President Donald Trump and congressional leaders saluted Billy Graham as the plain wooden casket bearing the evangelist’s body arrived in the Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday morning to lay in honor. Graham is the first American clergyman – and only the fourth private citizen – to be honored in that way.
“Today we give thanks for this extraordinary life, and it’s very fitting that we do so right here in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, where the memory of the American people is enshrined,” Trump said. “Here in this room we are reminded that America is a nation sustained by prayer.”
Trump joined House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the Capitol service honoring Graham, who died Feb. 21 at age 99. Billy and Ruth Graham’s five children – Franklin, Gigi, Ruth, Anne and Ned – stood beside the president and first lady Melania Trump.
“The man we recognize today shared the gospel with more people than anyone else in history,” McConnell told the gathering. “His warmth and graciousness lit up living rooms and touched millions of hearts.”
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Added Ryan: “In those moments when we felt weak in spirit, when our country was on its knees, he reminded us – he convinced us – that’s exactly when we find our grace and our strength.… Here lies America’s pastor, a man made great not by who he was but by who he served with all of his heart and all of his soul and all of his mind. We give thanks to God for the life and works of this humble servant, now and forever.”
Trump alluded to the story of a 1934 gathering in Charlotte at the dairy farm of Graham’s father in which the group prayed for a preacher who could bring the gospel to the world.
“We are here today more than 80 years later because that prayer was truly answered,” he said. “The North Carolina farm boy walked out of those fields into a great and beautiful history.”
The president talked about attending a Graham crusade at New York’s Yankee stadium with his father, Fred Trump, a “big fan” of the evangelist. He praised Graham’s compassion for the poor in body or in spirit.
“He felt a great passion for those that were neglected,” Trump said. “Everywhere Rev. Graham went, he delivered the same beautiful message: God loves you.”
Christian singer Michael W. Smith sang “Just As I Am,” a signature of Graham’s crusades and the title of his autobiography, to close the service. The Trumps then joined McConnell and Ryan in placing wreaths at each corner of Graham’s casket before the service’s benediction.
North Carolina’s senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, prayed at the casket after greeting members of Graham’s family.
Members of the North Carolina delegation, including Reps. George Holding, Mark Walker, Robert Pittenger, Mark Meadows and Richard Hudson were among the first to lead House members into the Rotunda for the service. At least seven members of Trump’s Cabinet also attended.
Thousands of people lined up Wednesday afternoon to pay their respects to Graham, streaming through the Rotunda for hours. There will be a departure ceremony 10:30 a.m. Thursday.
“I would not have missed it for the world. He honored God. He honored his message, so honoring him, this was the least that I could have done,” said Andra Howell, 59, who drove several hours from south of Richmond, Va.
With tears in her eyes, Howell described how personal the experience was for her and friend, Jennifer Keppler. Howell saw Graham preach in Indianapolis in the 1970s and in Dallas in the 2000s. “He always spoke as if he was speaking to you as an individual,” she said.
Beverly and Roger Rohrbaugh came from Bristow, Va., to pay their respects. They said they were “humbled” by the experience and struck by his simple $200 pine casket, which was built by prisoners at a Louisiana prison and includes the names of the prisoners on the wood.
“It was a perfect analogy for who he was and the kind of man he was – simple. I’m sure he would have loved it,” Roger Rohrbaugh said. “He preached the cross: Forgiveness and grace. And that’s what we need in this world.”
Hughes Waren, a Wilmington resident, was in Washington on other business but said he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the Rotunda.
“He’s done so much for the country in bringing races together,” Waren said. “Just paying my respect.”
Select few honored
Graham joined a select pantheon of 33 other Americans, including the bodies of unknown soldiers from four conflicts, whose bodies have lain in honor at the Capitol. The tradition is normally reserved for military officers or elected officials – including 11 presidents – but in recent years has included private citizens.
The Charlotte-born evangelist was the fourth such individual to be honored, joining civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks in 2005 and U.S. Capitol Police officers Jacob Joseph Chestnut and John Michael Gibson, who were killed in the line of duty in 1998.
Graham’s casket rests on the same catafalque that was used to hold the body of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and others who have lain in state or in honor.
In a career spanning more than 60 years, he took his simple Christian message to more than 84 million people in almost 60 countries – including multitudes of spiritually starved believers behind the communist Iron Curtain. Add those who heard him live, via satellite, and the numbers jump to 210 million people in 185 countries.
He also offered spiritual advice and occasionally political advice to at least eight U.S. presidents – including former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who paid their respects at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte this week.
Graham’s casket was flown from Charlotte to Washington on a DC-8 cargo plane operated by Samaritan’s Purse, the Christian relief agency led by Graham’s son Franklin.
Trump will attend Graham’s funeral service at the Billy Graham Library, which will start at noon Friday and be open to 2,300 invited guests.
Charlotte Observer Staff writer Tim Funk contributed