Billy Graham, one of the nation’s most powerful preachers who helped usher evangelical Christianity into the American mainstream through televised sermons, best-selling books, political appearances and stadium revivals, died Wednesday at the age of 99.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association confirmed his death to NBC News. Graham, who long suffered from cancer and other ailments, died at his home in North Carolina.
In his final decade, Graham had suffered Parkinson’s disease and loss of hearing and vision, which forced him to substantially retreat from the public eye. He had been hospitalized several times since May 2011 with pneumonia and respiratory problems, most recently on November 20.
His influence, however, had always been more religious than political and was far less partisan than that of other evangelical leaders of his time. Throughout his career, he developed relationships—often close relationships—with Republican and Democratic presidents. He spent time in Kennebunkport, Maine with President George H. W. Bush and his family, and was by the Clinton’s side during Bill Clinton’s tumultuous second term. In an interview with Time magazine, Graham said he tried to emphasize to all the leaders he grew to know and love, the need for them “to have love for the people who were opposed to them.”
Graham preached to more than 215 million people and is credited with converting more than 2.5 million people to Christianity, according to the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, which he founded in 1950. He crisscrossed the globe, from the Congo to New York City, where he attracted more than 200,000 people in his final “crusade” in 2005.
Graham preached about the sinfulness of man, the wrath of hell, but the promise of redemption from a forgiving and loving God. Though some of his views were divisive, his message was often one that encouraged unity and he was therefore often called upon in moments of national tragedy to offer comfort to the grieving. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he addressed the nation from the National Cathedral, proclaiming that “God cares for us, whatever our ethnic, religious or political background may be.”