The Rev. Billy Graham and his wife Ruth during a press conference at their home in Montreat in 1996. Scott Sharpe ssharpe@newsobserver.com
The Rev. Billy Graham and his wife Ruth during a press conference at their home in Montreat in 1996. Scott Sharpe ssharpe@newsobserver.com

Faith

Did Billy Graham’s wife shape their son Franklin more than he did?

July 10, 2017 06:00 AM

Ruth Bell Graham died 10 years ago this month. But her influence lives on.

It’s there in the ways scholars are re-telling the story of her famous evangelist husband, Billy Graham, now 98. In new books, they credit her with key contributions to the success of a worldwide ministry that spanned nearly 60 years.

Her continuing impact is also evident in the ways their son Franklin Graham, also a preacher, keeps making headlines: with his prayer rallies, with his humanitarian work and with conservative Facebook posts that often echo his mother’s criticism of an American culture she felt was in the throes of moral decay.

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Franklin followed his father into the pulpit and succeeded him as head of the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. But Franklin’s temperament and tone – more uncompromising than Billy’s in his prime and later years – are closer to his mother’s.

“She took a harder line on things while Billy was more diplomatic and less willing to offend,” William Martin wrote in “A Prophet with Honor,” his biography of Billy Graham.

Franklin, the second youngest of five Graham children raised by their mother in Montreat while Billy was away for six to eight months at a time headlining his crusades, appeared to acknowledge Ruth’s influence when he once described the difference between himself and his father:

“We preach the same Gospel,” he said, but “Daddy hates to say no. I can say no.”

Franklin also appears to have inherited a compassionate streak from Ruth, who grew up the daughter of medical missionaries in China and, later in life, quietly ministered to prison inmates and people struggling with substance abuse.

Ruth’s parents played a big role, too, in helping shape the theological attitudes – strictly conservative but big-hearted toward the needy – of not only their daughter but also Franklin and his siblings: Before they retired to Montreat and became active grandparents, Nelson Bell, a surgeon, and Virginia, a nurse, ran the biggest Presbyterian hospital in China.

Franklin has made his humanitarian mark with Boone-based Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian relief agency that he also heads. It is often the first group on the ground ready to help when natural disasters strike anywhere in the world. Its Operation Christmas Child delivers gifts to millions of poor children every year. And Samaritan’s Purse has operated hospitals or medical units in, among other places, Haiti, Liberia and Iraq.

Anne Blue Wills, a Davidson College professor of religious studies who is writing a biography of Ruth Graham, said this smart, contemplative woman who wrote poetry, studied the Bible daily and loved to play tricks, had a greater impact on Billy and Franklin than many realized.

“A close look at how (Billy and Ruth) worked out the practical and theological give-and-take of their commitment and forged a life together reveals more about Billy and Ruth than most people have known,” Wills wrote in an article for Christian History magazine. “Their marriage reflected their mutual love, but also their working relationship.”

In addition, Wills wrote, “Ruth proved to be a generational link: she infused Billy’s work with her father’s influence and molded their elder son (Franklin’s) vision in a way that may permanently reshape the Graham legacy.”

‘Spoke her mind’

While Billy was off evangelizing millions around the globe, Ruth usually stayed behind, tending to their mountaintop home and raising Franklin and their four other children.

But Billy Graham scholars have come to agree with the Charlotte-born evangelist himself, who called Ruth his top adviser and someone who knew the Bible and its nuances better than he did.

Besides supplying Billy with anecdotes and Scripture passages for his sermons, they say, Ruth played a key role in helping shape his public image and style.

“In the late ’40s and early ’50s, Billy fell into histrionics. She scolded him for that. ‘Just preach,’ she told him,” said Grant Wacker, author of “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation,” which was published in 2014. “Ruth had a sense of what Billy should be doing and what people wanted to hear.”

She saw that Billy’s flock didn’t want the kind of eloquence that called attention to itself, Wacker said. Instead, when Billy delivered simple sermons, “they heard a messenger who touched their lives in a deep and intimate way.”

Billy became a radio and then a TV star with his series, “Hour of Decision” – a name Ruth came up with since, she said, Billy was asking his audience to make a decision for Christ.

Wills said Ruth, who gave up her own ambition to be an evangelist in Tibet in order to support her husband’s calling, also helped create in Billy the image of a strong American Christian man. To men in the 1950s, he became a model of the church-going family man: a good husband and father with a beautiful wife who was a good mother.

“If I’m (a man in the 1950s) and I’m afraid to be a Christian because it may impugn my manliness, here’s Billy Graham,” Wills said. “Here’s this head of a Christian household.”

And yet, behind the scenes, Ruth sometimes challenged and questioned her husband when his staff would not. And she kept Billy humble and focused on his core mission of winning souls when others – Hollywood producers and politicians – resorted to flattery and special access to try to enlist him in their more earthbound projects.

“She was a great deflater of pomposity. And she helped keep him grounded,” said Wills, who, along with Wacker and Andrew Finstuen, edited “Billy Graham: American Pilgrim,” a new book of essays that was published this month.

In 1964, when then-President Lyndon Johnson asked Billy for advice on whom he should pick for a running mate, Ruth kicked Billy under the table. Her message: Avoid politics and stick to offering spiritual counsel.

She supplied him with ideas and materials all her life. And she could step on toes (when necessary). She spoke her mind pretty much.

Jean Ford

It was advice he later ignored at his peril during the Nixon administration. Billy’s allegiance to that president deep into the Watergate scandal hurt his reputation.

Ruth also used her piercing wit to keep Billy from getting too big for his britches.

When rumors began circulating in 1964 that Graham himself was considering a run for president, “my wife called me,” the evangelist reported years later, “and said, ‘If you run, I don’t think the country will elect a divorced president.’ 

Billy’s sister Jean Ford, who lives in Charlotte, called Ruth’s contributions to Billy’s ministry “immeasurable.”

“She supplied him with ideas and materials all her life,” Ford said. “And she could step on toes (when necessary). She spoke her mind pretty much. Not in an offensive way, but she said what she thought.”

Ruth also kept things light when needed by teasing Billy and teasing the people who worked for him.

“She was the only one (around Billy) to do that,” Ford said. “Everybody else was standoffish.”

While others, including presidents and world leaders, called her husband “Billy,” he was always “Bill” to Ruth.

Her explanation was typically direct: “How in the world can you call a grown man who is 6-foot-2 ‘Billy’?”

Over the years, Ruth wrote or co-wrote 14 books, many of them works of poetry. And Wills suspects Ruth was also more responsible than Billy for some of the books attributed to him alone.

“Her natural groove was to be solitary and ruminate,” said Wills. “Then she wrote those ruminations down.”

Wacker agreed: “She was a more capacious thinker than Billy – wider, broader, deeper,” he said. “And you could write a whole book about the funny things she said.”

When Wacker, a professor emeritus of Christian history at Duke University, was writing his book on Billy, a Graham associate asked him what he going to write about Ruth.

He hadn’t planned on writing that much about her, but discovered, he said, “that their stories are interwoven. To understand Billy, you have to understand Ruth. ... They contrasted in personality, but were complementary.”

In 1996, a Congressional Gold Medal was jointly awarded to the couple for their “outstanding and lasting contributions to morality, racial equality, family, philanthropy and religion.”

‘Morally serious people’

She was born Ruth McCue Bell on June 10, 1920, in the Jiangsu province of China. It was a time of civil war there, and Ruth later recalled nodding off to sleep at night to the sound of gunfire.

Nelson and Virginia Bell had fun with their children and others – they never missed a birthday – but they were strict Southern Presbyterians, Wills said.

“They were morally serious people, with very clear boundaries of what was right and wrong and a strong sense of God’s presence,” Wills said. “They didn’t allow a lot of coloring outside the lines.”

And by all accounts, Ruth was a pious child who took a special interest in helping animals and people in need.

At Ruth’s funeral service in Montreat in 2007, older sister Rosa recalled that Ruth once prayed to God to let her become a martyr within the year.

“I got under the covers and prayed, ‘Lord, don’t listen to her, she’s just a little girl,’ ” Rosa told the mourners, producing howls of laughter.

Ruth’s spiritual sense deepened during her high school years in Korea and at Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school outside Chicago.

Her parents, who frowned on dancing, card-playing and movies on Sunday, approved of Wheaton and its clean-cut students – including a young Billy Graham, who’d grown up on a dairy farm in Charlotte.

Billy and Ruth’s first date: a Sunday afternoon performance of Handel’s “Messiah.”

Could she give up her own dream – becoming a missionary in Tibet – and be the supportive wife of an ambitious young preacher who had set his sights on evangelizing America?

Billy fell for Ruth right away. She was taken with him, too, but struggled with her feelings.

Could she give up her own dream – becoming a missionary in Tibet – and be the supportive wife of an ambitious young preacher who had set his sights on evangelizing America?

‘A very private person’

On Aug. 13, 1943, they were married before 250 guests at Montreat Presbyterian Church, in the town where Billy and Ruth would eventually build their home. Ruth’s parents had moved there, too, and Dr. Bell – “Lao E” to his grandkids – was nearby as a father figure while Billy was away.

In his memoir, “Rebel With a Cause: Finally Comfortable Being a Graham,” Franklin included a family portrait of his mother, himself, older sisters Bunny, Anne and Gigi, and baby brother Ned. The caption: “Growing up, Daddy was gone most of the time, it seemed. This was a typical family picture – no Daddy.”

Wills’ working title for her biography of Ruth is “An Odd Kind of Cross to Bear,” based on a statement Ruth herself once made. To her, the cross was that she and Billy were apart so much and, when she did travel with him, they were in the glare of the spotlight.

“She was a very private person,” said Wills. “When the spotlight found her, she was uncomfortable.”

Back in Montreat, Ruth could be adventurous – she once broke her arm hang-gliding – but she treasured her quiet moments, often with a Bible in hand. She would leave several around the house, all opened to different passages.

She taught Sunday school, baked casseroles and blueberry pies when someone in town fell sick, and sent her workers to clear new snow from steep driveways. In 1966, she also helped establish the Ruth and Billy Graham Children’s Health Center in Asheville.

But most of her life in Montreat was filled by raising her children – including Franklin, who proved to be a rebellious handful. Patricia Cornwell’s 1982 biography of Ruth tells the story of how she locked a misbehaving Franklin in the trunk of their car during a stop at a fast-food restaurant. She opened the trunk to get his order.

“Franklin’s guardian angel,” she joked years later, “has always had to work overtime.”

‘Unusually driven’

But Franklin righted course, and eventually joined the family business, touring America and the world to preach at “festivals” – his version of Billy’s crusades.

And in recent years, as Billy faded from the spotlight, Franklin has stepped up.

He emerged in a very different environment from the one that greeted Billy Graham in the early 1950s. Then the United States was undergoing a post-World War II religious revival. Protestantism was still dominant in the culture and the clear enemy was atheistic Communism.

Franklin has preached in an America that is much more religiously diverse, where gays and lesbians are out and legally marrying, and where evangelical Christians are a force for traditionalism and conservative social values in the Republican Party.

Franklin’s harsh rhetoric about Islam – “a very evil and wicked religion,” he said – is reminiscent of the strident anti-Communism favored by Billy in his early years.

But Billy changed as he got older, softening his message, reaching out to a broader audience, even angering some supporters by going to Moscow to preach in the 1980s.

“He saw no reason to foreclose any conversions by alienating people,” said Wacker. “And, with rare exceptions, he avoided publicly saying anything controversial.”

Instead of changing with age, Franklin, now 64, has dug in. He has said and done a lot that’s proven controversial, including questioning President Barack Obama’s Christianity and pulling his ministry’s money out of Wells Fargo when the bank ran commercials featuring a lesbian couple.

“Like his mother, Franklin is unusually driven,” Wacker said. “Driven by ideas and also by a sense that it’s his job to promulgate his views and save the culture.”

Added Wills: “If temperaments can be inherited, then I think this (tendency) to see stark differences, right and wrong, us and them, came from the Bell side of the family.”

Spokesmen for Franklin Graham did not respond to an Observer request for an interview with him about how his mother shaped him and his faith.

Franklin’s older sister, Anne Graham Lotz, also became an evangelist. Now based in Raleigh, she shares a conservative streak with her brother: Earlier this year, for example, she criticized the Women’s March protesting President Donald Trump.

A shared stubbornness

Ruth was never as outspoken as her son Franklin has become, but Wills said they shared a stubbornness – especially when it came to sticking to their principles. And in her 1984 rewrite of “Peace with God,” a book first published in 1953 with Billy as the author, Ruth did offer what Wills called “sharp criticisms of the nation’s moral decay, as epitomized by the ‘blasphemous words of punk rock.’ 

Mother and son could also, years apart, get incensed by the same kind of public behavior.

Last month, in a Facebook post, Franklin responded angrily to reports that graduates at the University Notre of Dame had protested Vice President Mike Pence’s commencement speech by walking out.

“Just rip them up! Maybe that’s what the president of (Notre Dame) should have done to the diplomas of the students who so rudely got up and walked out,” he wrote. “To get up and walk out on the vice president of the United States of America, who was gracious enough to come speak at their graduation, that’s just insolent! Maybe they need to take another class before they graduate – one on civility and respect.”

In 1975, Ruth made headlines when, at a rally for then-President Gerald Ford in Charlotte, she got up, grabbed a protester’s sign away from him and returned to her seat. He swore out a warrant against her. When her lawyer told her she could face a $50 fine or 30 days in jail, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution later reported, she said she’d take the jail sentence.

The charge against her was dropped. She said at the time she'd have treated one of her sons the same way if he'd behaved that way – except “I’d have given him a resounding whack on the bottom.”