CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Billy Graham, the Protestant preacher known as “America’s pastor,” is being remembered at a funeral Friday under a large white tent evoking his first “Canvas Cathedral” revival nearly 70 years ago.
More than 2,000 people are attending the private service in Charlotte for Graham, who was 99 when he died last week at his home in Montreat, North Carolina. Among the guests are President Donald Trump, the first lady and Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen.
Graham’s sister, Jean Ford, spoke of their religious upbringing.
“We learned hard work, we learned to love the Lord, we learned to pray, we learned to love the Scriptures, and that has never left any of us,” Ford said.
Graham’s longtime pastor, Donald J. Wilton of First Baptist Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, spoke of Graham’s deep belief in biblical truths.
“He loved the Bible,” Wilton said. “It governed how he lived, and it governed how he died.”
After the service at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, the globe-trotting preacher and spiritual confidant to American presidents will be buried beside his wife, Ruth, at the foot of the cross-shaped brick walkway in the library’s Prayer Garden.
The noontime service, in many ways Graham's final crusade, is being streamed live.
"It was Mr. Graham's explicit intent that his funeral service reflect and reinforce the gospel message he preached for more than 60 years," said Mark DeMoss, a spokesman for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
The service comes after Trump and high-profile Washington leaders praised Graham this week at the US Capitol Rotunda. The influential minister became only the fourth person to lie in honor there.
Graham's eldest son, Franklin, who now runs the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, was to deliver a funeral message Friday in addition to sister Ford, Graham's son Nelson and daughters Virginia Graham Tchividjian, Anne Graham Lotz and Ruth Graham McIntyre.
David Bruce, his executive assistant for more than two decades, was also to speak at the burial.
A guiding light to generations of American evangelicals, Graham is said to have converted millions to Christianity. He evangelized to nearly 215 million people over six decades and prayed alongside US presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.
US leaders who relied on the spiritual counsel of the man some called the "Protestant pope" included Lyndon B. Johnson, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Converting millions to Christianity
During his life, Graham reportedly persuaded more than 3 million people to commit their lives to Christianity. His preaching reached 185 of the world's 195 countries, according to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
News of Graham's February 21 death elicited remembrances from Trump, Pence, former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush and many others.
Graham is credited with bringing the gospel message of tent-revival preachers into the modern media age by employing everything from telegrams to telephones to the internet in his lifelong quest to "win souls for Christ."
Along the way, he avoided the types of public scandals that befell other prominent preachers.
His missionary work began in 1944 at rallies for the Youth for Christ Campus Life ministry. Within a few years, he held the first of his famous tent crusades in downtown Los Angeles, where 350,000 people heard him preach over eight weeks. Those who heeded his message of salvation under the "Canvas Cathedral" included a radio disc jockey, a small-time mobster and an Olympic athlete.
Graham founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1950, launching a global ministry that even attracted followers from liberal Protestant congregations and Catholic parishes.
The preacher eventually took his crusades -- a mix of hymns, preaching and patriotic fervor -- to more than 80 countries, according to William Martin, a former historian at Rice University and the author of "A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story."
His "last crusade" in June 2005 in Queens, New York, drew 230,000 people.
Graham also delivered his message via a weekly Sunday radio program called "The Hour of Decision" and wrote an advice column, "My Answer." In 1956, he founded the magazine Christianity Today, a leading evangelical publication.
Born into a farming life
William Franklin Graham Jr. was born November 7, 1918. He was raised on a dairy farm near Charlotte. He said he made a personal commitment to God in 1934 after hearing an evangelist preach.
He graduated in 1940 from the Florida Bible Institute, now Trinity College. Graham was ordained that year by a Southern Baptist church in Florida.
Graham graduated in 1943 with a bachelor's degree in anthropology from Wheaton College in Illinois, where he met Ruth Bell, his future wife. She was the daughter of the Southern Presbyterian missionary and surgeon L. Nelson Bell.
The couple married in 1943 and later moved to Montreat. They had five children.
"I don't think I could have ever married anybody that would have been more helpful to my work and ministry than she has been," he told Larry King on CNN in 2005.
Ruth died in 2007 at the couple's home in Montreat.
"Ruth was my life partner, and we were called by God as a team," Graham said in her obituary. "No one else could have borne the load that she carried."
The pulpit brought him great political influence. He urged Dwight Eisenhower to run for president in 1952 and was an unofficial adviser to the former general after he was elected. He also became close friends with President Lyndon Johnson and preached at the former president's funeral. President George W. Bush credits Graham for his transformation as a serious and committed evangelical.
But one political connection tarnished a largely scandal-free life. His association with President Richard Nixon led to embarrassment in March 2002. At the time, tapes of private conversations revealed the evangelist joining the President in making anti-Semitic remarks. Graham apologized.
While some critics have said Graham was not active enough during the civil rights movement, the preacher was credited with taking down ropes that separated blacks and whites during crusades in the early 1950s, according to historian Martin and Cliff Barrows, Graham's longtime music and program director for the evangelistic association.
During a crusade at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1957, Graham asked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to deliver a prayer.
After Friday's service, Graham's pine plywood casket -- which was crafted by Louisiana prison inmates -- will be lowered into the ground next to his wife's grave. The couple had agreed to be buried side by side.