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Evangelist Billy Graham’s wife dies at 87

Ruth Graham, who surrendered dreams of missionary work in Tibet to marry a suitor who became the world's most renowned evangelist, died Thursday. She was 87.
Ruth Bell Graham
Ruth Bell Graham, shown in 1998, gave up dreams of missionary work abroad to marry Billy Graham.Chris O'meara / ASSOCIATED PRESS
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ruth Graham, who surrendered dreams of missionary work in Tibet to marry a suitor who became the world’s most renowned evangelist, died Thursday. She was 87.

Graham died at 5:05 p.m. at her home at Little Piney Cove, surrounded by her husband and all their five children, said a statement released by Larry Ross, the Rev. Billy Graham’s spokesman.

“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. 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.”

Ruth Graham had been bedridden for months with degenerative osteoarthritis of the back and neck and underwent treatment for pneumonia two weeks ago. At her request, and in consultation with her family, she had stopped receiving nutrients through a feeding tube for the last few days, Ross said.

The family plans a private interment ceremony and a public memorial service. Those arrangements had yet to be made on Thursday.

As Mrs. Billy Graham, Ruth Graham could lay claim to being the first lady of evangelical Protestantism, but neither exploited that unique status nor lusted for the limelight.

Behind the scenes, however, she was considered her husband’s closest confidant during his spectacular global career — one rivaled only by her father, L. Nelson Bell, until his death in 1973.

Spent time overseas
Bell, a missionary doctor, headed the Presbyterian hospital in Qingjiang, China, that had been founded by the father of author Pearl Buck. Ruth grew up there and spent three high school years in what’s now North Korea.

“Her parents exercised a profound effect upon the development of her character and laid the foundations for who she was,” said the couple’s youngest daughter, also named Ruth.

“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 met Billy Graham at Wheaton College in Illinois. He recalled in 1997 memoirs, “If I had not been smitten with love at first sight of Ruth Bell I would certainly have been the exception. Many of the men at Wheaton thought she was stunning.”

Billy Graham courted her and managed to coax her away from the foreign missions calling and into marriage after both graduated in 1943. In 1945, after a brief stint pastoring a suburban Chicago congregation, he became a roving speaker for the fledgling Youth for Christ organization.

From that point onward she had to endure her husband’s frequent absences, remarking, “I’d rather have a little of Bill than a lot of any other man.”

Remained a loyal Presbyterian
Ruth Graham moved the couple into her parents’ home in Montreat, where they had relocated after fleeing wartime China. She stayed in western North Carolina mountain town the rest of her life.

The young couple later bought their own house across the street from the Bells. Then in 1956, needing protection from gawkers, the Grahams moved into Little Piney Cove, a comfortably rustic mountainside home she designed using logs from abandoned cabins. It became Billy’s retreat between evangelistic forays.

Though the wife of a famous Baptist minister, the independent-minded Ruth Graham declined to undergo baptism by immersion and remained a loyal, lifelong Presbyterian. When in Montreat, a town built around a Presbyterian conference center, Billy Graham would attend the local Presbyterian church where his wife often taught the college-age Sunday School class.

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.

Ruth Graham was the author or co-author of 14 books, including collections of poetry and the autobiographical scrapbook “Footprints of a Pilgrim.”

In 1996, the Grahams were each awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for “outstanding and lasting contributions to morality, racial equality, family, philanthropy, and religion.”

Crime novelist Patricia Cornwell began her writing career with a Ruth Graham biography that depicted many deeds of personal charity. Cornwell said as a youth in Montreat she thought Ruth Graham “was the loveliest, kindest person ever born. I still do.”

She helped establish the Ruth and Billy Graham Children’s Health Center in Asheville, and the Billy Graham Training Center near Montreat.

The osteoarthritis that afflicted Ruth resulted from a serious fall from a tree in 1974 while rigging a slide for grandchildren.

It became clear this week her death was close, when Billy Graham said his wife was “close to going home to Heaven.”