Pastor Billy Graham is laid to rest as Donald Trump, Mike Pence and 2,000 others watch on

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 March, 2018, 5:55am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 March, 2018, 8:29am

The Reverend Billy Graham was laid to rest on Friday, his funeral attended by political and religious figures including US President Donald Trump and his vice-president, Mike Pence. 

The two US leaders made a rare double appearance for the event, but did not speak, instead leaving it to Graham’s adult children – all speakers or preachers in their own right – to remember ‘America’s Pastor’. 

“The Billy Graham that the world saw on television, the Billy Graham that the world saw in the big stadiums, was the same Billy Graham that we saw at home. There weren’t two Billy Grahams,” said son Franklin Graham.

“He loved his family. He stood by us. He comforted us.”

Billy Graham died February 21 aged 99, after a lifetime spent preaching and advising presidents.

His children recalled being taught by their parents how to read Scripture aloud and deliver sermons – but also taking quiet walks with their father and feeling his embrace even when they made mistakes.

Franklin Graham, who delivered the main funeral message, said all of those qualities were part of the whole.

His message, which included a Gospel call to repentance and salvation, followed shorter remarks by his siblings in a service that lasted just over an hour before an invitation-only crowd of around 2,000.

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“I believe, from Heaven’s perspective, that my father’s death is as significant as his life. And his life was very significant. But I think when he died, that was something very strategic from Heaven’s point of view,” said his daughter Anne Graham Lotz.

She later added: “I believe God is saying: ‘Wake up church! Wake up world!’”

Although they did not speak at the event, Trump and Pence both met with Graham’s family before the funeral. 

Graham’s sister Jean Ford, 85, eulogised her brother soon after a private meeting with the politicians at the Billy Graham Library, where Graham will be buried.

Ford said that Trump had told her, “Your family has good genes.”

“He didn’t know that my name was Jean,” she joked.

On Wednesday, Trump had spoken briefly at a ceremony honouring Graham, telling the story of his father taking him to hear Graham preach at Yankee Stadium in 1957. 

“And it was something very special,” Trump said. “But Americans came in droves to hear that great young preacher. Fred Trump was a big fan. Fred Trump was my father.”

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The funeral served as a Billy Graham crusade told through his children. Lotz read Scripture, inserting her name into the passages to make her relationship with God more personal and breaking it down intellectually, like her father. 

Youngest daughter Ruth told about how she sinned and didn’t listen to her father with a hasty marriage, but he was waiting for her with open arms when she realised her mistake.

And oldest son Franklin, now CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, wrapped up with his father’s central theme: that the only path to salvation is to accept Jesus Christ.

While Franklin Graham steered clear of politics during his message, the Trumps and Pences were the first guests he welcomed as he began.

And his invitation to be saved by Jesus contained this barb: “The world, with all of its political correctness, would want you to believe that there are many roads to God. It’s just not true.”

Like Graham’s famous crusades, the funeral featured singers who had shared his stage in years past: Linda McCrary-Fisher, Michael W. Smith and the Gaither Vocal Band.

The line-up of clergy and singers from as near as North Carolina and as far away as Asia, was racially diverse – more so the mostly white audience.

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Other notable guests included television host Kathie Lee Gifford, musician Ricky Skaggs, evangelist Rick Warren and politician Rudy Giuliani. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper attended, as did his predecessor Pat McCrory.

Graham was being buried next to his wife in a memorial prayer garden at the library, with his grandchildren serving as pallbearers.

His pine plywood casket was made by inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The grave marker reads: “Preacher of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Friday’s goodbye also emphasised the message that only Graham’s earthly journey has come to an end, a point underscored by Franklin Graham as he stood behind the same pulpit his father used in the 1990s.

Graham recalled one of his father’s frequent sayings that people shouldn’t believe it when they hear the famous evangelist had died: “He said: ‘I’ll be more alive than I am now. I’ll have just changed addresses, that’s all.’”

Billy Graham met or prayed with every president from Harry Truman onwards. Ronald Reagan presented Graham with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

None of the five living former presidents accepted invitations to attend the funeral, although Bill Clinton and George W. Bush came to the Billy Graham Library to pay their respects.

In 2007, Clinton, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush attended the library’s dedication.

Among the statements issued by former presidents, one from George H.W. Bush noted Graham’s role as an adviser not only to presidents but also to their families.

“I was privileged to have him as a personal friend,” Bush wrote. “He was a mentor to several of my children, including the former president of the United States. We will miss our good friend forever.”

The younger Bush credited a talk with Graham with helping him quit drinking.

“God’s work within me began in earnest with Billy’s outreach,” Bush wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published two days after Graham’s death. “I couldn’t have given up alcohol on my own.”

“But in 1986, at 40, I finally found the strength to quit,” Bush wrote. “That strength came from love I had felt from my earliest days and from faith I didn’t fully discover until my later years.”

Graham said later in his life that he should have steered clear of politics.

After tapes came out in 2002 revealing he and President Richard M. Nixon had shared anti-Semitic views, Graham acknowledged weeping and vomiting.

The appearance of Trump and Pence at the funeral was unusual, as the two men do not often appear together outside the White House.

Their decision to jointly honour the most influential American evangelical leader is partly a marker of the importance of evangelical political support for both men.

Exit polls showed that about 80 per cent of white evangelical voters voted for the Trump-Pence ticket – the largest vote for a Republican presidential candidate since 2004, when such voters overwhelmingly chose President George W. Bush by a margin of 78 per cent to 21 per cent.

White evangelicals are the religious group that most identifies with the Republican Party, and they were a mainstay of Pence’s support as an Indiana politician. 

Pence’s selection as his running mate is credited with helping solidify evangelical support for Trump, a self-proclaimed Christian who had not expressed strong religious views.