America's Crusader

updated 10/07/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/07/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

BILLY GRAHAM, THE COUNTRY'S best-known evangelist, says he is cutting back. Here's how: On Sunday he delivered a fiery sermon to 250,000 people in New York City's Central Park—his largest audience ever in North America. The sermon was a 45-minute spellbinder on the healing power of love. "God has not abandoned us. We have abandoned Him," Graham told the crowd, a true mosaic of every faith and ethnic group the city could muster. "God loves you!" he thundered, pointing to different sections of the audience. "God loves you!

Then on Monday, still taking it easy by his own peculiar standard of leisure, the 72-year-old minister rose before dawn for a live appearance on CBS This Morning. Later he video-taped an insert for a telecast of his Central Park rally and flew to Chattanooga, Tenn., to help dedicate a gymnasium. On Tuesday he awoke early and headed for an undisclosed European hideaway to work on his memoirs. Next month he goes to Buenos Aires to launch a 21-nation Latin American crusade, the most ambitious of his 41-year career.

This is what is known as cutting back, Billy Graham-style. "I'm not going to retire like other people think of retiring," says Graham. "The Lord's work doesn't stop until the very end." On the other hand, Graham says, don't expect to see him on the another-night, another-arena evangelist circuit anymore. Starting with his Central Park rally, he says, he is going to be like a baseball player in an old-timers' game; the job will be basically the same, but the pace won't be as quick. "Mentally, my desire and my zeal are strong," he says. "But my body is slowing me down."

Graham has counseled Presidents and other heads of state, opened his ministry to people of all faiths—even Catholics and Jews—and has energetically taken his interpretation of the Gospel to more than 110 million people in 84 countries, more than any other preacher in history. But today his gait is slow and stiff. His hair is graying, and his rich North Carolina baritone seems reedy until he delivers one of his famous firebrand sermons. Even so, he no longer paces a mile or two when at the podium. His health is fine, he insists, although he admits to "some problems that come with a man my age"—including high blood pressure—but nothing "serious or life threatening."

At the same time, he frequently talks of death without seeming to fear it. "I wish I could go to heaven right now," he told Paula Zahn of CBS. "My greatest fear is that I'll do some-thing or say something that will bring disrepute on the Gospel of Christ before I go."

Such cautious humility has helped Graham avoid the same pitfalls that sullied television evangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker. William Martin, whose authoritative biography on Graham, A Prophet with Honor, is to be published in November, says that in 1948 Graham set up rules for himself and his staff so they wouldn't get embroiled in any scandal over sex or money. Among other things, Martin says, no male on the Graham staff is ever alone in a room with a female unless the door is kept open. Graham never enters a hotel room until it has been checked by an aide. And he never opens his hotel-room door unless he knows for sure who is on the other side.

On the financial end, Graham receives little of the $80 million raised annually by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. He draws an $80,000-a-year salary and tries hard to avoid any appearance of wealth. He usually wears rubber-sole shoes, for example, and a simple blue blazer. Graham and his wife, Ruth, 71, live comfortably but without ostentation in western North Carolina. She says the bought their 150-acre spread near Montreal for $15 an acre a few years after they were married in 1943 and built their home using recycled materials from old log cabins and demolished houses. She still does much of the housework herself. "The place is decorated in cobwebs," she says with a smile.

To insulate him from temptation, Graham's nonprofit organization is independently audited, publishes an annual report and is run by an executive committee that does not include the evangelist. "He couldn't build a theme park if he wanted to," says Martin, a sociology professor at Rice University in Houston. Another writer, Marshall Frady, whose highly critical—and critically acclaimed—1979 biography of Graham is being updated, says he tried to find criminal wrongdoing among other things but failed. "He has an absolutely indefatigable good nature," Frady says. "He is a man without shadows."

Graham was born in 1918 in Charlotte, N.C., the oldest of four children, and raised on a dairy farm. When he was 15, he heard a traveling evangelist named Mordecai Ham at a series of revival meetings and became what would be known today as a born-again Christian. After high school, Graham became a Fuller Brush salesman, traveling the back roads of the Carolinas. He then entered the Florida Bible Institute in Clearwater, now Trinity College, where he learned to be a Baptist minister. He was ordained in 1940.

From there he went to Wheaton College near Chicago, where he met fellow student Ruth McCue Bell. They were married Aug. 13, 1943, and today have two sons (both ministers), three daughters, 19 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, with a fourth on the way. "I have never had sex with another person except my wife," Graham says. "My wife was the first one and that was after we were married.... I have to say that it wasn't just my goodness. I think it was God watching over me."

In 1949 he got his big break. Media baron William Randolph Hearst heard Graham deliver a vigorous anticommunist sermon during a revival series in Los Angeles and sent a two-word telegram to the editors of each of his publications: "Puff Graham." The next day a horde of reporters showed up, and Graham went onto front pages around the world.

To this day, Graham continues to command the sympathetic attention of much of the media (Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, Diane Sawyer, Paul Harvey, Hugh Downs and Kathie Lee Gifford all showed up for a recent New York City luncheon where his new book, Hope for the Troubled Heart, was plugged), and his While House connections—Democrat, or Republican—are legendary. He has visited the executive mansion so often that he is sometimes referred to as the unofficial White House chaplain.

On Jan. 16, for example, George Bush asked him to come to Washington, D.C., but did not say why. "They put me in the Lincoln Room," Graham recalls, "and all of a sudden there came a knock at the door. There was Mrs. Bush in a wheelchair [following a knee injury from a sledding accident at Camp David]. She said, 'How about rolling me up to the Blue Room to watch some TV?' " They turned on CNN and watched the beginning of the air war against Iraq. "Then the President came in, and we had prayer together," Graham says. At dinner the three of them prayed again. And then, Graham says, just before Bush spoke to the nation, they prayed a third time "that God would help him say the right thing and give him wisdom."

Graham says his friendship with Bush does not extend into offering advice as it did when Richard Nixon was in the White House. The reason is Watergate, he readily admits today. "Watergate was hard for me," he says. "Because I never really dreamed he [Nixon] would use language like that. That was the thing that shook me. I never heard him use a swear word. I never heard him say 'damn' or 'hell.' And when all that stuff came out, I just felt it was a Nixon I didn't know. But we're still very good friends. In fact, I just talked to him last week."

Graham's travels put him in touch regularly with other world leaders. In July he met with both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. "We talked about religion the entire time," he says of his meeting with Yeltsin. "He said he was very happy that his grandchildren were wearing crosses." The changes in the Soviet Union, Graham says, are good for the church—especially the evangelical wing, which he says is growing rapidly worldwide. "I think people have come to the point that they want to hear the true Gospel," he says. "They want the Bible told just as it is." Which is why he is only cutting back, he says. Not stepping down.

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