Ruth Graham, partner in life and ministry to Billy

Published 5:20 pm Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Last week we were informed that Billy Graham’s Wife, Ruth, died at the age of 87. She died in her beloved home in the western North Carolina mountains.

“Whenever I was asked to name the finest Christian I ever met, I always replied, ‘My wife, Ruth.’” Billy Graham said in a statement released last Friday. “She was a spiritual giant, whose unparalleled knowledge of the Bible and commitment to prayer were a challenge and inspiration to everyone who knew her. In her last days she talked repeatedly of heaven, and although I will miss her more than I can possibly say, I rejoice that some day soon we will be reunited in the presence of the Lord she loved and served so faithfully.”

When I saw the report on television I recalled the afternoon, half a century ago, when I met Ruth Graham. I was the chaplain and head counselor at the Christian camp for boys, Camp Rockmont, just across the woods from the home of Billy and Ruth. On a beautiful summer day I was talking with some of the cabin counselors down at the lake when a jeep came up and parked. I recognized the driver as being Ruth Graham and her passengers would have to be her three daughters. When they unloaded, the girls began a hike around the lake while their mother stood watching. I approached her and, after we introduced ourselves and shared a few words of conversation, we turned to watch the campers who were being instructed in swimming, diving and boating classes. It was much later that I came to appreciate that Ruth Bell Graham was carrying out a wonderful Christian ministry of her own.

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Ruth Graham was born June 10, 1920, in Jiangsu province in China, the daughter of Nelson Bell, a Presbyterian missionary and surgeon who practiced in a makeshift hospital. Ruth grew up in China and she spent three high school years in what is now North Korea. Life was challenging and dangerous in the 1920s and ‘30s in Northern China. Her mother, Virginia, taught her and her sister Rosa to read and write, as civil war raged between Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist Party. Bandits killed missionaries at random and impoverished peasants dropped dying babies into a muddy tributary of the Yangtze River that flowed yards away from the Bell home.

Ruth came to the States for her college education and met Billy Graham at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he managed to persuade her to marry him instead of becoming a missionary to Tibet after they graduated in 1943. In 1945, after a short period of pastoring a suburban Chicago congregation, he became one of the favorite speakers for the Youth for Christ organization.

Graham came to the attention of the nation when news moguls William Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce thought that Graham would be helpful in promoting their conservative anti-communist views. Hearst sent a telegram to his newspaper editors reading “Puff Graham” during Billy Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles crusade. As a result of the increased media exposure the crusade ran for 7 weeks–4 weeks longer than planned. Luce also put him on the cover of TIME magazine in 1954.

By this time Ruth had moved the couple into her parents’ home in Montreat, where they had relocated after fleeing wartime China. Later they bought their own home before moving into Little Piney Cove, a rustic mountainside home she designed using logs from abandoned cabins. It became Billy’s retreat between evangelistic forays.

“My father would not have been what he is today if it wasn’t for my mother,” said her son, Franklin, who now heads the Billy Graham Evangelist Association.

“She stood strong for what was biblically correct and accurate. She would help my father prepare his messages, 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.”

Although she was the wife of Billy Graham, a Southern Baptist, Ruth declined to undergo baptism by immersion and remained a lifelong Presbyterian. When in Montreat, a town built around a Presbyterian conference center, Billy Graham attended the Presbyterian church where his wife often taught the college-age Sunday School class.

Ruth was a traditional wife, but she demonstrated the fact that traditional wives need not be limited in the full expression of their interests and abilities. She wrote in her journal at the time of their marriage “After the joy and satisfaction of knowing that I am his by rights and his forever, I will slip into the background,” Nevertheless, the background was not big enough.

Ruth Graham could be assertive. At a political rally in 1975, just as President Gerald Ford was about to speak, she got up from her seat, grabbed a war protester’s sign, sat back down, slipped the sign under her chair and placed her feet on it. Later she told the media, “The man had every right to his opinion. But when the president of the United States is speaking, it is definitely not the place to express his opinion.”

The protester filed charges against her for assault, and newspapers carried photographs of the Rev. Graham’s wife being hauled into court. Charges were dropped after the protester admitted that Mrs. Graham had done nothing more than simply pat his shoulder.

Due to her husband’s travels, she bore major responsibility for raising the couple’s five children: Franklin (William Franklin III), Nelson, Virginia, Anne and Ruth. She endured her husband’s frequent absences, but once remarked, “I’d rather have a little of Bill than a lot of any other man.”

In the early 1960s, Mrs. Graham took charge of the Sunday school class at Montreat-Anderson College. The college, her biographer Patricia Cornwell wrote, “It was known as the place where you go if you can’t go anywhere else. A sizable band of society’s rebels, along with those afflicted by academic indolence, landed there.”

The students loved their pretty, smart teacher and responded to her social causes, which included helping the poor and running street meetings.

“Her greatest gift was her uncanny ability to be kind without making you feel you needed it,” said Patricia Cornwell, who, through much of her adolescence, received assistance and love from Mrs. Graham.

The author or co-author of 14 books, including collections of poetry and the autobiographical scrapbook “Footprints of a Pilgrim,” Ruth helped establish the Ruth and Billy Graham Children’s Health Center in Asheville and the Billy Graham Training Center near Montreat. Her largest undertaking was the creation of the Billy Graham Training Center, known as “the Cove,” beginning in 1984. Ruth worked with architects and construction engineers as classrooms, auditoriums, accommodations and a stone chapel took shape in forests of poplar, locust and Southern pine.

It was her wish, written in a notarized statement, to be buried at the Cove. Her husband agreed with her until this year, when son Franklin opened a memorial library in Charlotte 100 miles away from Montreat (near his father’s original home). Franklin requested that his parents be buried in Charlotte, setting off a fight among the siblings that he finally won. Last week, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association released a statement saying that Ruth and Billy Graham had agreed to be buried at the new library. Ruth’s body lies at the bottom of the walk which is laid out in the shape of a cross.