CHARLOTTE — About 2,000 people filled a huge white tent on Friday for a private funeral outside the red barnlike Billy Graham Library to honor the iconic evangelist who preached to millions across the globe.
Graham, who died Feb. 21 at age 99, was honored this week in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. Graham served during the second half of the 20th century as the key leader of evangelicalism, which has become the largest religious persuasion in the United States today. A lifelong registered Democrat, he was a friend and counselor to several presidents.
President Trump and Vice President Pence attended the funeral, although Trump did not speak. Graham met the president at a 95th birthday party for the spiritual leader organized by his son Franklin Graham, who has led the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in recent years.
During Friday’s service, Franklin Graham noted Trump and Pence’s presence, but he did not touch on politics in his keynote address. Instead he channeled the gospel message that his father preached for so many years, that people have sinned and need to repent and turn to Jesus as their savior.
On a sunny but windy day here, the tent creaked and the wind howled as Franklin Graham spoke of his father’s belief in the “infallible” Bible. Graham believed in heaven and hell, and that hell is reserved for the wicked, his son said.
“The world with all its political correctness would like you to believe there are many roads to God,” he said. “It’s just not true.”
In an interview Thursday, Franklin Graham, 65, said that there are no plans to set up any new foundation or organization in honor of his father. He said leaders in the evangelistic association are considering turning his father’s home in Montreat, N.C., into a retreat center for business leaders.
Franklin Graham’s four siblings also made brief remarks at the funeral. His sister, Ruth Graham, spoke of dreading going to her father’s home after she ran away from her second husband.
“You don’t want to embarrass your father,” she said. “You really don’t want to embarrass Billy Graham.” She said her father was waiting for her when she arrived home. “He wrapped his arms around me and said ‘Welcome home.’ ” There was no blame, just unconditional love, she said.
Friday’s funeral took place under a 28,000-square-foot tent, a throwback to Graham’s 1949 crusade in Los Angeles that lasted eight weeks. That tent crusade sparked Graham’s explosion in popularity. The funeral guest list included a who’s who of those popular in white evangelicalism, including entertainers Kathie Lee Gifford and Steven Curtis Chapman; pastors Rick Warren and Joel Osteen; popular speakers Ravi Zacharias and Beth Moore; and political figures Ben Carson and Sarah Palin.
Graham’s pine plywood casket, with a small cross at the top, was made by inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where he once preached. Graham’s grave marker, made of North Carolina stone, will include the phrase, “Preacher of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who have both cited Graham as important in their spiritual lives, visited Charlotte earlier this week to pay their respects. In 2007, Clinton and former presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush attended the library’s dedication ceremony.
Thousands lined up to see Graham’s casket as he lay in honor at the Capitol on Wednesday, and Trump and other political leaders spoke at a memorial service for him. For Franklin Graham, the Rotunda honoring of his father — a first for a religious leader — harked to an earlier era in America.
“We need to put God back in government,” he said Thursday. “We need God back into our schools. We need God back into our everyday lives. If we do that, we could see a spiritual healing in our country.”
Most of Friday’s service was planned about a decade ago by Graham and his friend Cliff Barrows, who died in 2016. More than 100 international delegates representing Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Catholic and evangelical traditions attended.
Michael W. Smith and the Gaither Vocal Band, popular musicians among evangelicals, led some of Graham’s favorite hymns, including “Because He Lives.” Following the service, Graham’s casket was taken to be buried in a memorial garden at the Billy Graham Library next to his wife, Ruth, during a smaller service of about 200 family members.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, said Graham epitomized “what’s best in American Christianity.” He said Graham continued America’s historical tradition of “spiritual renewal and social service.”
“He’s particularly refreshing today when religion is often abused and perverted for the cause of hatred and violence,” said Dolan, who attended the funeral. “He would always use it as an occasion of harmony, amity and respect.”
Graham mentored ministers like Warren, who pastors a megachurch in Southern California. “Billy was the greatest Christian of the 20th century, in my opinion,” Warren said. The two men first met at a crusade in Oakland, Calif., when Warren was 20 years old.
“The greatest thing [about him was,] a 60 year ministry and no scandal,” Warren said. Graham maintained a policy called the “Billy Graham rule” that he would not travel or be alone with a woman who wasn’t his wife, a rule Pence has reportedly followed himself.
Television host Gifford, who has spoken openly about how Graham “introduced me to the person of Jesus,” said his evangelism continues through people like her.
“It’s not about religion, it’s about relationship,” Gifford said. “I’m not a big fan of religion. I’ve seen religion do an awful lot of evil in this world. But Jesus didn’t. And Jesus did nothing but love people and teach them that God loved them just as they were and had a hope and a plan for them and a future.”
During his lifetime, Graham regularly showed up on polls of “most admired” people, but he had his critics on both the right and the left. Some fundamentalist Christians felt he didn’t draw enough theological boundaries, and some theologians felt the gospel he preached was too simplistic.
“I think his gospel should be simplistic because the gospel is simple,” said Houston megachurch pastor Osteen, who said he sometimes gets criticized for not having gone to seminary. No one person will be able to fill Graham’s shoes, Osteen said as he stood in line for Graham’s funeral. Instead, thousands of pastors like Osteen are carrying on Graham’s evangelism since he paved the way for them on the airwaves.
Chapman, a popular Christian musician who recalled playing at Graham’s rallies with a “long, flowing mullet,” said Graham gave Christian music a platform and made it legitimate. “He recognized that to reach people where they are, he would embrace even a kid with a mullet,” he said.
Graham was famous for giving a platform to many other leaders, including his controversial decision to invite the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on his crusade stage at a New York City rally in 1957.
“From that point on, he opened the door to sharing the Gospel and sharing the platform beyond just his white evangelical context,” said A.R. Bernard, a black pastor of a megachurch in New York City. “He was America’s pastor to white Christians predominantly, but he was also America’s pastor in that he gave an example to persons of color and leaders of color, to look beyond the divisive constructs that existed in our society.”
Could Graham have done more for the civil rights cause? Bernard said “he did what he could considering the times that he was in.”
Graham said later in his life that he should have steered clear of politics. After tapes came out in 2002 revealing he and President Richard M. Nixon had shared anti-Semitic views, Graham said he wept.
In his later years, Graham distanced himself from the more politically driven Christian right. As some evangelical leaders grew increasingly partisan, Graham sought to soften boundaries and helped to build organizations that would focus on evangelism broadly.
Some evangelical observers have openly wondered whether Franklin Graham’s close association with Trump would meet the approval of his father. While Franklin Graham did not formally endorse Trump, he has supported most of his policies.
Franklin Graham said his father voted in the last election but declined to say for whom he voted, noting “it doesn’t matter” because the election is over and America voted for Trump. “All of us need to try to support Trump the best we can in the areas we can,” Franklin Graham said.
“There’s nothing wrong with us supporting candidates that support religious freedom, that support values that we hold very dear,” he said.
Franklin Graham said his father will be known for supporting racial integration and his fierce anti-communist activism. During his lifetime, Graham also drew attention to AIDS, hunger, poverty and environmental threats.
If Graham were alive today, Franklin Graham said, he would be speaking out against same-sex marriage and would say that America’s gun issues are a problem of “the human heart.”
But some worry that American evangelicalism has drifted from the direction Graham would have wanted. Among them is his brother-in-law, Leighton Ford, 86, who preached with Graham for 30 years.
“The word ‘evangelical’ refers to a certain brand of politics,” he said while leaning back in a leather chair in his home. “Now I have to say, ‘Am I an evangelical?’ Yes, but I have to define it.”
Ford’s wife, Jean — Graham’s only surviving sister, at 85 years old — gave brief remarks at the funeral. While Graham urged evangelicals to remain civically engaged, unlike some Christians who preferred to stay completely out of politics, Ford said he thinks Graham would urge younger evangelicals to stay out of partisan politics.
“I remember him saying he and [his wife] Ruth were at dinner with [President Lyndon B.] Johnson, and Johnson asked for his advice, and Ruth kicked him under the table,” Ford said. “Ruth tried to keep him restrained even though she had her own opinions.”
The funeral concludes more than a week of tributes that included crowds gathering by the road as his body was transferred from Asheville, N.C., to his childhood home in Charlotte.
On Thursday, several of Graham’s great-grandchildren ran around a hotel lobby here before the family members began to gather for a dinner. Several of Graham’s children and grandchildren have created their own ministries, including Boz Tchividjian, who founded GRACE, an organization that works to investigate and prevent child abuse in churches and ministries. As he sat next to his sister Jerushah Armfield in the hotel lobby, they agreed that their grandfather would likely be uncomfortable with “the fuss” being made over his death this week.
“I don’t know that he cared about what people thought of him, but he cared about what you thought of Jesus,” Armfield said.