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Billy Graham, the 20th-century Christian crusader and father of showman evangelicalism who had the ear of 12 US presidents, has died at the age of 99.
Among the first to pay tribute were Donald Trump and his vice-president Mike Pence, the most recent beneficiaries of the voting power of US evangelical Christians.
From the 1930s until the early years of this century, Graham drew crowds of thousands to hear his rallying cry for Christianity. Over almost six decades, it is estimated that he preached to more 200 million people.
As well as his US coast-to-coast roadshows and tours across every continent, Graham harnessed the power of the media to reach millions, deploying television and radio networks, newspaper columns, feature films and satellite hookups.
He wrote dozens of books and his sermons were translated simultaneously into 48 languages and transmitted to 185 countries by satellite.
Graham, who had suffered from prostate cancer, pneumonia and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, died at his home in North Carolina, his spokesperson said.
Trump tweeted: “The GREAT Billy Graham is dead. There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man.”
Pence, himself a renowned evangelical, said his “matchless voice changed the lives of millions. We mourn his passing but know with absolute certainty that today he heard those words: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”
Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader and former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, described him as “the pope of the evangelical movement”.
Jimmy Carter, the former president, said Graham had “shaped the spiritual lives of tens of millions of people worldwide. Broad-minded, forgiving, and humble in his treatment of others, he exemplified the life of Jesus Christ by constantly reaching out for opportunities to serve.”
Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, said the global church owed him an “immeasurable and inexpressible” debt.
Graham was “an exemplar to generation upon generation of modern Christians,” Welby said. “When it comes to a living and lasting influence upon the worldwide church he can have few equals: for he introduced person after person to Jesus Christ. There are countless numbers who began their journey of faith because of Dr Graham.”
Born in 1918, Graham devoted his life to preaching the word of God after a revival meeting he attended at the age of 15. He was ordained as a Southern Baptist clergyman in 1939, and retired in 2005. At the time he said: “Do I fear death? No. I look forward to death with great anticipation. I’m looking forward to seeing God face to face.”
Many were mesmerised by his piercing blue eyes, square jaw and charisma, as well as his message, delivered loud and fast in a powerful baritone. He urged members of his audience to walk down the aisles to the stage to be saved and to commit to Christ as a choir sang religious anthems.
In 1957, a “crusade” – as he called his rallies – in New York’s Madison Square Garden was so popular that its run was extended from six to 16 weeks, ending with a rally of more than 100,000 people.
Graham encouraged evangelical Christians to engage in public and political life to promote the causes they espoused. In the 1952 presidential election, he said: “I believe we can hold the balance of power.”
During and following the decades of Graham’s commanding influence over the US religious landscape, evangelical Christians backed political candidates with conservative views on issues such as abortion, women’s rights and gay rights.
But by 1981, he took a more cautious view. “Evangelicals can’t be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle, to preach to all the people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will in the future.”
In his early years as a preacher, Graham expressed racist and antisemitic views, although he later called for desegregation and apologised for suggesting Jews controlled the media.
But he was unwavering in his anti-communism, saying in 1947 that Christians needed to “rescue these [communist] nations from the clutches of the unbelieving. Even so, he was later invited by Kim Il-sung of North Korea to preach in Pyongyang’s officially sanctioned churches.
Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, now heads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and is close to Trump, at whose inauguration he spoke. A regular guest on Fox News, Franklin Graham has frequently claimed that Islam and LGBT rights threaten American values.
In 2016, Franklin Graham claimed Trump’s election victory was the result of divine intervention.
“I could sense going across the country that God was going to do something this year. And I believe that at this election, God showed up,” he told the Washington Post.