This article originally appeared in the November 13, 1995 issue of Christianity Today.
In the foreword to their daughter's book Passing It On, Billy and Ruth Graham recount an episode when Ruth administered some "biblical discipline" on the children. As she ascended the steps, switch in hand, she heard the eldest daughter, Gigi, call out, "Mother, you can't blame us, it was the Devil!" When Gigi saw the expression on her mother's face and the switch, fully deployed, she added, "But as soon as he saw you coming, he left!"
While Billy won the masses in Los Angeles, Boston, London, and Budapest, Ruth chased away devils at home and reared the five Graham offspring to grow up loving their daddy, despite his prolonged absences. "The children could have grown up resentful or bitter," she says, but instead they "love and respect their father enormously."
Ruth Bell Graham was born in Tsingkiangpu (now called HwaiYin) in the Jiangsu Province of China, the second daughter of Dr. L. Nelson and Virginia Bell. Ruth's twofold prayer as an earnest 12-year-old was, first, to become an "old maid" missionary to the tribes of Tibet and, second, to die a martyr's death. ("My older sister would hear me praying and go to her room and say, 'Lord, don't listen to her.'") Ruth concedes that she "would have made a terrible missionary" and that her martyrdom imitates that of the beloved disciple "who was entrusted with the martyrdom of long life."
Reaching her seventy-fifth year and reflecting upon the legacy that she and her husband of 52 years have forged, Ruth says, "I really felt I had the best part of everything. Through the years I have vicariously enjoyed Bill's trips around the world, but I loved to stay home with the children." She points to the stabilizing influence of her parents being integral to the success of those years. After being forced out of China in 1941, the Bells settled in the mountains of Montreat, North Carolina, and, when Ruth rightly perceived the demands of her husband's call, she made the decision to live next to them. "It was a decision that was led of the Lord, if I ever made one," she says. 'They had a profound influence on the children's lives. They were wonderful grandparents."
Graham biographer William Martin notes in A Prophet with Honorthat early in their courtship, Ruth still clung to her dream of the missionary call—the last thing on the mind of the young dairy farmer from Charlotte (she felt "no thunderbolts"). But after hearing Billy pray, she sensed he 'knew God in a very unusual way" and said to the Lord thereafter, "If you let me serve you with that man, I'd consider it the greatest privilege in my life."
Despite his ascent to the pinnacle of evangelical acclaim and influence, Ruth still told him when he was preaching "too loud, too fast." Martin notes that once, when the young evangelist "pranced around like an uppity pig" in the pulpit, Ruth responded, "Bill, Jesus … just preached the gospel, and that's all he has called you to do!"
When the storms of criticism swirled around her husband, she likewise encouraged him, according to Martin; "stand up to some of these people and say what you feel" —something she herself has been known to do from time to time. At the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism in 1974 (launched largely by the efforts of her husband), Ruth refused to sign the Lausanne Covenant. She challenged John Stott's insistence on the inclusion of the "simple lifestyle" clause: "Those of us who live in affluent circumstance accept our duty to develop a simple lifestyle in order to contribute more generously to both relief and evangelism."
"If you had said 'simpler,"' Ruth rejoined, "I would sign it. But what is 'simple'? I have five kids."
Her daughter Gigi writes in her book: "Mother always taught me …, 'There are times to quit submitting and start outwitting.'" Ruth admits, "That can raise some eyebrows, understandably." But this is the same woman who while praying for her "prodigal" son Franklin many year ago, felt more convicted about her own failings. When she came across the passage in John's gospel where Jesus prayed for his disciples (chap. 17), she recalls,
Our Lord is praying, 'For their sake, I recommit myself that they also may be committed to Thee.' And suddenly it dawned on me that if Jesus felt the need to recommit himself to the Father for our sake, how much more do I need to recommit myself to the Father for the sake of the children. And so I put Franklin 'on hold' and just settled things with the Lord.
Ruth admits that as the couple enters their later years she would like her husband to slow down and spend time supporting his children in their ministries and getting to know his grandchildren. "The children had to take second place the association; that was inevitable," she says. "But it's not too late to balance it out so that the children, who have been so loti him through the years, can feel his support and loyalty as get on with their own ministries." And, she adds, "there at grandchildren. That's an ongoing ministry right there.''
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