Billy Graham’s funeral marks the celebration of a man whose impact is incalculable. This was a man who spoke to 215 million people, wrote dozens of books, founded the influential Lausanne Movement, counseled thirteen United States Presidents, and led the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in his lifetime. He no doubt should be recognized for the great man that he was. But as we reflect on his life, we would be remiss if we didn’t take the time to recognize his partner in all of his accomplishments: his loving wife of over 60 years, Ruth Bell Graham.
The cliché goes “behind every great man is a great woman.” In Billy Graham’s case, this is certainly true.
As the world knew Billy Graham for his packed crusades and gospel preaching, fewer knew of Ruth Bell Graham’s equally important role in crafting the Graham family legacy.
Ruth Bell Graham: A Legacy of Loyalty
Ruth was born in China to missionary parents Dr. Nelson and Virginia Bell. Growing up with missionary parents, Ruth developed her own love for foreign missionary work and felt a deep sense of calling to move to the largely unreached nation of Tibet.
Before pursuing her calling as a missionary, Ruth attended Wheaton College in Illinois. While there, her life and calling would forever be changed after meeting a young man with a passion for preaching. That man was her future husband, Billy Graham. When Ruth and Billy fell in love, Ruth had to decide what to do with her conflicting desires. She wanted to marry Billy, but he had no plans to become a foreign missionary.
Ruth ultimately set aside her fears and confusion, married Billy, and trusted God to work out their mutual calling. Neither of them had any idea that her heart for the world and his heart for preaching would end up serving them well in their future ministry together. Ruth chose to be loyal to her soul mate, and she worked alongside him in ministry for 43 years.
In those 43 years, Ruth may not have been the one on stage, on air, or on television – but her ministry and legacy is equally as important. Former president of Wheaton College Dr. Duane Litfin once remarked, “Strong, steady, and dauntless, Ruth Bell Graham was the glue that held the many of the parts of their lives together.”
Because of her faithfulness to God, Ruth not only had part in making Billy’s ministry possible, she was a spiritual encourager to her husband. Rev. Graham explained, “I have been asked the question, ‘Who do you go to for counsel, for spiritual guidance?’ My answer: my wife, Ruth. She is a great student of the Bible.” God used Ruth to minister to America’s minister.
She also greatly invested in their children as she stayed home during much of Billy’s travels. Investing in her children would prove to make an impact that still lives on today as many of them have ended up working at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, starting their own ministries, speaking, writing, and serving the Lord in various ways. Her impact lives on in her children and grandchildren. What a legacy!
A different interpretation
While reflecting on this incredible woman and the faith legacy that she has left behind, I couldn’t help but wonder how our culture might view this fiercely loyal woman. I fear those who hold up the banner of “feminism” would be forced to deny any claim that Ruth Graham’s life is an example for other women.
Ruth, after all, largely set aside her dream of being a missionary in Tibet in order to get married and support her husband’s calling. She also stayed home and raised children while her husband’s career in ministry skyrocketed. These life choices are likely to be criticized by those who speak on behalf of women in the feminist movement.
A simple Google search of the word “feminism” shows the dictionary definition as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.” This sounds like something nearly everyone should agree upon, right? Yet, when we see feminism played out in American culture, it often translates into a very narrowly defined set of life choices. In order to be “pro-woman”, our culture would say a person must be pro-choice, pro-career outside of the home, and downplay the value of having and raising children.
With that understanding of what it means to be feminist, those who claim it’s view would have to look at Ruth Graham’s life as a failure.
Thankfully, because truth found in scripture, we can recognize Ruth’s life for what it was: A life that created a lasting legacy; a life that truly outlived itself.
As people of faith, our perspective should be shaped by what the Bible teaches, not what our culture claims. And while we must give complete ownership to God for the success of Billy and Ruth Graham’s influence, we can recognize that He chose to work through Ruth and her partnership with Billy to accomplish great Kingdom impact.
As we rightly reflect on Billy Graham’s incredible impact in our world, I am deeply grateful for the faithful witness of Ruth Bell Graham who loyally served alongside Billy to accomplish God’s calling for their family. She may not be recognized by feminists today, but in God’s kingdom – she was a faithful servant.
In my forthcoming book Only One Life, I’ve written about Ruth Bell Graham, and many other women like her who choose to daily surrender their lives to God. Through seemingly small offerings of faithfulness, God has used women to bring about great change in the world.
How will you shape your choices today to shape an eternal legacy?