MONTREAT, N.C. (BP)–Ruth Bell Graham, wife of evangelist Billy Graham, died June 14, surrounded by her husband and five children at her Montreat, N.C., home. She was 87.
The daughter of missionary parents, Ruth was the woman behind “America’s Pastor,” and her dedication to her children while her husband was on the road preaching no doubt will be one of her greatest legacies.
“Ruth was my life partner, and we were called by God as a team,” Billy Graham said in a statement. “No one else could have borne the load that she carried. She was a vital and integral part of our ministry, and my work through the years would have been impossible without her encouragement and support.
“I am so grateful to the Lord that He gave me Ruth, and especially for these last few years we’ve had in the mountains together,” Graham added. “We’ve rekindled the romance of our youth, and my love for her continued to grow deeper every day. I will miss her terribly, and look forward even more to the day I can join her in heaven.”
A public funeral service will take place at 2 p.m. Eastern Saturday in the 2,000-seat Anderson Auditorium at the Montreat Conference Center in Montreat, N.C. Seating is on a first-come basis, and there will overflow seating with closed-circuit television on the grounds. A private internment service will take place Sunday.
For several weeks, Ruth Graham had been confined to bed as she suffered from degenerative osteoarthritis of the back and neck, and two weeks ago she was diagnosed with pneumonia and seemed to be recovering, A. Larry Ross, a spokesman for the Graham family, told Baptist Press. But on the morning of June 13 she fell into a coma.
Ross said Graham was alert on Sunday, June 10, to celebrate her birthday and was encouraged by visits from family members. The day before his wife died, Billy Graham released a statement saying she would be buried on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C. The two had made the decision on their own, he said.
“I am more in love with her today than when we first met over 65 years ago as students at Wheaton College,” he said in his June 13 statement.
Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page, pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., said Ruth Graham will be missed.
“Psalm 116:15 says, ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of one of his saints.’ This Scripture certainly applies to the passing of our sister in Christ, Ruth Graham,” he said. “This dear woman leaves behind a legacy of commitment to her Lord and her family which serves as an example to us all. Born on the mission field in China, she knew firsthand a life of sacrifice.
“This lifestyle continued as she ministered in the context of a busy, evangelist husband who left much of the parenting task to her. … We shall miss Ruth Graham. We are thankful for her ministry to the Kingdom of God during her life. Heaven has experienced a great gain from our loss.”
Morris H. Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Executive Committee, said her love for her husband and children “inspired several generations of Christian wives and mothers.”
“She was indeed a consummate servant of Christ,” Chapman said. “Her grace, humility, dignity, and joy reflected her deep and abiding love for her Lord and Savior, which is certainly fitting, for now she has seen the Lord in the fullness of His glory and is able to praise and worship Him face to face.”
Ruth Graham’s “deep commitment” to her husband and his ministry “helped make the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association a reality, which led to the salvation of millions around the world,” he added.
“For such love and commitment, we thank and praise God,” Chapman said.
Ruth Graham was born June 10, 1920 in China, the daughter of medical missionaries. She attended high school in Pyongyang, Korea (now North Korea) before returning to the U.S. at age 17 — her first trip to the States took place at age 7 with her parents on furlough — to attend Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. It was there that she met her future husband.
In an often-told story, Ruth Graham would recall the first time she saw Billy: “I passed him on the steps. … He was going down and I was going up. And my impression was, ‘There’s a young man in a hurry.’ I didn’t think much more of it.”
But after becoming acquainted, they fell in love. As Billy Graham recalled in his 1997 autobiography, “Just As I Am,” their first date was to a Sunday afternoon presentation of Handel’s “Messiah.”
“I just could not believe that anyone could be so spiritual and so beautiful at one and the same time,” he wrote.
Said Ruth, “I remember coming back from the date and praying that night. I said, ‘Lord, if you’ll let me marry that man I’ll consider it the greatest privilege imaginable.’
Upon graduation — and after Ruth prayerfully decided that God was not calling her to the mission field — the two married Aug. 13, 1943, launching a life-long ministry together. She authored or co-authored 14 books, many of them poetry. She provided the name for the radio ministry, “Hour of Decision,” that was launched in 1950 and continues to this day. And as a product of Asia, she encouraged her husband to visit China and she accompanied him on those historic trips.
But for the most part, Ruth stayed with the children at their private mountain home — they had three daughters and two sons between 1945 and 1958 — while Billy was away for his national and international crusades. When he preached his famous 16-week crusade in New York City in 1957, 5-year-old Franklin, now head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, closed one of his bedtime prayers by saying, “And thank you for Mommy staying home.”
The Grahams tried to make their “times together as normal as possible” and to “concentrate on [their] family as much as possible” when he was home,” he wrote. Ruth sometimes wrote the aforementioned poems, in fact, as an emotional release during those times she was alone with the children.
“If Ruth had not been convinced that God had called her to fulfill that side of our partnership, and had not resorted constantly to God’s Word for instruction and to His grace for strength, I don’t see how she could have survived,” he wrote.
Billy Graham once said of his wife, “She urged me to go, saying, ‘God has given you the gift of an evangelist. I’ll back you. I’ll rear the children and you travel and preach.'”
In a statement, Franklin Graham said his mother helped his father prepare sermons, “listening with an attentive ear, and if she saw something that wasn’t right or heard something that she felt wasn’t as strong as it could be, she was a voice to strengthen this or eliminate that.”
“Every person needs that kind of input in their life and she was that to my father,” Franklin said.
The Grahams’ youngest daughter, also named Ruth, said her mother played an integral role in her father’s ministry.
“I don’t believe Mother has adequately been recognized and honored for what she had done, because without her, Daddy’s ministry would not have been possible,” she said.
God prepared the elder Ruth Graham for her ministry role years ago, as a girl in China, the younger Ruth Graham said.
“What she witnessed in her family home, she practiced for herself — dependence on God in every circumstance, love for His Word, concern for others above self, and an indomitable spirit displayed with a smile,” she said in a statement. “Her happiness and fulfillment did not depend on her circumstances. She was a lovely, beautiful and wise woman, because early in life she made Christ her home, her purpose, her center, her confidant, and her vision.”
In addition to her husband and children, Ruth Graham is survived by 19 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren.
“One of the many ministries of Ruth and Billy Graham over the past 60 years has been their modeling of what a truly Christian marriage looks like,” said Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Their devotion to the Lord and to one another has served as an example to more than three generations of Christian couples.”
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has launched a tribute website to Ruth Graham at http://www.bgea.org.
Compiled by Erin Roach & Michael Foust.