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'America's pastor,' renowned evangelist Billy Graham dies

Evangelist Billy Graham, who spread the Christian gospel to millions of people worldwide and counseled U.S. presidents for decades, died Wednesday at his home in the mountain town of Montreat, according to the Billy Graham Evangelical Association. He was 99.

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Evangelist Billy Graham, who spread the Christian gospel to millions of people worldwide and counseled U.S. presidents for decades, died Wednesday at his home in the mountain town of Montreat. He was 99.

Spokesman Mark DeMoss said Graham died in his sleep of heart failure at about 7:45 a.m. No family members were with him at the time.

"He just wore out," DeMoss quoted Graham's personal physician, Dr. Lucian Rice, as saying.

Graham's health had been in decline for several years, although he hasn't been hospitalized since November 2013.

"We believe it was very peaceful," DeMoss said.

A private prayer service for Graham's family will be held Saturday morning at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove, near Montreat. His body will then be moved to Charlotte, where it will lie in repose in a closed casket in the restored family homestead on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library for at least two days, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, depending on the volume of people wanting to pay respects.

An invitation-only funeral will be held at noon March 2 in a tent in the parking lot of the library, harking back to Graham's early tent revivals and crusades. President Donald Trump and former presidents will be among the 2,300 people invited to attend, DeMoss said.

Graham will be buried in a private service for the family on the grounds of the library, next to his late wife, Ruth Bell Graham.

He is survived by his five children, Gigi Graham, Anne Graham Lotz, Ruth Graham, Franklin Graham and Ned Graham; 19 grandchildren; numerous great-grandchildren; and his sister, Jean Ford.

Words of praise for Graham's life and legacy flowed Wednesday from preachers to politicians to the general public.

"While he may be physically absent and his voice silent, I am confident that his message will continue to reverberate throughout the generations to come," Graham Lotz said in a statement. "My prayer on this day of his move to Our Father’s House is that his death will be a rallying cry, that tens of thousands of pastors, teachers, evangelists and ordinary men and women will rise up to take his place, that they will take up his message like a baton being passed in a relay race and faithfully pass it on to those with whom they come in contact."

"Billy Graham was a strong, humble, positive and passionate North Carolina man of faith who made a difference in the lives of so many. Rest with God, Reverend Graham," Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement.

"The GREAT Billy Graham is dead. There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man," Trump tweeted.

"You showed us how to leave the 99 for the 1. Thank you Dr. Graham. Rest In Peace. #BillyGraham," tweeted Steven Furtick, lead pastor of Elevation Church in Charlotte.

"The Great Commission is as simple as it is clear: 'Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.' Few men in history have received that instruction as humbly, or carried it out as diligently, as Reverend Billy Graham," Uhuru Kenyatta, president of Kenya, tweeted.

"Billy Graham has always been and will always be a hero in our home," televangelist Joel Osteen tweeted. "Next to my own father, Reverend Graham was the most humble and gracious man I ever knew. I am honored to call him a friend and a mentor. Victoria and I will miss him dearly."

"Billy Graham's ministry for the gospel of Jesus Christ and his matchless voice changed the lives of millions," Vice President Mike Pence tweeted. "We mourn his passing, but I know with absolute certainty that today he heard those words, 'well done good and faithful servant.' Thank you Billy Graham. God bless you."

"(When I’m gone) I want to hear 1 person say something nice about me...& that’s the Lord—‘Well done, good & faithful servant!’" -Billy Graham Billy heard those words this morning & so will 3 million others b/c of his life," NFL quarterback Kirk Cousins tweeted.

"News of Billy Graham's death is 'fake news.' He's more alive than ever!" former Republican presidential candidates and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee tweeted. "The life he now lives will never end. THAT was his message. If not true, his entire life was a tragedy. It wasn't."

"Billy Graham is a monumental figure, forever etched in the history of Charlotte," Mayor Vi Lyles tweeted. "His compassion and selfless service changed the lives of millions and created a legacy of kindness and humanity for our region and all of North Carolina. Together, we mourn the loss of a great leader."

Reared on a dairy farm near Charlotte, William Franklin Graham Jr. would eventually preach to more people than anyone in history, with an estimated 2 billion people attending one of his dozens of crusades through the years or tuning into his message on radio and television broadcasts.

"My one purpose in life is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which I believe comes through knowing Christ," he once said. “One of the primary goals in our lives should be to prepare for our last day. The legacy we leave is not just in our possessions, but in the quality of our lives."

Graham's parents were Presbyterians, but he converted to evangelical Christianity at age 15 after attending revival meetings. Strings of such revivals in large venues – he would label them crusades – would later become the hallmark of his ministry.

He briefly attended Bob Jones College in Tennessee before transferring to the Florida Bible Institute and graduating in 1940. He earned a degree in anthropology from Wheaton College in Illinois, where he met Ruth Bell, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries in China. He and Bell married shortly after they graduated in 1943.

Ruth Bell Graham later said of her husband, "(He) wanted to please God more than any man I'd ever met."

Billy Graham began that effort by taking the pulpit of a small Illinois church. He later ran a Christian radio show, served as a college president in Minnesota – at 30 years old when he took the reins of Northwestern College, he still ranks as the youngest college president ever in the U.S. – and founded an international youth ministry program, which allowed him to preach throughout the U.S. and post-war Europe.

Famed crusader

A series of revivals in Los Angeles in 1949 transformed Graham from an itinerant preacher into a national figure. Hearing Graham's fiery pro-American, anti-communist views, legendary newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst told his editors to "puff Graham," and the widespread media exposure sent interest in the revivals through the roof. The nightly meetings, held in a series of circus tents in a parking lot, drew sold-out audiences for eight weeks – five weeks longer than planned.

By October 1954, Graham's ministry was the cover story on Time magazine, and his revivals continued to attract throngs around the world: 12 weeks in London and 16 weeks in New York's Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium, for example. He even turned down a $5 million contract offer from NBC for a weekly show to continue his crusades.

In 1950, he founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to leverage the crusades into other ministry activities. The association, which moved from Minneapolis to Charlotte in 2003, produces the weekly "Hour of Decision" radio program, the syndicated "My Answer" newspaper column and dozens of evangelistic films and television shows.

Graham's view of the Cold War as a battle between good and evil aligned him with communist hunter U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s. "Either communism must die or Christianity must die," Graham preached at the time. But he and his ministry were able to escape the taint as McCarthy was discredited and the red scare waned. In subsequent years, he would conduct revivals in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China and North Korea, mixing calls for peace into his evangelism.

His advocacy for peace extended to the segregated South during the 1950s and 1960s. He refused to preach to segregated audiences and befriended Martin Luther King Jr. during his struggle for civil rights.

"There is no scriptural basis for segregation," Graham said. "The ground at the foot of the cross is level, and it touches my heart when I see whites standing shoulder to shoulder with blacks at the cross."

He also forced South Africa to permit integrated audiences to attend his revivals there, and he openly denounced apartheid when preaching in that country.

Rev. William Barber, former state NAACP president, noted Graham's fight for social justice in an online post Wednesday.

"His life was about following Jesus, and he knew that meant an ongoing commitment to be changed by love," Barber wrote. "While no two theologians or preachers ever agree on everything, let us agree that the Rev. Billy Graham was a gift to many throughout the world. Take your rest, dear brother, take your rest."

'America's pastor'

Graham's convictions and high profile garnered him relationships with a series of U.S. presidents, beginning with Harry Truman and lasting through Barack Obama six decades later. President George H.W. Bush, once called Graham "America's pastor."

"It's just one more thing that is utterly unique about Billy Graham," presidential historian Richard Norton Smith said. "I don't think will ever be repeated, and I'm not sure it should be."

Truman once called Graham a "counterfeit," saying the evangelist was only interested in "getting his name in the paper." But subsequent presidents often sought his advice on issues from civil rights to the Iraq War. President Richard Nixon even asked Graham to be the U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Former President George H.W. Bush recalled fondly Wednesday how Graham would go boating and would sit and talk with him during visits to the family's residence in Maine.

"I think Billy touched the hearts of not only Christians but people of all faiths because he was such a good man. I was privileged to have him as a personal friend," Bush said. "He was a mentor to several of my children, including the former president [George W. Bush] of the United States."

The younger Bush said Graham "has no political agenda. He has an agenda of the Lord."

Former President Bill Clinton said Wednesday he heard Graham preach in Little Rock, Ark., during the struggle for school integration there.

"His powerful words and the conviction they carried touched countless hearts and minds," Clinton said in a statement. "He filled a football stadium with a fully integrated audience, reminding them that we all come before God as equals, both in our imperfection and our absolute claim to amazing grace."

Graham's role as presidential counselor drew sharp criticism from religious scholars and other evangelists.

"My sense of religion in America is that religion always functions best from the margins of society and not in the councils of power," said Randall Balmer, a professor of religious history at Dartmouth College.

Despite having the ear of presidents, Graham refused to insinuate himself into political battles later in life, especially as religious conservatives grew in power in the 1980s and 1990s. He even criticized the Moral Majority, which was founded by fellow evangelist Jerry Falwell, saying it was too interested in sex-related issues and not enough in social justice.

"I don't think Jesus or the apostles took sides in the political arenas of their day," Graham said. "Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left."

In a 2006 interview, he said ministers need to following their calling by God in determining whether to be politically active.

"A lot of things that I commented on years ago would not have been of the Lord, I'm sure, but I think you have some – like communism or segregation – on which I think you have a responsibility to speak out," he said.

Still, he said in a 2011 interview with Christianity Today that, while he was grateful for the opportunity to minister to people in high places, he regretted sometimes crossing the line into politics.

In December 2001, Graham was presented with an honorary knighthood, Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, for his international contribution to civic and religious life.

Later years

On Sept. 14, 2001, Graham preached to a nation still reeling from the terrorist attacks three days earlier, providing a message of comfort and hope.

"Yes, our nation has been attacked, 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 to choose to become stronger through all of this struggle, to rebuild on a solid foundation," he said in his address at National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. "I believe that we are starting to rebuild on that foundation."

Failing health – he suffered from Parkinson's disease and had ailments ranging from intestinal bleeding to lung infections to fluid on the brain – forced him to end his crusades in 2005, when he made one final appearance in New York. He did make subsequent appearances to preach, such as in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

During his career, he preached in person to about 215 million people in 185 countries and territories worldwide.

Graham and son Franklin made public appeals before a 2011 statewide referendum for people to vote in favor of amending the North Carolina constitution to define marriage in the state as only between one man and one woman.

Graham and his wife spent much of their time during their final years in a home Ruth Bell Graham designed in Montreat. Political leaders from Obama to former Gov. Pat McCrory, as well as numerous candidates for office, continued to trek to the town in the western North Carolina mountains to meet with him.

A frail Billy Graham appeared in Charlotte in 2007 to dedicate the Billy Graham Library, where he was joined by former presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Clinton. The barn-shaped structure – it was modeled on his family's dairy farm and is located about four miles from his childhood home – features a giant cross entryway and various exhibits chronicling Graham's life and work.

The library was open Wednesday but will close Thursday in Graham's memory.

Within days of the library's opening, Ruth Bell Graham died at age 87 following a long illness. She was buried at the library, and her husband will be buried alongside her there in a plywood box made by Louisiana prison inmates as he heads to what he called "home."

“My home is in heaven," he once said. "I'm just traveling through this world.”

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