The sensational Billy Graham: From backwoods minister to an 'American Pope'

But of all the US leaders -- almost all of whom have claimed to be practicing Christians -- Graham found only Jimmy Carter to match him in dedication to his faith.

The sensational Billy Graham: From backwoods minister to an 'American Pope'

Reverend Billy Graham, the influential Southern preacher who became a spiritual advisor to several US presidents and millions of Americans via their television sets, has died, his family said Wednesday. He was 99.

The one-time backwoods minister who eventually became the world's foremost Christian evangelist, spread a message of spiritual redemption at tent and stadium revival meetings, in a career that spanned decades.

"Billy Graham is the closest thing to a national pope that we shall ever see," journalist Garry Wills once wrote in The Washington Post.

American evangelist Billy Graham, giving a speech on stage, circa 1970. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Southern Baptist preacher was close to the family of President George W. Bush, who once said that a private meeting with Graham in 1985 helped him quit drinking.

More recently his role as a sometime spiritual adviser to the young Queen Elizabeth II as she confronted the burdens of rule was featured in the Netflix mini-series "The Crown."

Graham was a pioneer of "televangelism" to convert souls to Christianity as television got off the ground in the 1950s.

Born on November 7, 1918, he was raised as one of four children on a dairy farm in Charlotte, North Carolina.

American evangelist Billy Graham embraces his family upon his return from his 'Crusade for Christ' tour, New York, New York, mid 1950s. Clockwise from left: Chinese-born wife Ruth, daughter Anne, Graham, daughter Ruth (Bunny), and daughter Virginia.

Graham had a spiritual awakening in 1934 that changed the course of his life. He subsequently attended the Florida Bible Institute, now Trinity College of Florida, and was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1939.

In 1950, he founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in Minneapolis, Minnesota and launched a weekly "Hour of Decision" radio program.

His ministry led him to preach the gospel around the country -- and the world.

Over the course of his career, he was consulted by presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. For a time he was Richard Nixon's chaplain and golf partner. President George H.W. Bush invited him to pray at the White House in 1991 for guidance through the first long day of the Gulf War.

But of all the US leaders -- almost all of whom have claimed to be practicing Christians -- Graham found only Jimmy Carter to match him in dedication to his faith.

(L-R) Franklin Graham, Billy Graham, and former U.S. Presidents George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton bow their heads in prayer during the Billy Graham Library Dedication Service on May 31, 2007 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Approximately 1500 guests attended the private dedication ceremony for the library, which chronicles the life and teachings of Evangelist Billy Graham. Former U.S. Presidents Clinton, Carter and Bush made short speeches during the dedication ceremony. (Photo by Davis Turner/Getty Images)

"Carter alone among the presidents ... taught the Bible throughout his life, wrote books of religious meditations, and needed no help with Scripture or its challenges," wrote authors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy in a Graham biography, "The Preacher and the Presidents" published in August 2007.

Graham also has been credited with helping hasten the end of segregation in his native south by refusing to preach to segregated audiences after 1953.

Graham and his wife Ruth Bell Graham -- the daughter of a missionary surgeon who grew up in China -- had five children.

These include Anne Graham Lotz, a Christian author and speaker, and two sons, who like their famous father became ministers.

Clockwise from bottom: English actress Dora Bryan (1923 - 2014), American evangelical Christian evangelist Billy Graham, and British pop singer Cliff Richard, on the set of 'Two a Penny', 1967. (Photo by David Cairns/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

One son, William Franklin Graham III is now the head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

His wife Ruth, although married for nearly 64 years to the world's most famous Baptist preacher, remained a lifelong Presbyterian. She died in June 2007 at the age of 87.

Seen as a comforting presence during times of crisis, Graham led a national prayer service for the September 11, 2001 attacks. He also presided at graveside services for president Lyndon Johnson in 1973 and spoke at Nixon's funeral in 1994.

His participation in a record number of presidential inaugurations underscored his legendary political connections. He was the author of 31 books, most of which have been translated into several languages.

Front row from left, American evangelical preacher Billy Graham, singer Kate Smith (1907 - 1986), Dr. E. Harrison, and singer Pat Boone, celebrate 'Honor America Day' on July 4, 1970 in Washington DC. Graham and Smith both hold American flags and Miss Teenage America stands between and behind them. Boone wears a light suit with dark pin stripes. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

His most recent include "The Heaven Answer Book" (2012) and "Nearing Home" (2011).

While he never snagged the top spot, Graham was on Gallup's list of most admired men more than any other -- 55 times since 1955, the polling institute said in December 2011.

Among his many honors, he was presented with an honorary knighthood in 2001 and received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1996.

"My greatest comfort comes from knowing that I belong to Christ, and that no matter what happens, he will never leave me or forsake me. He will be with me as long as I'm on this Earth, and some day I will go to be with him in heaven forever. I look forward to that day," he once told the Minneapolis Tribune.

Graham had his detractors: noted Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr challenged his preaching as far too simple and not reflecting the complexity of human existence.

US evangelist Billy Graham addresses a crowd of football supporters at Stamford Bridge, London, during half-time at the match between Chelsea and Newcastle United. (Photo by Edward Miller/Getty Images)

And one-time associate Charles Templeton, a former evangelist turned atheist, wrote: "I disagree with him profoundly on his view of Christianity and think that much of what he says in the pulpit is puerile nonsense."

But he added: "There is no feigning in him: he believes what he believes with an invincible innocence. He is the only mass evangelist I would trust."

No other religious figure in America has had Graham's impact. Through a newspaper column, he answered thousands of questions about spirituality.

Rev. Blly Graham preaches at the Greater New York Billy Graham Crusade June 26, 2005 held in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in the Queens borough of New York. The three day crusade ending today will most likely be Graham's last mass event in the United States. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Unlike other high-profile evangelists, Graham managed to escape sex and money scandals by keeping a meticulous watch over his staff and finances.

"My greatest fear is that I'll do something that will bring disrepute on the Gospel of Christ before I go," Graham said in a 1991 interview.

He suffered from a host of ailments late in life, including Parkinson's disease and prostate cancer. In 1995, weakened by illness and old age, he turned over operation of his ministry to his eldest son.

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