U.S. evangelist Billy Graham, who counseled presidents and preached to millions across the world from his native North Carolina to communist North Korea during his 70 years on the pulpit, died on Wednesday at the age of 99, a spokesman said.
Graham died at 8 a.m. EST (1300 GMT) at his home in Montreat, North Carolina, according to Jeremy Blume, a spokesman for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
With his steely features and piercing blue eyes, Graham was a powerful figure when he preached in his prime, roaming the stage and hoisting a Bible as he declared Jesus Christ to be the only solution to humanity’s problems.
According to his ministry, he preached to more people than anyone else in history, reaching hundreds of millions of people either in person or via TV and satellite links.
Graham became the de facto White House chaplain to several U.S. presidents, most famously Richard Nixon. He also met with scores of world leaders and was the first noted evangelist to take his message behind the Iron Curtain.
“He was probably the dominant religious leader of his era,” said William Martin, author of “A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story.” “No more than one or two popes, perhaps one or two other people, came close to what he achieved.”
Graham was no longer a close associate of presidents in his later years but shortly after the announcement of his death President Donald Trump said on Twitter: “The GREAT Billy Graham is dead. There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man.”
In a rare trip away from his home in his later years, Graham had celebrated his 95th birthday on Nov. 7, 2013, at a hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, where some 800 guests, including Trump, business magnate Rupert Murdoch and television hostess Kathie Lee Gifford paid tribute.
The celebration featured a video of a sermon that his son Franklin said was Graham’s last message to the nation. Graham had been working for a year on the video, which was aired on Fox News. In it, he said America was “in great need of a spiritual awakening.”
In his prime Graham had a thunderous, quick-burst speaking style that earned him the nickname “God’s Machine Gun.” Through his “Crusades for Christ,” Graham sowed fields of devotion across the American heartland that would become fertile ground for the growth of the religious right’s conservative political movement.
His influence was fueled by an organization that carefully planned his religious campaigns, putting on international conferences and training seminars for evangelical leaders, Martin said.
Graham’s mastery of the media was ground-breaking. In addition to radio and publishing, he used telephone lines, television and satellites to deliver his message to homes, churches and theaters around the world.
Some 77 million saw him preach in person while nearly 215 million more watched his crusades on television or through satellite link-ups, a Graham spokeswoman said.
Graham started meeting with presidents during the tenure of Harry Truman. He played golf with Gerald Ford, skinny-dipped in the White House pool with Lyndon Johnson, vacationed with George H.W. Bush and spent the night in the White House on Nixon’s first day in office.