America, and North Carolina in particular, has lost a national treasure.
Billy Graham, perhaps the best-known evangelist in the world, died in the early morning hours Wednesday.
A North Carolina native, Graham always stayed close to his roots, even while traveling the world in a series of crusades that would fill the largest stadiums with people wanting to see the famous minister, hear his message.
That message was simple: He believed the Bible was the inspired Word of God, and that Jesus was the literal son of God, sinless and perfect and the only way to eternal life beyond the worldly existence all people experience. He paired that with a belief that all people are equal, putting him decades ahead of his contemporaries in the modern evangelical movement.
He became a spiritual advisor to presidents, meeting with every American president from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama. In his later years, some of those visits were more social in nature, but many of those presidents truly looked to Graham for spiritual advice, sought him out during times of duress.
He was one of the first people in the church — or any field of endeavor — to recognize and use the growing influence of broadcasting. Graham was regularly using radio in the 1940s to spread his message. As television came on the scene, he began using that medium to reach audiences, and his ministry began utilizing the Internet early on as well. All throughout those changes, he continued using print and in-person meetings and crusades to reach the world.
Graham, of course, is well-known for those crusades. What many folks have forgotten over the years is that Graham used his growing influence during the Civil Rights movements as well. He integrated the seating arrangements at his revival meetings long before schools began integrating, stating there was no scriptural basis for racial segregation.
In one instance, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1953, Graham said he walked to where ropes were set up to separate the seating between blacks and whites and personally tore the ropes down. The head usher of the crusade quit on the spot, yet Graham refused to back down.
He became friends with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaking along with the civil rights leader to more than 2 million people during a New York crusade in 1957.
According to a column Graham wrote in 2015, he and King spoke often about King’s belief in nonviolent protests to bring about social change. Graham said King urged him to refrain from joining the street protests and nonviolent walks.
“You stay in the stadiums, Billy,” Graham recalled King saying to him. “You will have far more impact on the white establishment there than you would if you marched in the streets.”
In later years, Graham was the first evangelist of international renown to preach in the Soviet Union, and he did his part to oppose the Apartheid regime in South Africa, refusing to appear in that nation until the government allowed integrated seating at his crusades.
Perhaps what people most admired about Graham was the fact that this man, born on a farm in North Carolina just a few months after the end of World War I, became a worldwide phenomenon, advised presidents, held audiences with royalty, yet he never wavered from this Christian faith and he never forgot his roots.
Graham maintained a home near Asheville, in Montreat, and it was to there he retired in 2005 as his heath began to fail. He continued his ministry as he could, working with his family and staff to pen books and write a daily column that appears in several hundred newspapers around the world, including The Mount Airy News.
Wednesday morning, at the age of 99, Graham passed away.
While that certainly brings a sense of sadness and loss to those who knew him, Graham should be remembered for being a man of principle, a man who treated all fairly, and a man who never wavered from his faith. Because of his commitment, the world – and certainly North Carolina – is a much better place for the time he spent here.