I’ve been sitting here, watching a tape of last week’s memorial service for Ruth Bell Graham, who died June 14 at the age of 87. In one sense, she lived much of her life in the shadow of her husband, evangelist Billy Graham. But the more I read about her, the more I think that there are few women of the 20th century who made more of an impact for the Kingdom of God than Ruth.
Those who spoke at the service talked of her resourceful personality, her sense of humor, her love for her husband and family, her willingness to reach out and touch people from all levels of society, and above all her commitment to Christ.
Her famous husband, frail and barely able to walk, addressed the assembly and said, “She was an incredible woman. We were married for nearly 64 years. I wish you could look into the casket because she’s so beautiful. I sat there for a long time just looking at her and praying because I know she had a great reception in heaven.”
Franklin Graham told stories about his mother, including one about the time he slept in and locked his bedroom door so his mother couldn’t wake him. Her response was to climb over the roof and throw water on him through his open bedroom window.
Anne Graham Lotz, one of Ruth’s daughters, said, “She loved our daddy, and she taught us to love and adore him. But there was something in her life that was greater than her love for our daddy, and that was her love for Jesus and her love for God’s Word.”
And the Rev. Richard White, pastor of Montreat (N.C.) Presbyterian Church, remarked, “If you leave here today saying Ruth Graham was a great woman, you have missed the point of her life. The reason Ruth Graham is such a great woman is because she knew Jesus Christ, a great Savior. All of her life, her love, her sacrifices, being a great mother and friend to so many, that was labor prompted by love, the love of Jesus Christ.”
Of all the stories I’ve read about Ruth in the last few days, I am drawn to the one about her years at Wheaton College and her decision to marry Billy Graham. Ruth grew up in China as the daughter of missionaries, and she had planned to become a missionary herself. After Billy proposed, she eventually decided that God was calling her to a different path—to set aside her own personal goals to become Billy’s wife. And once she recognized God’s will for her, she poured herself whole-heartedly into supporting her husband, raising their children (often alone, as he would frequently leave for weeks and even months at a time for his worldwide crusades), and looking for ways to love others with the love of her Savior.
It is interesting to read modern writers discuss this decision made back in 1941, as if it was quaint and old-fashioned, and perhaps a bit tragic. How many modern women, they say, would make the same choice? One writer for the Washington Post wrote, “What a sign of those times, one might say. Or, how sad. The world will never know what else Ruth Graham … could have accomplished had she not been Billy Graham’s ‘helpmeet,’ as her friend June Carter Cash once described the wifely role.”
Two thoughts come to my mind.
First, any successful marriage will require each person to give up something in order to gain something far more precious. Perhaps one of the major reasons so many marriages fail today is that people are increasingly unwilling to give up any of their desires and ambitions to love and serve their spouse (Philippians 2:1-11).
Second, God often calls people to set aside their own plans in order to follow Him … and then He uses them in greater ways as a result. That is certainly the case with Ruth Bell Graham. When God put those two people together, He created an incredible partnership in which each person made the other stronger and more effective in reaching people for Christ. Ruth, for example, was put in a position where all her gifts—for writing, for raising children, for influencing others—could flourish. God used her in ways she could never have imagined.
And then, when you read through many of the articles and remembrances that appeared in the media after her death, you realize that an essential element of Billy Graham’s impact was the result of God giving him a wife who provided love, counsel, and spiritual guidance—a true partner who gave him a secure home life and retreat.
As Dr. Robert Schuller, pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California, said: “I think Ruth Graham is the most powerful woman of the 20th century. Not one of the most, but the most powerful woman, because Billy Graham’s ministry is unmatched in history and she was the woman behind his success.”