All of the early headlines took the same approach: “Billy Graham’s Wife Ruth Dies.”
That is so, so very wrong.
Anyone who has ever studied the life and career of the world’s most famous evangelist knows that Ruth Bell Graham was much more than his wife or even, as the later headlines are now saying, his soul mate. (Click here for a nice Washington Post essay by Laura Sessions Stepp built on that image.)
But soul mate doesn’t do her justice, either.
Ruth Bell Graham was nothing less, in my opinion, than the X-factor in her husband’s life, the source of that strange sense of otherness that, when blended with Billy Graham’s essential humanity and North Carolina sense of grace, has always added a note of mystery to his career. His natural instinct was to get along with people. Her natural instinct, at crucial times, was to push back against the powerful people who wanted to own her man, body and soul.
Ruth was the other voice in his head that was always hard to explain, in large part because she — throughout her long and amazing life — stayed quietly inside their stunning but surprisingly simple home in the North Carolina mountains, the home that she dreamed up and defended like a lioness. But it is safe to assume that her voice was strong and articulate, inside those old log-cabin walls (built out of materials gathered from several old abandoned cabins in that neck of the woods).
Billy Graham always said Ruth was much smarter than he was. And he knew it. In that “ah, shucks” modest way of his, he kept telling people that she was the brains in the operation. In this case, I don’t think he was joking.
Reporters always had to read between the lines, because Ruth refused a thousand interview requests for every one that she granted. Thus, when I left the Rocky Mountain News to teach at Denver Seminary, I included this item in my farewell column’s list of notes and quotes:
Allowed to interview one living religious figure, I would choose Ruth Bell Graham, the media-shy Presbyterian poet who also happens to be married to the world’s best-known Southern Baptist preacher.
There is no way to sum up all of the coverage of this woman’s life from the past few days. Some newspapers get it and some don’t. My local newspaper here in Baltimore, in the edition that landed in my front yard, granted Ruth Bell Graham a total of four inches of Associated Press copy deep on an inside page, which is a journalistic crime if I have ever seen one.
Let’s think about this for a moment.
One of the major stories in American life in the second half of the 20th century was the emergence of evangelical Protestantism from the dark corners of the American South, from the isolationism of Bible Belt fundamentalism.
It is hard to tell that story without putting Billy Graham right there in the middle. Graham once told me that he was not sure what the vague word “evangelical” means, which probably means that he was too close to the subject to be able to focus clearly on the details.
But if you’re looking for a pivotal moment in the rise of evangelicalism as a force in modern American culture, you would have to include the day that Graham left fundamentalist (in every accurate sense of the word) Bob Jones College. If he had never left Bob Jones, he would have never graduated from Wheaton College, which means he would have never met and married Ruth Bell.
It’s hard to understand how Graham managed to open up, as quickly as he did, to working with Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans and then Roman Catholics without understanding that he was married to a woman who, for decades, insisted on remaining a Presbyterian and taking her place in a pew at her little Presbyterian church just down the mountain from their home. She was what she was.
Historians will always ask how Graham evolved from a narrow fundamentalist into the evangelical who preached to the world. That’s a complex question. However, here’s a pretty good answer: “He married Ruth Bell.”
If you are serious about following this story, you will, of course, have to keep reading the updates at Christianity Today, the digitial hub of Graham-era evangelical life. I like the main headline there: “The Silent Rock Behind a Famous Evangelist.”
And The Charlotte Observer is, as the major newspaper in Billy Graham’s hometown, going to keep covering the story in-depth while other newspapers move on. Here is one of the major wrap-up stories with lots of details and history. And here is a witty part of a tribute column (“She was so much more than an evangelist’s wife”) by Ken Garfield, the former Observer religion writer who took over that desk soon after I left in the mid-1980s (and occupied it much, much longer than I did):
Her place in history may well be as the woman behind the evangelist. But it doesn’t begin to describe her place in the heart of those who knew her.
I was fortunate to have met Ruth Graham a half-dozen times or so in the decade I covered the family for the Observer. I can tell you, she served a mean lunch of tossed salad and burgers from McDonald’s.Each time I was in her presence, I got to appreciate a side of her that her loved ones shared with me over the years.
They spoke of her sense of humor — how each time Billy got a bit too big for his britches, for example, she’d cut him down to size with a quick comment or sly smile.
At that fast-food lunch in the dining room before his 1996 crusade in Charlotte, Billy talked with great seriousness about life at their Montreat home — how he’d walk, pray and sit beside his wife each evening, watching the news on television.
I remember Ruth Graham good-naturedly muttering the lament of loved ones everywhere — as soon as she got interested in a program, he’d turn the channel.
Memory eternal, Ruth Bell Graham.
The second photo is the view into the mountains from the back porch of the Graham home in North Carolina.