The Rev. Billy Graham knew he’d made mistakes in life. After all, he preached, we are all sinners. But Graham, who died at home in North Carolina on Wednesday at age 99, became one of the world’s most admired men because of what he did so beautifully: share a racially and religiously inclusive message of love and redemption.
Graham was unique because he lived modestly, unlike many successful evangelists, and always opened his foundation’s books to public scrutiny. Graham was special because he rejected the racism so common to his time, region and Southern Baptist denomination. Graham refused to conduct segregated crusades and had the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preach with him at Madison Square Garden in 1957. And Graham was radical because he, almost alone among Protestant evangelists, argued that good people of all faiths would join born-again Christians in heaven.
Graham’s missteps were notable, too. His support for escalating the war in Vietnam was misguided. And anti-Semitic comments that surfaced on taped conversations with President Richard Nixon decades later were a stain his heartfelt apologies could not entirely erase.
But Graham preached to extraordinary effect for almost 60 years. Legendary Olympian and World War II torture survivor Louis Zamperini, the subject of the book and movie “Unbroken,” credited a 1949 Graham crusade with turning him from a furious drunkard into a man who would spend the next 60 years helping others. President George W. Bush said a conversation with Graham persuaded him to quit drinking. Graham was a friend and religious inspiration to Queen Elizabeth II, and filled that role for president after president. And Graham helped thousands, perhaps millions, of people find God and peace.
Today Graham seems most notable for what he did not do. He did not divide. He did not weigh in on elections after Nixon’s resignation, or weaponize his beliefs in a culture war about abortion or homosexuality. He did not glorify wealth. He did not demonize.
Years ago, Graham said of his death: “I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”
And deservedly so.