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Billy Graham, a religious phenomenon who became a household name and preached to multitudes of people across the globe, died Wednesday (Feb. 21) after more than a half-century of ministry. He was 99.

Known as “America’s preacher,” William Franklin Graham Jr. was responsible for spreading evangelism worldwide, converting millions in person and via broadcasts and encouraging them to nurture their Christian lives in local congregations. Beyond his influence on the grassroots level, he was counselor to 11 U.S. presidents and participated in the inaugural activities of seven, dating back to Dwight Eisenhower.

Although Graham said he wasn’t publicly political, those who studied him have said he was a powerful, behind-the-scenes player in national affairs. He also took on the visible role of a national pastoral leader at times when the country was shaken by domestic and international terrorism, first after the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and later after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

Over his many years of ministry, Graham preached to an estimated 84 million people at his crusades around the world. When non-crusade events are included, that figure grows to 110 million and nearly doubles to 215 million including live audiences reached via satellite.

Graham, touted as one of the world’s most famous religious leaders, often tried to turn attention away from himself. He said whenever he was asked to name the finest Christian he ever met, his response was always, “my wife, Ruth,” who died on June 14, 2007. At her funeral, he said he looked forward to joining his wife of more than 63 years in heaven.

And when the Billy Graham Library opened in Charlotte, N.C., shortly before his wife’s death, he said, the building should be a tribute to God and not to him.

“This building behind me is just a building,” he said at the library dedication. “It’s an instrument; it’s a tool for the gospel. The primary thing is the gospel of Christ.”

Graham’s influence was far-reaching, from fellow evangelists who adopted and adapted some of the strategies and processes used at his crusades, to average Christians who read Christianity Today, a premier evangelical publication he founded in 1956.

“He would have to be viewed as by far the most important, single religious figure of the 20th century here in America,” said Randall Balmer, chairman of the religion department at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and an expert on Graham and evangelicalism.

“Billy Graham’s career spanned more than half a century. Just in terms of longevity alone, he was enormously influential.”

In recent years, the once-robust Graham saw his health slowly decline in much the same way that age took its toll on his friend Pope John Paul II. He has been treated for hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid in the brain that causes symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease, and has suffered from illnesses and accidents that delayed his crusade plans. In 2004, crusades in Kansas City, Mo., and Pasadena, Calif., had to be temporarily postponed while he recovered from a fractured pelvis.

In 2005, after preaching his last New York crusade, Graham cited his health when he declined an invitation to lead a crusade in London. In July 2006, when he spoke at the Baltimore festival of his son, Franklin Graham, the elder Graham declared that appearance could be “the last time I’ll have an opportunity to preach the gospel to an audience like this.”

By the time he died, Billy Graham had preached at 417 crusades.

His son, evangelist Franklin Graham, 65, was named in 1995 as the eventual successor to his father’s ministry, and is now president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

As the elder Graham’s health declined, he rarely ventured far from his home in the North Carolina mountains. But on special occasions, the elderly evangelist appeared in public, such as at a prayer service to mark the beginning of President George W. Bush’s second term in 2005.

In April 2005, both Grahams hosted the dedication ceremony for the new headquarters of the association in Charlotte, N.C., after it moved from its decades-long location in Minneapolis.

One of his most prominent recent appearances outside his mission efforts was at the Washington National Cathedral three days after the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

“Yes, our nation has been attacked, our buildings destroyed, lives lost, but now we have a choice whether to implode and disintegrate emotionally and spiritually as a people and a nation or whether we choose to become stronger through all of this struggle to rebuild on a solid foundation,” he preached.

“That foundation is our trust in God.”

In a 2012 prayer letter released by his ministry, Graham said his “heart aches for America.” He decried abortion and “a lack of shame over sin” and tied the nation’s ills to its need for the gospel.

“Our society strives to avoid any possibility of offending anyone—except God,” he wrote.

The evangelist’s timing, his longevity, his talent, his soothing voice, his aggressive use of media to promote his unwavering biblical message all contributed to his phenomenal success. His reputation also benefited from the fact that he and his Billy Graham Evangelistic Association were never tarnished by major scandal.

In an interview with Religion News Service in December 1994, Graham explained his enduring popularity this way:

“Very few people have gone for as long as I have. I don’t know any other evangelists who have preached to the audience that we have over a period of more than 50 years. Secondly, I’ve had a lot of exposure in the press . . . over a period of time from the television and radio.”

Graham’s reach was staggering. A 2005 Gallup Poll showed that 16 percent of Americans had heard Graham in person, along with 52 percent who had heard him on the radio and 85 percent who had seen him on television.

The evangelist’s strong call for improved race relations endeared him to many but also caused friction with others. Known for his opposition to apartheid in South Africa and racism in America, Graham prohibited segregated seating at his crusades starting in the mid-1950s.

The author of more than 30 books, including many best-sellers, Graham was honored numerous times during the last five decades, garnering the Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion in 1982 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1996.

Graham is survived by his three daughters, Virginia “Gigi” Graham Foreman, Anne Graham Lotz, and Ruth Graham; and two sons, Franklin and Nelson, plus 19 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren.

Banner news editor: This article has been edited for length. Read the full story at Religion News Service.

© 2018 Religion News Service

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