The Rev. Billy Graham, 99, the world's best-known Protestant evangelist and one of the nation's most admired citizens, died Wednesday.

Mr. Graham, who long suffered from cancer, pneumonia, and other ailments, died at his home in North Carolina, spokesman Mark DeMoss told the Associated Press.

Dubbed "the national chaplain" and "America's pastor," Mr. Graham was a pioneer of mass-media evangelism. During his six decades of public life, he met or prayed personally with 13 U.S. presidents, met with kings and popes, and preached the Gospel to more than 200 million people in 185 countries.

Tributes to Mr. Graham poured in from major leaders, with President Trump, who met Mr. Graham in 2013, before he was candidate, tweeting: "The GREAT Billy Graham is dead. There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man." Former President Barack Obama said Mr. Graham "gave hope and guidance to generations of Americans."

Though he rarely appeared at mass crusades in his later years, he had become a mentor to other pastors and evangelists, including sons Franklin and Ned.

Tall, charming, passionate and sincere, Mr. Graham was a commanding orator who wooed souls to Jesus with a spellbinding Carolina baritone that soared effortlessly from intimate to thunderous, stern to beckoning.

"Has anybody forgotten you tonight?" the Southern Baptist preacher might ask, leaning over the lectern, his gaze searching the crowd. "Well, God hasn't. God loves you. How do I know? Why, it says so in the Bible."

"Want proof?" he would ask, his voice rising.

"Didn't he send his son to die for you? … So will you do business with God tonight? This could be your last chance. This is God's night. This is harvest time."

Like his oratory, Mr. Graham's heaven was accessible to just about everyone. Paradise was a "literal place" and "glorious," with "streets of gold and gates of pearl," where the trees produced a different kind of fruit every month.

His iconic reputation for piety and morality made him attractive to a long succession of U.S. presidents, many of whom welcomed the halo of righteousness that Mr. Graham's company could impart to an inauguration, a war, or even a round of golf.

In 1988, he spoke at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. In 1991, Bible in hand, he stood alongside George H.W. Bush at the White House and blessed the onset of Operation Desert Storm.

Mr. Graham's closest presidential friendship was with Richard M. Nixon, at whose inauguration he thanked God that "thou hast permitted Richard Nixon to lead us at this momentous hour of history."

He stood staunchly by Nixon when the Watergate scandal broke in 1972 and was embarrassed by Nixon's eventual admission of his role in the cover-up. He later told a biographer that his experience with Nixon had taught him never to "make the mistake again of getting that close to someone in office."

He was further embarrassed in 2002 when newly released tape recordings of a 1972 conversation with Nixon revealed Graham complaining that Jews had a "stranglehold" on the American media and were responsible for much of the pornography industry.

He apologized for the remarks, but said he did not remember making them and that they "do not reflect my views."

Although other Southern Baptists grumbled sometimes that he seemed "too close to the powerful and too fond of the things of the world" such as influence and adulation, a biographer, William Martin, argued in 1991 that Mr. Graham "helped Evangelicals see themselves as a worldwide Christian force, alongside the Vatican and the World Council of Churches."

Mr. Graham, who made his home in the mountains of North Carolina, wrote more than a dozen books, several of which sold more than a million copies, and he was featured on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and many other national magazines. Among his many honors were the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1982 and the Congressional Medal of Freedom in 1996.

Righteous yet affable, fundamental yet ecumenical, and untouched by fiscal or sexual scandal, Mr. Graham was listed so many times (60) on the Gallup Organization's annual "Ten Most Admired People in the World" poll that George Gallup declared him the poll's "dominant figure" of the last half-century.

Bill J. Leonard, dean of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University said, "He's the last of the great national evangelists in a line that runs from Jonathan Edwards [in the early 18th century] to Billy Sunday," who held sway in the early 20th century.

Although Mr. Graham tapped his son Franklin to succeed him as head of the vast Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Leonard speculated in 1997 that television had given national prominence to so many evangelists that no single individual would likely win the preeminence Mr. Graham enjoyed for half a century.

"Billy Graham was in a class by himself," Leonard said. "I can't think of anyone ready to take his place."

Evangelist Billy Graham speaks to over 100,000 Berliners at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, Germany on June 27, 1954..
AP
Evangelist Billy Graham speaks to over 100,000 Berliners at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, Germany on June 27, 1954..

Sternly Christian household

William Franklin Graham Jr. was born Nov. 7, 1918, and grew up on a dairy farm outside Charlotte, the oldest of four in a sternly Christian household. His mother, Morrow Coffey, was an Associate Reformed Presbyterian who read the Bible aloud to her family in the evenings.

His father, Frank Graham, was a no-nonsense Methodist who once took off his belt in church and whipped young Billy for fidgeting.

Despite his strict religious upbringing — or perhaps because of it — the young Graham showed no early interest in evangelism.

"Run along, little fellow. You'll never be a preacher," a visiting evangelist told him when he was 12, and that seemed just fine to him.
Preaching, he had decided, "was the one job worse than being an undertaker."

What he really wanted to do was play first base for the Philadelphia Athletics.

Neither schoolbooks nor the Good Book held much interest for him as a teenager; Billy-Frank, as he was known, liked "tooling around Charlotte" with his friends more than studying, and nearly failed to graduate from high school.

Yet even as he was almost flunking at school, he was showing signs of his extraordinary genius. In 1935, at age 17, he took a job as a Fuller Brush Co. salesman, and in his first summer outsold every other Fuller salesman in the Carolinas — including the district manager.

He had an extraordinary power to persuade others, and he might have spent his life selling brushes or Buicks or bowling balls had not a hellfire-and-damnation preacher, one Mordechai Ham, begun a three-month tent revival meeting in Charlotte that summer.

Billy went mostly to please his mother, dragging along a friend; the two youths sat deep in the crowd of 5,000, far from the podium and, they hoped, invisible.

Then, one night, the preacher seemed to point at him.

"You're a sinner!" he cried. Billy cringed. "Mother's been telling him about me," he thought.

Later, when the revivalist invited people to come forward for Jesus, Billy turned to his friend. "Let's go," he said.

"Right there I made my decision for Christ," he recalled years later. "It was as simple as that — and as conclusive. Have you ever been outdoors on a dark day when the sun suddenly bursts through the clouds? Deep inside, that's how I felt. The next day even the flowers and the leaves on the trees looked different. I was finding out for the first time the sweetness and joy of God, of being truly born again."

It was just such a transforming, religious sunburst moment that Mr. Graham would later seek to inspire in his millions of listeners.

Yet despite his youthful conversion — on the very day Billy Sunday died — years would pass before he overcame his discomfort with "preachering."

He turned down offers to play semipro baseball at $15 a game to enroll in fundamentalist Bob Jones College, then based in Cleveland, Tenn., but found it religiously "oppressive."

He transferred after a few months to the 75-student Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College), where he waited on tables, washed dishes, and fell in love with a devout coed.

They became unofficially engaged, but on the day of the annual class party she broke it off, telling him she had met a man who possessed all the qualities that the good-natured but irresponsible Billy seemed to lack. Her new love, she said, was going to become a minister.

Mr. Graham was crushed, but he began to study more diligently and started to write out sermons and practice them in a remote corner of the campus, standing on a stump, "preaching to the alligators" wallowing in the nearby Hillsboro River.

Invited in his senior year to visit a small Baptist church near Palatka, Fla., he gave an impromptu sermon that was such a hit, they invited him back to preach a revival, and then had to get a public-address speaker to handle the crowds.

There was a problem, though. Young Mr. Graham was still an Associate Reformed Presbyterian, his mother's denomination. Rumors spread that the "boy preacher" had never been baptized by immersion!

After "prayerful consideration," he decided to convert. On Dec. 4, 1938, he was baptized and received into the Southern Baptist church.

He went on to Wheaton College in Illinois, where he graduated with a degree in anthropology and met Ruth McCue Bell, daughter of China missionaries. They were wed after graduation in 1943 and would be together for 64 years, until her death in 2007 at age 87.

He accepted a pastorate at a Baptist church in Western Springs, Ill., a Chicago suburb, and the Grahams became parents of a daughter, Virginia, in 1945. (The Grahams would have four more children, Anne in 1948, Ruth in 1950, Franklin in 1952, and Nelson in 1958. There are 19 grandchildren and 41 great-grandchildren.)

It was during his Chicago period, in 1945, that Mr. Graham got a fateful phone call from an acquaintance, the Rev. Torrey Johnson, who asked him to take over his host slot on Songs in the Night, a Sunday gospel radio show.

Johnson had just launched Youth for Christ, an evangelical ministry targeted to servicemen and young people that attracted audiences to its revivals with big bands, horse acts, and emcees in zoot suits and bow ties that lit up.

Impressed with Mr. Graham's radio preaching, Johnson soon made him a vice president of Youth for Christ and, in 1946, sent him on a three-month mission across Britain and northern Europe.

But the brightest star at Youth for Christ in those days was the Rev. Charles Templeton, Mr. Graham's good friend and rival within the organization.

Templeton was "darkly handsome, intelligent, and intellectually curious," according to Martin's biography of Mr. Graham,  A Prophet With Honor, and he "could just preach fantastically."

In 1947, however, Templeton began having doubts about the literal truth of the Bible and the simple salvation message he preached so well.

In 1948, Templeton resigned from Youth for Christ and enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary. He urged Mr. Graham to join him, but his friend — newly named president of the fundamentalist Northwestern College in Minneapolis — declined.

Templeton's doubts grew at the seminary, but when he confided them to Mr. Graham, his old friend wanted no part.

"I haven't a good-enough mind to settle these questions," he told Templeton. "I don't have the time, the inclination, or the set of mind to pursue them. I have found that if I say, 'The Bible says,' and 'God says,' I get results."

Templeton would not be put off so easily.

"Not to think is to sin against your Creator," he replied. "You can't stop thinking. That's intellectual suicide."

Mr. Graham was "stung" by Templeton's words, according to Martin. Weeks later, at a retreat center in California, he went for a walk by himself, sat down on rock, lay a Bible out on a tree trunk, and prayed for guidance.

After much thought, he "finally made the pragmatic decision to abandon doubt and cling to commitment," and declared in prayer: "I accept this book by faith as the word of God."

Mr. Graham "valued the immediate satisfaction of packed auditoriums and crowded aisles … more than the less tangible pleasures of the life of the mind," Martin concluded.

Templeton agreed. "Billy was not interested in the scholarly side of things," he once wrote. "He was not interested in reaching for conceptual or intellectual horizons."

‘Fateful decision’

Mr. Graham's "fateful decision" to accept the Bible literally may trouble intellectuals, New York Times columnist Tom Wicker observed in 1991, but it was the "foundation of a career" that would dominate evangelical Christianity for half a century.

With his mind and path clear, Mr. Graham in 1948 joined forces with gospel singers George Beverly Shea and Cliff Barrows; together they began conducting revival meetings at local churches.

Prompted by early successes they expanded their circuit, and in 1949 took the revival to Los Angeles. Instead of drawing 2,000 or 3,000 listeners a day, as expected, he attracted crowds that nightly surpassed 10,000 for five weeks.

Those impressive numbers caught the attention of William Randolph Hearst, the hugely influential publisher of Hearst Newspapers, who liked what he saw.

Hearst sent a two-word telegram to all the editors in his vast newspaper chain. "Puff Graham," it read.

And tout him they did. Reporters assigned to Mr. Graham told what a flashy dresser he was, and photographers caught him behind the wheel of a convertible. He was hip, he was handsome, he was sincere, and his reputation soared. Look magazine called him "God's Ball of Fire."

Mr. Graham quickly got a taste of fame's underside, however.

After a successful revival in Atlanta in 1950, the Atlanta Constitution ran a photo of ushers counting out the $16,000 "love offering" the rally had raised.

Though there was no impropriety, he was embarrassed enough to establish the Minneapolis-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and ever since has donated all royalties from his speaking and publishing — with the exception of his books — to the association.

The association, which receives donations of about $75 million annually, trains evangelists, operates the national "Hour of Decision" radio show, publishes books and magazines, and sponsors revival meetings.

His avoidance of sexual scandal was the result of similar precautions. Because of the ever-present "chance of misunderstanding," he made it a rule early in his career to never ride in a car, eat in a restaurant, or be in a room alone with a woman other than his wife.

Early in that decade he also created a film company, World Wide Pictures; began Decision magazine, with a current circulation of more than two million. He also launched his weekly radio program, The Hour of Decision,  which was heard on more than 700 stations in North America until it ended in 2016.

The Rev. Billy Graham preaches to a crowd at Convention Hall in Philadelphia on the 50th anniversary of the American Baptist Convention on June 3, 1957.
AP
The Rev. Billy Graham preaches to a crowd at Convention Hall in Philadelphia on the 50th anniversary of the American Baptist Convention on June 3, 1957.

Philadelphia crusades

After a 16-week rally at New York's Yankee Stadium in 1957 that drew 2.4 million, he settled into a pattern of three to five major crusades a year.

He took a crusade into Philadelphia for the first time in 1961, where he spent four weeks at Convention Hall, Connie Mack Stadium and Philadelphia Stadium, preaching an apocalyptic message to a total audience of 630,000.

"I have never seen such gloom, such pessimism, as today. We are like the people of Noah's Day — laughing and drinking and making merry. The flood is about to descend," he warned, and urged his listeners to get right with Jesus.

In a 1967 visit, he told an interviewer that "the message of the evangelist is a very narrow message. I must tell the people about God and his love and his mercy," and the need to repent.

Back for his second and final Philadelphia crusade in June 1992, Mr. Graham preached in torrential rain and sweltering heat for five nights before 200,000 at Veterans Stadium, sometimes in his shirtsleeves.

"You and I have a disease," he told the crowd one night. "It's called sin. Satan wants you to believe that your problems are too big to solve. But Christ loves you."

He warned of the Second Coming, which seemed imminent, he said, in light of all the biblical prophecies that had been fulfilled in recent times: earthquakes, the pestilence of AIDS; false prophets. He urged his listeners to "come together in Christ."

He also recalled the story of a boy who saw his grandmother reading the Bible and remarked: "She's getting ready for her finals." He told his audience to start preparing for their finals, too.

"Why did God choose you" for so large a role? Mr. Graham was once asked.

"When I get to heaven," he replied, "that's the first question I'm going to ask him."

This article includes information from the Associated Press.