Ruth Bell Graham, wife of evangelist Billy Graham, died Thursday at her home at Little Piney Cove in Montreat, North Carolina. She was 87.
She was born to missionary parents in Tsingkiang, China, in 1920, where she was raised in staunch Presbyterian piety, with daily doses of private and family devotions and being expected to memorize large portions of the Bible. Her high school years were spent in a boarding school in Pyongyang (now North Korea).
In 1940, at Wheaton College in Illinois, she met a classmate who invited her to a performance of Handel's Messiah. From that first date, the relationship between Ruth Bell and Billy Graham took off. Before they parted for the summer of 1941, Billy asked Ruth to marry him. She didn't say yes immediately, but within a few weeks, she wrote him to say that she believed their relationship was "of the Lord."
They graduated from Wheaton in June 1943 and were married on Friday, August 13. Returning from their honeymoon, Ruth fell sick, but instead of calling to cancel his preaching engagement in Ohio to stay by her bedside, Billy checked Ruth into a hospital and kept the speaking appointment, sending her a telegram and a box of candy.
So began her adjustment to her husband's intense calling to preach, which meant extended times of separation. Yet "I'd rather have Bill part-time," she often said, "than anybody else full-time."
Ruth was a student of the Bible. "She knows the Bible a lot better than I do," Billy was quick to admit. And she provided a measure of grit that complemented Billy's more diplomatic style.
When Billy warmly recalled his meeting with the president of Mexico"He even embraced me"Ruth quickly added, "Oh, Bill, don't be flattered. He did that to Castro, too."
Yet she never tried to place herself in the spotlight: "That's not my wad of gum."
Much of her ministry was with her 5 children, 19 grandchildren, and more than a dozen great-grandchildren. She personally selected and purchased 150 heavily wooded acres near Black Mountain, North Carolina, where she designed the "mountain primitive" house that became their home.
Ruth authored several books, including One Wintry Night, a collection of her poetry, and Prodigals and Those Who Love Them, which draw on her experience as a mother of two "spiritual wanderers" to encourage others whose loved ones strayed from the faith.
Her ministry also took other forms. After inheriting a tidy sum from her father's estate, she gave it all away, mostly to an orphanage in Mexico. She also cared for female prisoners, including Velma Barfield, a North Carolina woman who made a commitment to Christ while on death row before her execution for murder. Ruth was also a driving force in creating the Ruth and Billy Graham Children's Health Center at Memorial Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina.
In 1988, thanks to Ruth's efforts, the Grahams went on a 17-day trip through China, where she was greeted as "a daughter of China" and Billy as "a man of peace." Both of them were received by Premier Li Peng.
On May 2, 1996, Billy and Ruth Graham received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor Congress can bestow upon a citizen, in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
In his remarks, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole said, "When the idea of awarding a Congressional Gold Medal to Dr. Graham was first raised, it received something rare in this buildingunanimous approval. So too, did the idea of honoring Ruth Graham, Billy's remarkable partner of 53 years and a distinguished communicator of God's power and peace in her own right.
Ruth was known for being a woman of grace but also of outspoken forthrightness and wit.
When asked if she and her husband always agreed on everything, she said, "My goodness, no! If we did, there would be no need for one of us!"
When Ruth answered the phone one day, the caller asked, "Is Billy handy?" She retorted, "Not very. But he keeps trying."
In 1952, Billy briefly entertained the possibility of running for President. Ruth quickly quashed that notion by calling him to say: "I don't think the American people would vote for a divorced president, and if you leave ministry for politics, you will certainly have a divorce on your hands."
Billy once described the secret of their more than 60-year marriage: "Ruth and I are happily incompatible."
Perhaps the best assessment of her contributions, however, came from the late T. W. Wilson, a boyhood friend of Billy's who became a trusted member of his evangelistic team.
"There would have been no Billy Graham as we know him today had it not been for Ruth," he said. "They have been a great team."
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Christianity Today also published an RNS obituary for Ruth Graham on June 14, 2007.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has a memorial site for Ruth. The press release above is from A. Larry Ross and Associates, Billy's longtime personal publicist and spokesman, has photos, video, and more information.
CT Liveblog coverage includes:
Kay Warren on Ruth Graham | "I have admired her all my life"
Ruth's children remember their mom | "For her, self-sacrifice was a way of life."
A mother lode | "You might say 'What's so wonderful about God saving the daughter of missionaries? They're good already.' Don't you be fooled."
President Bush on Ruth Graham | President recognizes "a remarkable woman of faith whose life was defined by her belief in a personal, loving, and gracious God."
Public invited to Ruth Graham funeral in Montreat | Internment at Charlotte library will be private.
Ruth Graham and Richard Nixon | Remembering a personal -- and public message.
Official Ruth Graham sites and newspaper obits | Where to find mainstream media coverage -- and where the media is getting some of its information.
One mother writing about another | Frederica Mathewes-Green on Ruth: "She often told her children, 'There comes a time to stop submitting and start outwitting.'"
Anne Graham Lotz on her mother's death | "She taught me by her example that Jesus is everything."
Other articles by and about Ruth Graham include:
Putting Pressure in Its Place | Ruth Bell Graham on the purpose of stress. (May 8, 1981)
Afraid of the Right Things | One fear puts all others in proper perspective. (March 4, 1983)
Moved into the Presence of God | Ruth Graham tells what book has influenced her the most. (September 2, 1983)
A Living Birthday Letter | Ruth Graham's life is a letter crafted especially for people like me who dread the thought of growing old. (Wendy Murray Zoba, June 12, 2000)
What Ruth Graham Taught Me About Prayer | A powerful way to make God's words your own. (Today's Christian, July/August 1999)
RuthBellGraham.com expired in 2005 and is now a cybersquatter's site, but its content is still available at the Internet Archive.
Obituaries on Ruth Bell Graham include those from the Associated Press, Asheville Citizen-Times, Charlotte Observer, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, News14 Charlotte, and other sources.
Patricia Conwell's biography of Ruth Graham, Ruth, A Portrait, is available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.