Billy Graham and Ruth Bell met at Wheaton College in the fall of 1940. A vivacious and feisty beauty who had grown up in China as the daughter of Presbyterian medical missionaries, Ruth was the prize catch of her class. After a first date, to a performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” Billy wrote home to announce that he had met the girl he planned to marry. Ruth described Billy as “a man that knew God in a very unusual way.” Graham died Wednesday in his home in Montreat, N.C., at the age of 99.
The courtship between Billy and Ruth, though hardly rocky by conventional measures, faced a formidable obstacle. Both felt called to serve God, but Ruth had long dreamed of evangelizing Tibet, whereas Billy had thought of preaching in fields rather more “white unto harvest.” He respected Ruth’s noble aspiration, but because he felt no Himalayan call himself, he convinced her that not to choose his course would be to thwart God’s obvious will.
After Ruth acknowledged that she wanted to be his wife, he pointed out that the Bible says the husband is head of the wife and declared, “Then I’ll do the leading and you do the following.” Though only the blindest of observers would conclude that Ruth Bell ever surrendered her will or her independence, she soon began to learn what following Billy Graham would mean.
After their marriage in August 1943, Ruth caught a chill while returning from their honeymoon. Instead of calling to cancel a routine preaching engagement in Ohio and staying at the bedside of his new bride, Billy checked her into a hospital and kept the appointment, sending her a telegram and a box of candy for consolation. She felt hurt, but soon learned that nothing came before preaching on her husband’s list of priorities.
In 1945, Graham became a full-time evangelist, a job that had him traveling throughout the United States and Europe. Perhaps sensing the start of a lifelong pattern, and pregnant with their first child, Ruth moved in with her parents in Montreat, N.C., a Presbyterian retirement community. The Bells provided her with companionship to ease the loneliness she felt during her husband’s long absences and were there to share important moments — when their first child, Virginia (always called “Gigi”), was born in 1945, Billy was away on a preaching trip.