Ruth Bell Graham once described her particular call as “an odd cross to bear,” having a national voice yet often a lonely life.
By Susie Hawkins
Ruth Bell Graham, wife of the highly esteemed evangelist, Billy Graham, was one of the most influential ministry wives in the 20th century. While her husband was regarded as the finest evangelist of the modern era, Ruth Graham would become known as an accomplished writer, speaker, and communicator in her own right.
As Billy Graham’s opportunities to preach and minister increased through the years, Ruth remained at home, managing their children and all other aspects of their lives. She relished working in various compassion ministries in their community and had a wide range of interests and a natural curiosity about life.
The Grahams were married for an impressive 63 years and frequently spoke about the importance of the marriage relationship and their love and respect for each other. In many ways, Ruth Graham was a typical white, Southern ministry wife, but in other ways, she was quite atypical.“Ruth Graham was a typical white, Southern ministry wife, but in other ways, she was quite atypical, growing up on the mission field in China.” — @SusieHawkins1 Click To Tweet
Ruth Graham grew up on the mission field in China, the daughter of Nelson and Virginia Bell. The Bells served in Qingjiang Province, north of Shanghai, for over 25 years. The families who were part of the mission compound provided medical care for the Chinese, a robust education for their own children, and a strong Christian community all while evangelizing and discipling the Chinese. Nelson Bell was a gifted surgeon and Virginia Bell was an efficient administrator. And together they provided strong leadership and spiritual direction for the mission.
Ruth Graham had a happy childhood in China with her four siblings and flourished in her spiritual growth and schooling. They daily taught their children the Bible, instilling in them a strong confidence in the sovereignty of God and the truthfulness of Scripture.
Not surprisingly, Ruth Graham felt a call to missions early in her teen years, believing God was calling her to be a single missionary and take the gospel to Tibet. She never quite escaped the sense of that call, even while married to Billy Graham, which she occasionally reminded him of during their married life.
At age 18, Ruth Graham entered Wheaton College, and it wasn’t long until she met the dynamic Billy Graham. After a few false starts, they knew they were meant to be together. Upon their college graduation, their first ministry assignment was the pastorate in a small Baptist church near Wheaton.
Soon the Grahams and the church recognized that Billy Graham’s gift of preaching would be best practiced in an evangelistic ministry, as opposed to the local church. As the Grahams became more and more well known, the spotlight often shone on Ruth Graham, which wasn’t always welcome.
Although she did not share the day-to-day stresses of a typical pastor’s wife serving in a local church, many still put expectations upon her as the wife of “America’s pastor.” People frequently asked her about her political opinions, especially during the tumultuous decades of the 60s and 70s, during the second wave of feminism and the rise of the religious right. She avoided those types of questions, primarily writing about a relationship with God, family life and parenting, and matters of faith.Ruth Graham's prose captured her personality, while her poetry captured her soul, according to her daughter Gigi. Click To Tweet
Ruth Graham was a beloved writer. Her popular articles and poems frequently appeared in women’s magazines and religious periodicals. Her daughter, Gigi, once pointed out that her mother’s prose captured her personality, while her poetry captured her soul. Ruth Graham’s compositions were unique and clever, a combination of profound theological observations with a twist of mischievous humor and spunk thrown in.
When children began to come along, Ruth Graham was determined to provide a haven for her family and modeled their life after her childhood experiences in China but in the mountains of western North Carolina. Near Montreat, a Presbyterian Retreat Center, their home provided privacy for the family, as well as a community of close friends and a spiritual climate. This proved to be a wise decision, as Ruth Graham would endure long periods of her husband’s absence—which were not easy, especially during the years of raising energetic children.
She once described her particular call as “an odd cross to bear.” She had a national voice, being the wife of an esteemed minister, yet her life could be lonely. Still, she firmly believed her call was to support her husband and free him to travel the world preaching crusades. Hers was a unique position, and she was honest in her writing about her times of struggle but also the frequent times of joy.
The Grahams had five children—Gigi, Anne, Ruth, Franklin, and Ned. According to their testimonies, their mother was a “hands-on” parent, who consistently prayed with them and taught them Scripture. Her rock-solid faith made a lifelong impression on each of them. Her two sons, Franklin and Ned, went through stages of rebellion. And from those years, Ruth wrote the popular Prodigals and Those Who Love Them. It was the story of her journey through grief and anxiety. But it was also her story of dogged faith that her sons would return to the Lord—which they did. In fact, all five of their children are serving the Lord today as successful authors, teachers, speakers, and evangelists. And their faithfulness is a testimony to the steady faith of their parents.
A legacy to remember
Ruth Graham never forgot her Chinese heritage. She passed away in 2007 at her home in North Carolina, surrounded by her husband and children. She had nineteen grandchildren and published fourteen books. On the top line of her grave marker are the Chinese characters for justice and righteousness. The second line is her name and date of birth. On the last line is this humorous quip: “End of Construction; Thank you for your patience.”On the top line of Ruth Graham's grave marker are the Chinese characters for justice and righteousness. On the last line is this humorous quip: “End of Construction; Thank you for your patience.” Click To Tweet
The day before Ruth Graham died, Billy Graham said, “Ruth is my soul mate and best friend, and I cannot imagine living a single day without her by my side. I am more in love with her today than when we met over 65 years ago.”
Ruth Bell Graham left an undeniable legacy as a wife, mother, writer, and co-laborer in the gospel. Her life story is one of a woman who eagerly embraced God’s call on her life and lived that life with creativity, perseverance, and the love of Christ. We would all do well to follow in her footsteps.
Other women in church history articles:
For permission to republish this article, please email Marissa Postell Sullivan.
Susie lives in Dallas and has been actively involved in ministry as a pastor’s wife, teacher, and volunteer. A noted author, Susie holds a Master of Arts in Christian Leadership and a Master of Arts in Theology from Criswell College.