In the wake of Billy Graham’s death at age 99, the media is naturally focusing on the unparalleled impact the evangelist had around the world. As the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association reports, “Throughout his life, Billy Graham preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to some 215 million people who attended one of his more than 400 Crusades, simulcasts and evangelistic rallies in more than 185 countries and territories. He reached millions more through TV, video, film, the internet, and 34 books.”
But one aspect of Graham’s life may not receive focus—his marriage of over 63 years to Ruth Bell Graham. And that is unfortunate, because their marriage is a grand story in itself.
Billy and Ruth met when they were students at Wheaton College. Ruth grew up in China as the daughter of missionaries, and she had planned to become a missionary herself. After Billy proposed, she eventually decided that God was calling her to a different path, so she set aside her own personal goals to become Billy’s wife.
After Ruth died in 2007, it was interesting to see some writers discuss this decision made back in 1941, as if it was quaint and old fashioned, and perhaps a bit tragic. How many modern women, they said, would make the same choice? One writer for The Washington Post wrote, “What a sign of those times, one might say. Or, how sad. The world will never know what else Ruth Graham … could have accomplished …”
What the world often fails to understand is that God often calls people to set aside their own plans in order to follow Him … and then He uses them in greater ways as a result. When God put this couple together, He created an incredible partnership in which each person made the other stronger and more effective in reaching people for Christ. Ruth, for example, was put in a position where all her gifts—for writing, for raising children, for influencing others—could flourish. God used her in ways she could never have imagined.
An essential element of Billy Graham’s impact was his marriage to Ruth—a woman who provided love, counsel, and spiritual guidance. A true partner who gave him a secure home life and retreat.
As Robert Schuller, former pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California, said: “I think Ruth Graham is the most powerful woman of the 20th century. Not one of the most, but the most powerful woman, because Billy Graham’s ministry is unmatched in history and she was the woman behind his success.”
A strain on his home life
After his 1949 crusade in Los Angeles, Graham’s fame and influence exploded, and he began holding crusades around the world. This often put a strain on his marriage and family life, because he was often gone for weeks and even months at a time.
“I now warn young evangelists not to make the mistakes I did,” he wrote in his autobiography, Just As I Am. “But Ruth reminds me that the situation is different today. There are many more evangelists and far more Christian programs on television and radio, so perhaps the need for constant travel is less necessary. When I started years ago, I was responding to an urgent need in the best way I knew how. And God has been faithful.”
He went on to write, “The secret of Ruth’s survival was in her commitment—not only her marriage commitment before God of her love for me, but also her ministry commitment of the two of us to the Lord’s purpose for our lives together. And Ruth will be the first to say that she loved her part—staying home with the children.”
They didn’t have a perfect marriage, he wrote, “but we have a great one.” By that, he meant that they learned, with God’s grace, to live with each other’s imperfections. In fact, one of Ruth’s well-known quotes is, “A happy marriage is the union of two forgivers.”
Some of the best insights into their marriage emerged after Ruth’s death. At her memorial service, Billy said, “She was an incredible woman. We were married for nearly 64 years. I wish you could look into the casket because she’s so beautiful. I sat there for a long time just looking at her and praying, because I know she had a great reception in heaven.”
Anne Graham Lotz, one of their daughters, said, “She loved our daddy, and she taught us to love and adore him. But there was something in her life that was greater than her love for our daddy, and that was her love for Jesus and her love for God’s Word.”
A man like Billy Graham will always have critics. There were some who didn’t like Billy Graham’s evangelical theology. He was criticized for some of his friendships with presidents. But he avoided any hint of scandal over his marriage and his personal life.
In the early days of Graham’s ministry, his team took steps to avoid some of the traps that had ensnared other evangelists. He wanted to ensure that he stayed faithful to Ruth, so the team instituted what some today call the “Billy Graham Rule.” As Graham explained it in Just As I Am:
We all knew of evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman other than my wife. We determined that the Apostle Paul’s mandate to the young pastor Timothy would be ours as well: ‘Flee … youthful lusts’ (2 Timothy 2:22, KJV).
In the wake of Billy’s death, two quotes appear on the Billy Graham Association website.
The first is from Billy Graham: “My one purpose in life is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which I believe comes from knowing Christ.”
The second is from Ruth, reminiscing on what attracted her to Billy: “He was a man who had a purpose, a dedication in life; he knew where he was going. He wanted to please God more than any man I’d ever met.”
These words say a lot about the secret to a successful marriage—even one where the husband was constantly traveling. For Billy and Ruth Graham, it was all about serving Christ … together.
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Visit the memorial site online at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and read the articles in the tribute to Billy Graham at Christianity Today.
Also, read Ruth’s thoughts on incompatibility in marriage.