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Billy Graham, minister to presidents and millions worldwide, dies at 99

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Billy Graham and President John F. Kennedy in October 1966. (Handout/Charlotte Observer/TNS)

When a young religious crusader named Billy Graham began preaching to the masses after World War II, he wore bright gabardine suits with loud, wide ties and argyle socks to show that Christianity wasn’t dreary.

And he did not hide behind a pulpit. He “stalked and sometimes almost ran from one end of the platform to the other,” one biographer noted, while beseeching unbelievers to give themselves to the higher power he praised with unassailable conviction.

That style drew 350,000 people to a tent in downtown Los Angeles over eight weeks in 1949 — the first major Billy Graham crusade. When it closed 65 sermons later, the mesmerizing preacher was known across the country — and, before long, around the world.

Graham died at his home Wednesday morning in North Carolina, the Associated Press confirmed. He was 99.

A Southern Baptist minister, Graham had been in failing health over the last decade with Parkinson’s disease, prostate cancer and macular degeneration. He had been hospitalized numerous times with respiratory problems.

“No one was more important in legitimizing evangelism,” said William Martin, one of Graham’s biographers. “It’s now on equal footing to mainline Protestantism and Catholicism in the U.S.”

Graham’s reach was staggering. He preached to nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories, according to figures compiled by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and was heard and seen by hundreds of millions more through television and radio, newspaper columns and the Internet. He counseled nearly every American president since Harry Truman, most recently meeting and praying with Barack Obama.

After Nixon’s election in 1968, Graham grew closer to his longtime friend, and that closeness would bring him considerable embarrassment in 2002, when tapes of a White House meeting from 1972 were released.

On the tapes, Graham was heard agreeing with Nixon that the American media were dominated by left-wing Jews. And then Graham, in his familiar North Carolina twang, went further:

“Not all the Jews, but a lot of the Jews, are great friends of mine; they swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I’m friendly with Israel. But they don’t know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country.”

The remarks shocked Graham supporters and Jewish leaders because the preacher was seen as a staunch ally of the Jewish people. In addition to his unflagging support of Israel, Graham also protested the treatment of Soviet Jews and chastised his fellow Southern Baptists for singling out Jews for conversion.

Later as mass evangelism gained new respect, Graham’s name became a household word in the United States and abroad. In 1954, his 12-week London crusade brought him international attention. In the decades that followed, record throngs in the world’s principal cities responded to the Graham team’s well-organized and widely publicized meetings: 2.3 million in New York, 2.6 million in Glasgow, Scotland, and 3.2 million in South Korea, including 1 million at a single meeting in Seoul.

Graham’s wife, Ruth, died in 2007. He is survived by his son William Franklin Graham III, known as Franklin, who took over the Billy Graham Evangelistic Assn. in 2001; another son, Nelson Edman “Ned” Graham; three daughters, Virginia “Gigi” Graham Foreman, Anne Graham Lotz and Ruth Bell; 19 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren; and a sister, Jean Ford.


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