(RNN) – Pastor to presidents and everyday Americans, the Rev. Billy Graham preached to nearly 215 million people around the world in his more than 60 years of ministry. His message reached millions more through radio, television and webcasts.
Graham, America’s most prominent Christian leader, died Wednesday at the age of 99. Spokesman Mark DeMoss said Graham died at his Montreat, NC, residence at 7:46 a.m. ET, according to a news release from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Several medical issues had caused his health to deteriorate within the last decade. He was in the hospital for almost two weeks in 2007 for internal bleeding related to prostate cancer. Macular degeneration, hearing loss and a series of hospitalizations for respiratory infections in 2013 all took their toll.
During his life, he met with 12 presidents, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, befriending many of them on a personal level.
Graham’s message to all was simple and consistent, urging people to commit their lives to Jesus.
William Franklin “Billy” Graham Jr. was born Nov. 7, 1918. He grew up working on his family’s dairy farm, waking up at 3 a.m., milking cows and pitching hay, and said as a kid he’d never be a public speaker.
When he was 16, a friend offered to let Graham drive his truck if he’d attend a tent meeting by a traveling preacher. Graham agreed and was spellbound by the evangelist’s sermon. He returned night after night, until one night he converted to Christianity.
Graham later enrolled in classes at Florida Bible Institute. While at the school, the dean, much to his surprise, informed Graham he was going to preach the next day at a small Baptist church.
Graham, who had never preached before, spent the next night and day studying and preparing. When he got up to speak, his sermon lasted all of eight minutes.
Still, the dean saw potential in him. Graham, feeling a tug on his heart to pursue ministry, began to hone his craft as a public speaker.
He enrolled in Wheaton College for more training. There he met the woman he called a “hazel-eyed movie starlet,” Ruth Bell, who would become his wife.
Bell and Graham married shortly after graduation, and the couple began their life and ministry together.
After serving as a pastor in a small basement church and launching a radio show, Graham left his church and began preaching all across the United States and Europe.
He became a national figure in 1949 during a three-week crusade in Los Angeles that turned into an eight-week event.
In his autobiography, Just As I Am, published in 1997, Graham wrote that reporters had largely ignored his crusade until a few days before the final scheduled meeting.
“For the first time, the place was crawling with reporters and photographers,” Graham said. “They had taken almost no notice of the meetings up until now, and very little had appeared in the papers. I asked one of the journalists what was happening.
“‘You’ve just been kissed by William Randolph Hearst,’ he responded.”
Media tycoon Hearst had taken notice of Graham’s preaching and anticommunist message and urged his editors to “puff Graham,” giving the preacher the exposure that would make him a household name.
Graham extended his meetings to eight weeks to make room for the thousands who flocked to the tent.
“Two hours before the start of the final meeting, 11,000 people packed the tent to standing room only. Thousands milled about in the streets, unable to get in. Hundreds left because they couldn’t hear,” Graham wrote. “For that time, the statistics were overwhelming. In eight weeks, hundreds of thousands had heard, and thousands had responded to accept Christ as Savior.”
Time magazine put him on the cover in 1954, calling him “the best-known, most talked-about Christian leader in the world today, barring the Pope.”
It was a role that would define him through the next several decades.
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