Ruth Graham, Wife of Billy Graham, Dies at 87

Yonat Shimron
(RNS) Ruth Bell Graham, the independent and strong-willed wife of evangelist Billy Graham, died Thursday at 5:05 p.m. at her home in Montreat, N.C., surrounded by her husband and five children, longtime spokesman Larry Ross said.

Graham, who had been in ill health for several years, was 87.

Ruth Graham was considered the intellectual of the family, but was better known for her determination to stay out of the limelight during her husband’s long and celebrated career.

“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,” Billy Graham said in a statement. “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.”

In recent years, she had been in failing health. Due to her condition, she was unable to attend the dedication of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C., on May 31.

The Grahams had announced Wednesday that the ailing evangelist and his wife would be buried in a garden at the museum, putting an end to a unusually public family dispute over where the couple would be buried.

She underwent five hip replacement surgeries, suffered back pain and had difficulty walking. Her husband, who at 88 suffers from Parkinson’s disease and other ailments, is in delicate health himself.

The daughter of Presbyterian missionaries to China, Graham maintained a strong commitment to her faith and found time for prayer and Bible study every day. Those habits influenced her five children, especially Anne Graham Lotz of Raleigh, N.C., who saw her mother’s spiritual discipline as a model for her career as a Bible teacher and evangelist to women.

Although she published several collections of poetry and prose, Ruth Graham may best be remembered for being the guardian of the family’s solitude. She shielded her husband and children from unscrupulous reporters and curiosity seekers by soaking labels off prescription drugs and burning personal bills, according to Patricia Cornwell, who wrote a 1983 biography titled Ruth: A Portrait. It was her idea to move away from downtown Montreat–across the street from her parents’ retirement home–to a more secluded location on nearby Black Mountain.

It was here that she and her husband raised their children, Virginia (GiGi), Anne, Ruth (Bunny), Franklin and Ned. With Billy Graham gone an average six months of the year, it fell to Ruth to discipline the children. Her children said she believed in prompt punishment along the lines of “spare the rod, spoil the child.”

The restless Franklin was the source of much of her ire. Once on a trip to nearby Asheville, Franklin got into a fight with his older sisters. His mother responded by pulling off to the side of the road, opening the trunk of the car and locking Franklin inside.

“Mama never tattled on us to Daddy,” Franklin Graham said in an interview. “She never wanted us to dread his coming home. She took care of the discipline.”

In the Graham household, days started with prayer. At bedtime, there were family devotions and the children were encouraged to memorize passages from Scripture. Ruth Graham provided a personal example. Anne Graham Lotz said the light in mother’s room was always on, and invariably she would be on her knees in prayer.

“What I remember is her prayer and Bible reading,” said Lotz in an interview. “That’s where she got her strength.”

Graham was cautious of her husband’s powerful connections to presidents and heads of state. She kicked her husband under the table when President Lyndon B. Johnson asked him who he thought his running mate should be. And when it was rumored that her husband was being asked to run for president, Ruth called to tell him she would sooner divorce him.

But despite her wish to keep religion and politics separate, she, like her husband, developed a fondness for President Richard Nixon. When Nixon was hospitalized following his resignation, she paid to fly a banner outside the hospital that read: “Nixon we love you. So does God.”

Later in life, she developed her own ministries. After hearing about North Carolina death row inmate Velma Barfield’s jailhouse conversion, she befriended the convicted murderer and corresponded with her–never giving up her support for the death penalty. With her husband, she helped establish in the early 1990s the Ruth and Billy Graham Children’s Center at Memorial Mission Hospital in Asheville. She also established the Ruth Bell Graham International Children’s Health Fund to help needy children living abroad.

Ruth McCue Bell was born on June 10, 1920, in the Qingjiang province of northern China. Her father, L. Nelson Bell, a missionary doctor, delivered her. As a missionary daughter she developed a love of God and prayed for the opportunity to die a martyr.

At age 13, she was sent off to a school for missionary children at Pyeng Yang in North Korea. She hated the separation from her family and wrote long letters home–her longest a 6-foot-long scroll. In 1937, her family sent her to Wheaton College, near Chicago, an evangelical liberal arts college.

There, she first heard Billy Graham praying on the boys’ side of the dorm and thought, “There’s a man who knows to whom he is speaking,” she was often quoted as saying.

On their first date, Billy invited Ruth to hear a concert of Handel’s “Messiah.” But their courtship was rocky, and when Ruth declined to hold his hand after several dates, he thought it was over.

In fact, the two were getting to know each other. After more dates, Ruth finally relented and got down on her knees and prayed, “Lord, if you’ll let me spend the rest of my life serving with him, I’ll consider it the greatest privilege.”

They wed on Aug. 13, 1943, at the Montreat Presbyterian Church. Married to an evangelist, Ruth learned quickly that she would spend many days on her own and she made her peace with it. In a 2002 interview she said, “God really prepared me as a young girl for a lifetime of saying goodbyes.”

Later in life, she gave her daughter Anne a bit of advice she has never forgotten: “Make the most of all that comes,” she told her daughter, “and the least of all that goes.”

Ross, the family spokesman, said the family is making plans for a private burial and a public memorial service. She is survived by her husband, five children, 19 grandchildren and a number of great-grandchildren.


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