis, prostate cancer and installation of a shunt in his brain to control excess fluid. He was hospitalized in 2011, 2012 and 2013 for respiratory problems.
Graham and his wife, Ruth, who died June 14, 2007, had two sons and three daughters.
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