Everyone who knew Ruth Bell Graham knew that she loved Jesus and she loved people. In her writing, speaking and simple acts of kindness—to neighbors, friends and anyone who needed a lift—she demonstrated the grace and mercy of the Savior she first met when she was a little girl in China.
Happy Christians, Ruth once said, were a part of her heritage. Her parents, Dr. Nelson and Virginia Bell, were medical missionaries at Love and Mercy Hospital in Tsingkiangpu, China, in the difficult years from 1916 until World War II began.
Ruth, their second-oldest child, was born June 10, 1920. She and her siblings, Rosa, Virginia and Clayton, learned the basics of Christian faith early through their parents’ example of daily prayer and Bible study, in addition to family prayers before breakfast each morning. Ruth could not remember a morning that her father was not reading his Bible or kneeling in prayer when she got up.
The Bell children grew up hearing stories of martyrdom and sacrifice among missionaries and Chinese believers. These testimonies affected Ruth deeply, and Rosa often heard her little sister praying that she would die as a martyr for Christ before the year ended. Rosa, the more practical of the two, thought the prayer dreadful and followed with one of her own: “Lord, don’t pay any attention to her!”
Despite her tendency to be dramatic, Ruth became best known for her tender heart. She had a menagerie of pets, including baby ducks and chicks, and even took some to bed with her at times. Every dead animal, pet or not, had to be given a funeral. This childhood tenderness toward the defenseless provided a glimpse of how she would later react to the spiritually lost and helpless around her.
A seeming injustice struck Ruth at 13. So that she would have the education she needed to return to the United States one day, her parents sent her to Pyeng Yang Foreign School in what is now Pyongyang, North Korea.
Quietly, so as not to disturb her roommates, Ruth cried with homesickness every night for weeks. Several days in the infirmary finally brought some comfort when, during a brief illness, she read all 150 psalms. It was the beginning of what she later called her boot camp. God used homesickness to teach her to find solace in His presence during what would be a lifetime of separations from loved ones.
Several months after graduating from high school, Ruth left China to attend Wheaton College on Oct. 22, 1937. Although her family would remain in China until 1941, it would be decades before Ruth returned to the land of her birth.
Ruth arrived safely at Wheaton and studied Bible and art. After growing up with air raids and bandits, she did not fully appreciate seemingly unnecessary rules such as curfew—until the dorm mother caught her climbing through a window, returning late from a Friday night date.
On Monday, the dean scolded her harshly and confined her to campus. Crushed, Ruth worried that she had disgraced her parents, but the faculty soon realized that the infraction stemmed from naiveté and lifted her sentence.
Ruth soon settled in, made friends and became popular with the boys. She did not attach herself to anyone in particular—until her second year, when a new student named Billy Graham flew past her on the stairs of East Blanchard Hall.
“He’s surely in a hurry,” she thought. She’d heard about this new student and his fiery preaching. That Sunday morning, she heard him praying during a prayer meeting.
“There is a man who knows to Whom he is speaking,” she thought.
Billy had heard about Ruth, too. His friend Johnny Streater had described her as one of the prettiest and most spiritual girls on campus. When Billy finally saw her, it was love at first sight.
The Greatest Privilege
After watching her from afar for a few weeks, Billy gathered his courage and asked Ruth to attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah. She accepted, and after the date she went back to her room and prayed, “Lord, if You’d let me serve You with that man, I’d consider it the greatest privilege of my life.”
Billy and Ruth continued dating and began talking about marriage, but one issue stood in the way: For years, Ruth had felt that God was calling her to be a missionary in Tibet. While Billy wasn’t opposed to becoming a missionary, he felt a strong calling to preach the Gospel as an evangelist. Ruth tried persuading him otherwise, but it caused more tension. Eventually, they took time apart to pray about the matter.
As Ruth told the story in her book, “It’s My Turn,” it was obvious that she was the one trying to give Billy a calling to Tibet—not God. Finally Billy turned to her and said, “Do you believe that God has brought us together?”
“In that case,” he replied, “God will lead me and you will do the following.” That pivotal conversation settled the issue, although Ruth believed strongly in the old saying, “When two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.” The following summer, while Billy was preaching at a church in Florida, he received a thick letter from Ruth, postmarked July 6, 1941. “I’ll marry you,” the first sentence read. An ecstatic Billy preached that evening, although afterward he didn’t know what he’d preached about. The pastor said he wasn’t sure anyone else knew, either. Billy and Ruth were married Aug. 13, 1943.
In January 1943, Billy accepted a call to pastor Western Springs Baptist Church, about 20 miles outside of Wheaton. He didn’t ask his bride-to-be what she thought of the idea, but Ruth didn’t let that stop her from telling him. Pastoring a church, she believed, would sidetrack him from his call to evangelism. It was a lesson that Billy would remember for years to come. Later, under pressure to run for political office, he heeded her advice: “When God calls you to be an evangelist, you don’t stoop to be president.”
Billy’s ministry expanded, and in January 1945 he left his pastorate to become the first full-time evangelist of Youth for Christ, a ministry to youth and military service people. It was just the beginning of the couple’s difficult partings. During those early years, before the children were born, Ruth traveled with Billy when their budget would allow.
She often counseled and prayed with those who responded to the invitation to accept Christ. She especially had an eye for the down-and-out who were struggling to survive, and she would write to the inquirers for years. But then the children began to arrive, and the Crusades grew longer and bigger, Ruth took on the responsibilities of managing the Graham household, giving Billy the freedom to travel and preach wherever God called him.
Just before the birth of their first child, Gigi, in September 1945, Billy and Ruth moved from Illinois to Montreat, N.C., where Ruth’s parents had settled after leaving China. The Grahams lived with the Bells until they bought a house across the street just before their daughter Anne was born. Ruth (called “Bunny” as a child), Franklin and Ned were born in the following years. In the late 1940s, Billy’s ministry grew to include citywide campaigns and radio, leading to the incorporation of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1950.
Rather than complaining about staying behind, Ruth strived to make their home a shelter for Billy when he wasn’t traveling. When their home was overrun with curious tourists, she took matters into her own hands and compiled plans to build “Little Piney Cove,” a mountain home constructed of timber from abandoned log cabins. From the very beginning she took control of the project, going as far as getting a loan and buying property when Billy was in California. When the home was finished, she filled it with treasures from the mountains and from her travels.
While Ruth dealt with architects and builders, furnishing the home, repairs around the house and extensive correspondence, she also raised five spirited children—who were not angels, as some might have thought—and helped her aging parents. Rearing the children when their father was away for months at a time proved challenging. When asked how she managed, she merely replied: “On my knees.” Her account of one particularly trying morning is a tale that mothers everywhere will understand.
Ruth sprinkled life with humor and observations. “I’ve never considered divorce,” she said once. “Murder, yes, but not divorce.” From childhood on, she was known to be mischievous. Whether chasing her sister Rosa with a dead bug in China or sliding a firecracker under Franklin’s bedroom door to wake him, she seemed to hold her father’s belief that Christians need not be glum and pessimistic. Not even the members of Billy’s Team were exempt from Ruth’s pranks. Once she took Associate Evangelist Grady Wilson’s travel sleeping pills and filled the capsules with mustard powder.
When Billy came home, Ruth tried to keep things peaceful and relaxing. She kept her schedule flexible and made time to help him find sermon illustrations, write books and create scripts for The Hour of Decision radio program.
Ruth’s rock-solid support of Billy’s ministry and her ability to manage their household on her own earned the respect of his Team. “There would have been no Billy Graham as we know him today had it not been for Ruth,” said Billy’s longtime assistant, T.W. Wilson.
No one respected Ruth more than Billy did.
“What I missed!” he wrote in “Just As I Am,” his autobiography, “And what Ruth missed by not having me to help her. Whenever I did get home, I got a crash course in the agony and ecstasy of parenting. If Ruth had not been convinced that God had called her to fulfill that side of our partnership and had not resorted constantly to God’s Word for instruction and to His grace for strength, I don’t see how she could have survived.”
‘It’s My Turn’
With her children grown and married, Ruth was free to pursue her lifelong love of writing.
Although she was the wife of one of the world’s most famous evangelists, self-promotion was not her motive. Since her childhood, she had used writing to release emotions that she could not express to other people.
In 1975, just before publishing her first book of poetry, “Sitting by My Laughing Fire,” she wrote to Decision magazine editor Sherwood Wirt, “I was terribly shy and diffident about these poems at first but have suddenly decided, ‘Shucks! If they express what I was going through or how I felt about what someone else was going through, it doesn’t really matter whether everybody else likes them.’”
Ruth’s longtime secretary Evelyn Freeland said, “Whenever there were requests from anyone to quote her materials, her response was always, ‘My writing is to be a ministry.’”
Ruth wrote to encourage the new Christian, the mother of the prodigal, the lost soul who hadn’t yet found the Savior—people in all walks of life.
Her poetry was practical, reflecting a life with loneliness and struggles but overflowing with trust in God. Sometimes whimsical, it often drew from the beauty of the mountains and forests surrounding her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Her books “It’s My Turn” and “Legacy of a Pack Rat” are filled with short chapters that communicate nuggets of biblical truth and encouragement gleaned from her years as a wife, mother and Christian. She sprinkled in a variety of ancient and contemporary quotes, as well as bits of humor. “No person is absolutely unnecessary, ” she said in reference to disagreeable people. “One can always serve as a horrible example.”
In writing about her family and her life, Ruth did not hesitate to reveal her weaknesses. Many who read her column in Decision wrote to thank her for her down-to-earth advice.
“Every time I read something of hers, I feel like she is speaking directly to me,” one woman wrote. “Thank God for her and her willingness to be used for God’s work.”
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