Thousands remember the life of Billy Graham at the evangelist’s funeral
Family and friends celebrated the life of Billy Graham in a memorial service on the campus of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina, on March 2. Described as Graham’s final crusade, the ceremony focused on the message that marked the evangelist’s life and ministry as the defining figure of 20th century American evangelicalism.
The service was held in a modern-day “Canvas Cathedral,” a 28,000 square-foot tent similar to the one used during Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles crusade, the event that propelled him to national prominence.
Approximately 2,300 guests attended the private service, including Christian leaders and dignitaries from 50 countries. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, joined by their wives, were seated on the front row.
Graham was passionate about sharing the gospel with as many people as possible, so his funeral was a fitting conclusion to a ministry that shaped evangelical Christianity, according to Adam W. Greenway, the Dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The school is the only of its kind allowed to carry the late evangelist’s name. Greenway reflected on the funeral’s intentional focus on Graham’s message.
“Most importantly the clear center of the funeral was not the man Billy Graham but the message he so faithfully proclaimed for decades: God's love, our sin, Christ's atonement, and the necessity of a personal response to the gospel,” said Greenway.” I am confident that Dr. Graham would have been pleased with what happened today, because it wasn't really about him, it was about him."
Graham’s son Franklin delivered the eulogy to the thousands in attendance and millions watching via television and online live stream, and the theme of heaven featured prominently.
“My father preached on heaven, told millions how to find heaven, and wrote a book on heaven. Today he is in heaven. His journey is complete.
“Most of his life was spent travelling the world, but the last week he embarked on the journey he had been looking forward to all of his life — the journey from earth to heaven.”
Franklin shared the gospel during his sermon — the same gospel his father preached at crusades around the world to an estimated 215 million people in 185 countries — the most by any single person. After reading John 3:16, Franklin observed, “This verse was probably in every message my father ever preached because it demonstrates the love of God.”
Quoting Ephesians 2:8-9 and John 14:6, Franklin explained that “Jesus is the only one in history to take our sins and pay the debt of sin. And my father would want me to share this with you today — that God sent his Son, his only Son from heaven to this earth to take our sins. ... He shed his blood for each and every one of you and when he hung on the cross God poured out the sins of mankind on his Son … He was buried for our sins, and on the third day God raised his Son to life. Jesus is not dead. He is alive, and he is here today.”
Like his father had done for decades, Franklin extended an invitation for people to pray and receive Jesus Christ as their Savior. “If we repent of our sins and by faith believe on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Bible says we will be saved,” Franklin explained. “Are you saved? Are you forgiven? Are you trusting Jesus as your Savior?”
“If you’re not sure,” Franklin urged, “There would be no better time than right now at Billy Graham’s funeral to settle this once and for eternity.
Billy Graham had planned most of the funeral details himself several years before with longtime friends and ministry partners Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea. Graham planned the hymns and Bible verses and wanted Barrows, his longtime music director, to lead the music and Shea to sing. However, Barrows died in 2016 at 93 and Shea in 2013 at 104. Their absence was the only missing part from a service that included worship music and tributes from family members and friends who reflected on Graham’s message and legacy.
In remarks preceding her brother’s, Anne Graham Lotz also observed the significance of the Bible in her father’s life. She described how as a young girl her father and mother would read and explain Bible passages to her and her siblings. In recent years, as her father’s eyesight faded, Lotz said he would ask her to read Scripture to him. “He loved to hear God’s Word,” she said.
She read from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, a passage which speaks of the Christian hope in resurrection. In his letter, Paul writes that Christians can be comforted by the promise of Christ’s return.
“This is the comfort — there is hope for tomorrow,” Lotz said. “This life is not all there is, the best is yet to come.”
Jean Graham Ford, 84, Graham’s only surviving sibling, also spoke. She explained that her brother’s lifelong love for the Bible was instilled in him by their parents at an early age.
“We learned to love the Lord,” she said. “We learned to love the Scriptures. That’s never left us.”
Ministry leaders attending the funeral offered high praise and gratitude for the world’s most recognized and admired evangelist. California pastor, Rick Warren, who was mentored by Graham, praised his mentor’s integrity, and Joni Earekson Tada, founder of Joni and Friends International Disability Center, said Graham’s primary focus was always the gospel.
James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, noted Graham’s commitment to preaching about the cross, Jesus’ love for people, and his sacrifice for sin. “Who knows how many people will be in heaven because of that wonderful message?” Dobson said.
Many leaders swapped memories with each other of meeting Graham and stories about attending their first crusade. Jerry Falwell Jr., current president of Liberty University, recalled attending his first crusade with his father, the late Jerry Falwell who founded Liberty. Falwell said he was “honored” to attend the funeral and counts members of the Graham family as close friends.
Graham’s funeral concluded a week of mourning that included a rare memorial service in the United States Capitol Rotunda, where the evangelist became only the fourth private citizen to lie in honor. Known as the “pastor to presidents,” Graham served as a confidant to several U.S. presidents — he met and prayed with every sitting president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. When his death was announced last week, every living former president offered a public statement of condolence to the Graham family.
Earlier in the week, former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton traveled to Charlotte to pay their respects at a closed-casket viewing. During his visit on Monday, Bush said, “If there’s such a thing as a humble shepherd of the Lord, Billy Graham is that person.” Similarly, Clinton remarked, “I think he was a profoundly good man who conveyed simple beliefs — that we can claim kinship with God by asking. He showed his faith by his works and by his life.”
In addition to President Donald Trump and Vice President Pence, several political figures attended the funeral, including former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin; former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani; Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson; Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr; Representatives Robert Pittenger and Alma Adams; former North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory and current North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper.
Politicians were joined by a host of evangelical Christian leaders, including many of the most influential ministry and denominational leaders of the previous and current centuries. Leaders like Charles Stanley, John Hagee, Jim Bakker, Joel Osteen, Max Lucado, Rick Warren, David Jeremiah, Ravi Zacharias, Greg Laurie, Beth Moore, and Louie Giglio — along with Falwell Jr., Dobson, and Eareckson Tada.
Leaders from the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination Billy Graham was a member of throughout his life, were also present. These included Pastors Robert Jeffress, Ronnie Floyd, Steve Gaines, Jack Graham, and Jonathan Falwell as well as denominational leaders Frank Page, Paige Patterson, Daniel Akin, Chuck Kelley, Richard Land, and Greenway.
One hundred international delegates representing 50 countries were also present, along with representatives from the Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, representing the Vatican, said Billy Graham epitomized “what’s best in American Christianity.”
On the remarkable turnout of major political and religious figures, Greenway remarked: “I’m confident that such an august gathering of major Christian leaders interspersed with American politicians will never occur again in my lifetime — clearly a testament to Graham's appeal and approach.”
Following the funeral service, Graham was laid to rest next to his wife of 63 years, Ruth Bell Graham, in a prayer garden on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library. His casket, fashioned from plywood, was made by an inmate serving a life term at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
Family members placed white roses on his casket at the conclusion of a private interment ceremony led by Donald Wilton, pastor of First Baptist Church Spartanburg, who served as Graham’s personal pastor in recent years.
Preceded by his wife, Ruth, the couple is survived by five children, 19 grandchildren, 44 great-grandchildren, and six great-great-grandchildren.