Family members escorted Billy Graham’s plain wooden casket into a massive tent at the Billy Graham Library as more than 2,000 guests, including President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence and their wives, gathered Friday for the evangelist’s funeral.
The 28,000-square-foot tent, built to withstand the wind gusting through Charlotte, harkens to the 1949 crusade in the “canvas cathedral” that shot Graham to national attention. Graham died at 99 on Feb. 21.
Graham’s son Franklin, who leads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, delivered the funeral message from a pulpit that Graham used for his crusades in the 1990s. His remarks were parts warm remembrance, strict interpretation of the Bible and altar call.
“My father’s greatest longing has been granted,” a somber Graham said. “He’s in the presence of God.”
The mood at the service was more celebratory than somber, more respectful than emotional. And it was efficient, finishing on schedule or even earlier than planned.
Franklin Graham recalled his father’s love of his late wife, Ruth, who died in 2007, his sense of humor and joy in his grandchildren. “The Billy Graham that the world saw on TV, and in the big stadiums, is the same Billy Graham we saw at home. There weren’t two Billy Grahams.”
But Graham said the late evangelist also believed in heaven and hell, and in the Bible as the infallible word of God: “He didn’t understand it all, but he sure believed it all.”
In an era of political correctness, he added, some “want you to believe there are many roads to God. It’s just not true.”
“Daddy, I won’t see you on this earth again,” he ended, gazing at the casket before him, “but I will see you again, and maybe soon.”
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association called the funeral Graham’s “Last Crusade.” The guests included delegates from 50 countries, and ministers from the Middle East, South Korea and India took part. Four hundred to 500 members of the media covered the event.
Graham’s own pastor, Rev. Donald Wilton of First Baptist Church in Spartanburg, S.C., read Ephesians 2:4-10 as Graham had requested at the start of the 82-minute service.
Graham’s four other children and his sole surviving sister, Jean Ford, spoke briefly, mixing family jokes that made Trump chortle with tearful memories of their father. Ford gestured to the Graham homestead, which had been moved to the library and stood behind the podium.
“You’re here because you love him,” she said, “but you didn’t love him as long as I did. The president, when he saw me today said, ‘My goodness, your family has good genes.’ Well, he didn’t know my name was Jean.”
Daughter Anne Graham Lotz, founder of the nonprofit AnGeL Ministries, remembered her father’s probing questions during the family’s daily devotionals.
“My mother taught me by her example to love reading my Bible every day,” she said. “My daddy, by his example, taught me to think about what I read.”
Said son Nelson “Ned” Graham: “I just want you to know that my father was FAT – faithful, available, teachable. May we all be that way.”
Christian singer Michael W. Smith, who sang Wednesday as Graham’s body lay in honor at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, sang “Above All” as he has at past crusades. Bishop George Battle Jr. of the AME Zion Church in Charlotte, a member of the ministry’s board, gave the closing prayer, followed by a bagpipe escort of “Amazing Grace.”
Trump did not speak to the gathering.
Tributes to Graham poured in from guests at the service and from around the world.
Pope Francis sent a message of condolences and respect for Graham’s years of ministry. “Upon all who mourn his passing in the sure hope of resurrection, Pope Francis invokes the divine blessings of peace and consolation in the Lord Jesus,” it read in part.
The pope’s representative in the United States, Papal Nuncio Christophe Pierre, had a front-row seat for the funeral, next to Gov. Roy Cooper, the Trumps and Pence and his wife.
Graham “had a towering influence on me when I was growing up in the ’50s,” said Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York, the second-largest U.S. Catholic diocese. Catholic bishops once told their parishioners to stay away from Graham’s crusades, he said, but Graham met with Pope John Paul and built bridges to other Christian denominations.
“He said that we have enough forces against us and that we don’t need to be fighting among ourselves,” Dolan said.
Seats were reserved for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Cabinet member Ben Carson, Sen. Thom Tillis, Sen. Richard Burr, Rep. Robert Pittenger, Rep. Alma Adams, Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, Luci Baines Johnson, the daughter of former President Lyndon Johnson, and commentator Greta Van Susteren. Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson settled into his seat.
Graham “didn’t know until he got (to heaven) how many people were there because he had shared the message of love and hope with them,” entertainer Kathie Lee Gifford told reporters before the service. “What a homecoming that had to be for him.”
“We love him,” added former Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a 2012 presidential candidate. Bachmann said her husband, Marcus, “came to Christ” at 16 while listening to Graham on his dairy farm.
McCrory, a longtime family friend who was Charlotte’s mayor when the ministry moved its headquarters from Minnesota to Charlotte, said Graham “would probably be embarrassed at all this attention. He was modest and humble.”
But McCrory, who now appears on Charlotte’s WBT-AM radio, said Graham left such a big legacy that he deserves to be honored by a big event.
“There’s no doubt: Billy Graham was the most influential person to ever come from Charlotte or North Carolina,” he said. “He had such impact on not only our country but the world.”
Pittenger, who represents the Charlotte area in Congress, said he first met Graham at 22 in Dallas, Texas, when he caddied for Graham at what was then called the Byron Nelson Golf Classic. The foursome included the golf great Nelson, Bob Hope and Arnold Palmer.
“I chased a lot of golf balls that day,” Pittenger said. But he said Graham was warm and thoughtful, and later sent him a signed Bible.
“When he talked to you, he looked you in the eye. He didn’t look over his shoulder or at his watch. He cared about people.... The legacy he leaves is in each of our hearts.”
Mark Harris, the Baptist minister from Charlotte’s who is running for Pittenger’s seat, called it “just an extraordinary day to celebrate an extraordinary life.
“He has touched millions upon millions of people. In fact, I’m not certain that any of us will ever know this side of heaven just the impact of this man’s life. And I think we do the best we can do to celebrate here, but it probably pales in comparison to the celebration that he’s experiencing.”
Among fellow evangelists at the service were Houston’s Joel Osteen, who said Graham “paved the way for people like myself,” and Jim Bakker, former leader of the PTL ministry near Charlotte.
Steven Furtick, pastor of Charlotte’s Elevation Church, summarized Graham’s lasting impact: “His faithfulness, integrity, focus, finishing well.”
“He was not political,” added Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. “He was friends with Democrat and Republican presidents, and he was wise enough to realize that everybody’s got their own gifts and their own strengths, and politics was not his, and so he avoided it. And so he stuck just to preaching the simple gospel message and I always admired him for that.”
Eleven of Graham’s grandsons, and a 12th man married to a granddaughter, served as pallbearers to carry the pine casket to and from the tent.
A few hours after the 82-minute service, Graham will be buried at the foot of the library’s cross-shaped Prayer Garden next to his wife Ruth. About 200 members of his extended family are expected to attend the afternoon interment.
Graham’s grave marker of native stone will call him “Preacher of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ,” as he wished, and refer to a favorite Bible verse, John 14:6. “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me,’ ” the verse says.