Ruth Graham; Evangelist's Wife Led Private Crusade

By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 15, 2007

Ruth Bell Graham, who pursued a vigorous if reclusive Christian ministry for six decades in the shadow of her famous husband, the Rev. Billy Graham, died June 14 at her home near Montreat, N.C. She was 87.

Mrs. Graham had been bedridden for two years and in recent days had suffered complications from pneumonia.

In the years that Billy Graham, 89, was crusading for God in large tents and advising heads of state throughout the world, Mrs. Graham was talking one-on-one with dope addicts and thugs in stairwells and prisons. Hers remained a more private evangelism.

One key role she played was making sure that Billy Graham became a great evangelist. In the early days, that meant sitting on the floor of their living room clipping news items about cities where her husband was scheduled to preach so he could add local tidbits to his sermons.

In later years, she would tease him out of bouts of depression and keep him true to his preaching mission, advising him to turn down offers from Hollywood and rebuff politicians who encouraged him to run for office. She accompanied Graham on some of his many trips -- reluctantly -- but often managed to slip away to talk Scripture and life with hangers-on who caught her eye.

"Ruth was my life partner, and we were called by God as a team," Billy Graham said yesterday in a statement. "No one else could have borne the load that she carried. . . . My work through the years would have been impossible without her encouragement and support."

Many women of her generation devoted their lives to their husbands, and many lost themselves in the process. Mrs. Graham didn't. From the time she was a child, she enjoyed a rich interior life of faith that enabled her to reach out to those in need and then return to her family, home and writing.

She taught a Bible course at the local Presbyterian college. She oversaw construction of the family home and a 1,500-acre spiritual retreat and training center nearby. She raised five children virtually single-handedly because her husband was frequently on the road. She wrote 14 books of poetry and essays on living a spirit-filled life.

And she spent several hours a day reading her Bible.

"She had a faith like nobody I've ever known, more than Dad's," said Ned Graham, the couple's youngest child. "I've never seen it falter."

Daughter Ruth cited her mother's "dependence on God in every circumstance, love for His word, concern for others above self and an indomitable spirit."

You had to have an indomitable spirit to survive the 1920s and '30s in Northern China. Ruth Graham was born June 10, 1920, in Jiangsu province in China, the daughter of Nelson Bell, a Presbyterian missionary and surgeon who practiced in a makeshift hospital. Her mother, Virginia, taught her and her sister Rosa to read and write, as civil war raged between Chiang Kai-shek and Communist Party members, bandits killed missionaries at random and impoverished peasants dropped dying babies into a muddy tributary of the Yangtze River that flowed yards away from the Bell home.

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