She was the wife of the legendary Billy Graham, but very few people knew of Ruth Graham's impact on his ministry (including me) until her death last week. Ironically, I found out so much of this woman's life while covering the news story of her death — how her strength, strong will, and above all, faith, shaped Billy Graham's life and the power and pervasiveness of his message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Ruth McCue Bell was born in 1920 in Qingjiang, Jiangsu, China, to medical missionary parents. One of her bios reads, "She was an unusually spiritual child, who cultivated a deep faith in God as well as a strong desire to serve Him once she became of age." As a child, one night she prayed to God to make her a martyr. At the funeral services last Saturday, her older sister Rosa Montgomery told a more complete version of that story: while Ruth was praying, Rosa was also praying, telling God, "Don't listen to her she's just a child."
When she was 13, Ruth's parents sent her to a boarding school in Pyongyang, now part of North Korea. She became terribly homesick and began to write in her journal and pen poetry as a way of expressing the longings and sadness of her heart. But she also developed a strength and fortitude there that would not have happened otherwise. It was this time in the boarding school that forged a deeper faith and self-will.
At 17, she came to the U.S. with her family and later entered Wheaton College in Illinois where she met a very lanky Billy Graham. He was tall, handsome and had a burning in his heart to preach the Gospel. They were married in 1943 and had five children.
That, of course, is the biographical information on Ruth Graham, but the woman herself exceeds the boundaries of mere words or opinions. She was quite amazing. Although she seemed like a docile and quiet wife compared to her fire and brimstone preacher husband, Ruth Graham had a feistiness that could match his or anyone else's. But her greatest fire burned not for her husband, the world-renowned and legendary evangelist Billy Graham, but for her relationship with Jesus Christ. And it was that relationship that made her marriage strong, the ministry sustaining, and her mothering a passionate mixture of love and discipline.
Her daughter, Ann Graham Lotz, wrote in a statement on the death of her mother: "My mother's legacy in my life runs very deep ... and wide. When I think of my mother, I think of her sparkling eyes — she just loved life. She was full of fun, opinions, and a zest for living that was evident until her last breath ... her arms always outstretched to welcome me into her presence with unconditional love."
Two weeks ago, the Billy Graham Library opened in Charlotte, N.C. Throughout the museum are pictures and anecdotes of the Billy Graham ministry, his brood of five children at various ages and also Ruth. The bookstore is named "Ruth's Attic," and a section of the museum is a remake of their living room, a favorite part of the museum for Billy Graham. It may seem odd that a living room would be the most treasured part of a museum devoted to a ministry that spanned the four corners of the world, but then maybe not. The old axiom, "The home is where the heart is," speaks volumes of the commitment of the Grahams to family and to God. Billy Graham may have done the preaching, but Ruth Graham was his No. 1 adviser and critic, his companion and confident, lover and friend. They were married for nearly 64 years. He said,"Ruth was my life partner, and we were called by God as a team. No one could have borne the load that she carried." It was G.K. Chesterton that remarked that to destroy a nation you must first break down the family.
Ruth and Billy Graham showed the world how to live a life devoted to God and to family. It was in fact their devotion to their faith that made their strong family bonds possible. The most heart wrenching moment was watching Billy Graham at the end of the funeral, surrounded by his five children and 19 grandchildren, but still longing for his wife who lay in a simple pine coffin. No longer was he America's Pastor, but a loving husband whose wife of six decades had died. Very few of us will understand the depth of that grief. With marriages ending at the slight hint of trouble ... or with couples never bothering to make that life-long commitment, the grief that a husband feels after the loss of someone who shared their most intimate moments, is nearly inconceivable in this age of no fault divorce.
I have only an inkling of that feeling from when my father died. My parents had been married for nearly 52 years. My mother said she'd rather have someone cut off her arm than to lose my dad. The intensity of the grief makes the surviving partner long for death as the only antidote to the pain.
Ruth and Billy Graham were a fine example of how marriage was lived out in practice. Ann Graham Lotz remembered her mother’s words: "A good marriage is made of two good forgivers." Such simplicity about life is brilliant. But like all simple ideas, they're difficult to live out. It always reminds me of that line from the movie "Urban Cowboy," when John Travolta's uncle says to him, "I thank God everyday for giving me a neck big to swallow my pride." Forgiveness requires you to say "I'm sorry" even when your heart wants to lash out. Forgiveness by its definition is self-imposed suffering.
Recently I interviewed David Blankenhorn, author of the books, "The Future of Marriage," and "Fatherless America." Blankenhorn's a liberal Democrat, but in the area of family and fatherhood, he sounds like the most conservative in the land. He says the most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother. He also said that the thing children want most is to be raised in a loving home by the two people who brought them into the world. Because we live in a very individualistic, me-centered culture, we've mistakenly defined marriage as an institution for adults' happiness. Obviously, many people aren't finding happiness in marriage since today's divorce rate is so high. But another reason marriage cannot survive under that premise is because human beings were not born to be saviors. Human beings are not built to withstand the weight of another human being's soul. It would be like a Mack truck driving over a footbridge. It cannot sustain it. The footbridge will break. The marriage breaks because one person didn't live up to the tacit understanding that they would make the other person happy. All human beings are faulted. And the purpose of marriage, from a religious standpoint, is mutual ministry.
Billy Graham preached and also lived by his words, saying that the only being that can sustain the weightiness of the human soul is God. I beleive that is the reason why Graham spoke of fostering a relationship first with God through Jesus Christ. Ruth Graham believed and preached the same. For more than 60 years, their marriage was built on the solid foundation of their devotion to the will of God. And for 60 years, they showed others how to live out the Gospel under the promises of eternal life.
Ruth and Billy Graham had showed the world how to live in faith. And now Billy Graham must show the world how to live with death, under that same faith. In his book, “Hope For A Troubled Heart,” he wrote, "We cannot avoid suffering, but we can determine our response to it."
Billy Graham said soon after the funeral that the intensity of his great loss is beginning to settle in. And now he looks forward to the day when he can join his beloved Ruth in heaven.
Lauren Green serves as a religion correspondent for the FOX News Channel. Prior to this, Green served as a news anchor for “Fox and Friends,” where she provided daily news updates and covered arts for the network. You can read her complete bio here.
Lauren Green currently serves as Fox News Channel's (FNC) chief religion correspondent based in the New York bureau. She joined FNC in 1996. Her new book is "Lighthouse Faith: God as a Living Reality in a World Immersed in Fog."