Remembering Ruth Bell Graham

Mornings were chaos. “Four full-blooded little Grahams,” the young mother wrote in her journal. “ I feel this a.m. it’s gotten quite beyond me. They fight, they yell, they answer back. Breakfast is dreadful ... Now they’ve gone off to school looking nice enough (for once) and with a good breakfast but with the scrappiest of family prayers ... Grumbling, interrupting, slurring one another, impudent to me. So now they’re off, I’m in bed with my Bible thinking it through—or rather, trying to.”

Ruth Bell Graham wrote this in 1957 while her husband Billy Graham was off crusading in New York City, a reminder that behind public lives—for no one has lived more publicly than Billy Graham—are extraordinary lives lived in private. The passage also makes the poignant point that with her death on June 14 at age 87, the Graham family has lost its heart. “I am so grateful to the Lord that He gave me Ruth,” Billy Graham said in a statement issued after her death. “Especially for these last few years ... We've rekindled the romance of our youth, and my love for her continued to grow deeper every day. I will miss her terribly, and look forward even more to the day I can join her in Heaven."

As the partner for 64 years of the world’s most famous evangelist, Ruth Graham traveled the world and befriended presidents and wives of presidents—she was especially close to Barbara Bush. She also raised five children more or less alone, worrying over their development, their homework and their prayers. Their first child, Gigi, was born while Billy was on the road, and in the years that followed, Ruth struggled with the loneliness and depression of a young mother with too little help and too much to do. To comfort herself, she wrote abundantly—poems, letters, journals—and she prayed. In an interview with NEWSWEEK last year, the Grahams’ daughter Anne remembers waking every morning and walking sleepily into her parents’ bedroom to find her mother alone and quiet at her big, flat-top desk, with Bibles open all around her, poring over a dozen different translations.

Born in 1920 in China to missionary parents, Ruth Bell’s own ambition to become a missionary was derailed when she met the young, blue-eyed Billy Graham on the campus of Illinois’s Wheaton College, where they were both students. After their first date, to a performance of Handel’s "Messiah," she got down on her knees in her bedroom and prayed to God: “If You let me serve You with that man, I’d consider it the greatest privilege in my life.”

They were married in August 1943. From the beginning, the marriage was what Billy Graham has called “happily incompatible,” full of tenderness and friction. Ruth’s role, as she saw it, was both to support and to challenge her ambitious, charismatic husband—and she did so unflinchingly. When their son Franklin was wearing his hair fashionably long in the 1970s, Ruth reminded the boy’s aghast father that hair was not a moral issue. When over lunch at the White House in 1964, Lyndon Johnson wanted Billy to help him choose a running mate, Ruth kicked her husband sharply under the table. “You should limit yourself to moral and spiritual advice,” she said, “not political advice.”

When Billy came home after a long trip and took over the job of saying the family prayers in the evenings, he would sometimes forget his audience and begin to sermonize—at those moments, Anne remembers, Ruth would put her head in her hands and say, “Bill, you’re just too long.” To Barbara Bush, Ruth Graham famously said that though she’d never considered divorce, she had considered murder.

Her tenderness is evident everywhere, too. In his autobiography, Billy recalls—at least twice—how Ruth trimmed their babies’ bassinettes with lace from her wedding veil, and he writes ruefully of all the time he spent on the road, time he might better have spent at home. In 1996, the couple received the Congressional Medal of Honor for work they did to improve health care for children in Appalachia (including a hospital in Asheville, N.C.), and Billy writes of how without his wife’s partnership and encouragement, his own work would have been impossible. Ruth herself was perhaps wiser and more prescient than her husband; she knew and embraced her role from the first. “Love without clinging,” she wrote in a 1947 poem: “cry—/ if you must—/ but privately cry; the heart will adjust to being the heart,/not the forefront of life.” Now that Billy Graham and his children have lost their heart, their many followers will join them in their tears.