The Rev. Billy Graham, the wildly influential evangelical speaker whose dynamic rhetorical style and social activism came to define generations of televangelists, died Wednesday at the age of 99.
Often known as “America’s pastor,” Graham, whose career spanned more than 70 years, was among the most prominent evangelical speakers and pastors in America. According to the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, Graham has preached live to 215 million people across 185 countries, making him potentially the world record-holder for having preached the gospel to the most people in history.
He first came to prominence in the late 1940s with a series of crusades, or large-scale, tent revival-style meetings designed to urge listeners to embrace the gospel. His popularity increased in the 1950s with religious radio shows like the Hour of Decision, which broadcast regularly from 1950 to 2016, and the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, which is still in circulation. Billy Graham also became hugely politically influential, providing counsel and, in some instances, friendship, to every post World War II-president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.
His enormous popularity — he made Gallup’s “10 Most Admired” list a staggering 61 times — also made him a particularly notable voice for social change.
By the 1960s, Graham had become a major white figure in the civil rights movement. A close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. (whom he bailed out of jail in the early 1960s), Graham was an outspoken advocate for racial integration, often threatening to leave any segregated rally or event, earning him the enmity of some white evangelicals.
Graham’s ministry was not always free from controversy. During the Watergate era, it was rumored that Graham had been caught on tape agreeing with many anti-Semitic remarks made by then-President Richard Nixon about Jews “controlling the media,” a controversy that was renewed when the tapes were finally made public in 2002. (Graham later apologized for his remarks).
But, by and large, Graham managed to avoid the sexual and financial scandals that dogged many of his televangelist successors, from Jim Bakker to Jimmy Swaggart, maintaining a reputation for impeccable moral conduct.
Graham is survived by five children, all of whom have continued his legacy of evangelism and ministry. Most notably, his oldest son, Frank Graham, is now the CEO of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, while his second daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, runs AnGel ministries and spearheads the National Day of Prayer task force.