Billy Graham, who passed away this week at age 99, was not only the world’s best-known evangelist who prayed with U.S. presidents on both sides of the political aisle, he was also a faithful husband—married 63 years to Ruth Graham with whom he raised five children. Duke University professor Grant Wacker, author of the biography, America’s Pastor,” has described Rev. Graham as “a man who maintained absolute marital fidelity ... an evangelist who lived the way he preached." Graham's long marriage to Ruth, whom he called “the most incredible woman I’ve ever known,” is one of the greatest lasting love stories of our time and a major reason his ministry succeeded where others failed.
Here are seven lessons about marriage from Billy and Ruth Graham’s 63-year union that should encourage all of us:
1. Marriage Does Not Have to Be Perfect to be Great.
“Ruth and I don’t have a perfect marriage, but we have a great one,” Billy Graham once stated, noting:
In a perfect marriage, everything is always the finest and best imaginable; like a Greek statue, the proportions are exact and the finish is unblemished. Who knows any human beings like that? For a married couple to expect perfection in each other is unrealistic. We learned that even before we were married.
Conflict and compromise were part of their marriage early on, as Graham learned how to accept Ruth’s outspoken and independent nature. According to a newspaper account, once after she had wrecked the family car, Graham, who was away at the time, tried in vain to forbid her from driving. When Ruth refused, he said, “‘I don’t recall reading in Scripture that Sarah ever talked to Abraham like this.” She responded: “Well, I don’t recall reading in Scripture that Abraham ever tried to take Sarah’s camel away from her.”
Graham believed that “happily incompatible” was a good fit for a marriage:
Being human, not one of us will ever have a relationship with another person that doesn’t have a wrinkle or a wart on it somewhere. The unblemished ideal exists only in 'happily ever after' fairy tales. I think that there is some merit to a description I once read of a married couple as ‘happily incompatible.’ Ruth likes to say, ‘If two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.’ The sooner we accept that as a fact of life, the better we will be able to adjust to each other and enjoy togetherness.
2. Shared Faith Matters.
Billy Graham once said “a legacy of character and faith” is the “greatest legacy one can pass on to one’s children and grandchildren.” As we’ve discussed in this space, shared family worship is linked to longer-lasting marriages, and faith was definitely at the center of Billy and Ruth Graham's long marriage.
A commitment to daily prayer together helped sustain them during long periods of separation. When asked once how she managed with the kids without her husband at home for sometimes several months, Ruth said, "On my knees."
“A night never went by, when we were together, without us holding hands and praying before we went to sleep,” Graham said in a tribute to his wife. Even when he was traveling, he called every day so that they could talk and pray.
3. Commitment is Key.
One reason Billy Graham’s ministry (and marriage) endured is that while other religious leaders fell to sexual temptation, Graham stayed true to his marriage vows. The much-debated “Billy Graham Rule” was actually one of four rules he and other ministry leaders adopted during a crusade in Modesto, California in 1948. In his autobiography, Just as I Am, Graham explained the rule regarding women:
We all knew of evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman other than my wife. We determined that the Apostle Paul’s mandate to the young pastor Timothy would be ours as well: ‘Flee … youthful lusts’.
In addition to staying sexually faithful, he and Ruth were also committed to staying the course of their marriage. When asked if she’d ever considered divorcing her husband, Ruth is said to have answered, “Divorce, no, murder yes!”
4. Marriage is a Partnership.
Graham’s long-time assistant, T.W. Wilson wrote, “There would have been no Billy Graham as we know him today if it had not been for Ruth.” She is even credited with keeping him out of politics. In 1964, when it was rumored that he was considering running for the White House, Ruth persuaded him against it with a half-joking but stern warning: “I don't think the American people would vote for a divorced president, and if you leave ministry for politics, you will certainly have a divorce on your hands.”
When Ruth passed away in 2007, Graham spoke of her contribution to his ministry. “Ruth was my life partner. We were called by God as a team. No one else could have borne the load that she carried."
5. Time with Family is Irreplaceable.
A recent Washington Post profile focused on the imperfections in his family life, describing Graham as an “absent father.” It’s true that he spent a lot of time from home—sometimes as long as six months in another country—leaving Ruth to operate as a “single” parent. In a Christianity Today profile of his family, his daughters shared how much they missed him growing up, with daughter Anne Graham Lotz noting that Ruth served as both “mother and father” to their children.
Over the years, Graham opened up about his regrets and how he wished he’d spent more time with his family. “Every day I was absent from my family is gone forever,” he said. “Although much of that travel was necessary, some of it was not.” In a Q&A with Christianity Today on his 90th birthday, he added, "I’m sure Ruth and the children paid a heavy price for all the times I was absent. I always tell younger evangelists not to feel like they have to accept every invitation they get or be absent from home so much."
6. True Love Must be Modeled.
“Nothing can bring a real sense of security into the home except true love,” Graham once said. According to the accounts of friends and family, the Grahams created such a loving atmosphere in their family. Despite their father’s long absences from home due to his ministry responsibilities, his children never doubted their parents’ love for each other. Their daughter, Gigi Graham Tchividjian, wrote about her parents’ marriage
From the time I was a small girl, I knew my mother and daddy loved each other. It was obvious. Each time Daddy entered the room, Mother’s eyes lit up and I knew that she felt her heart ‘rise within her.’ He was quick to hold her close, grasp her hand, or give her a tender kiss. It was clear to all that they adored one another and were in love.
7. Marriage Gets Better with Time.
On their 60th wedding anniversary in 2003, Ruth Graham said of their marriage: “There was some adjusting during the first few years, but it has pretty well adjusted now.” Her husband took a more romantic view: “We have a better relationship now,” he said. “We look into each other’s eyes and touch each other. It gets better as you get older.”
A few years later after Ruth’s death, Graham spoke of his grief and his faith that they would be together again in an interview with Time magazine:
Sometimes I'll be preoccupied with something, and suddenly I'll be reminded of her for some reason, and I'll find myself almost overwhelmed. One way I cope is by thanking God every day for the years we had together ... I know Ruth has now entered that heavenly home, and that someday soon I will join her. This gives me great comfort.
As we consider the many legacies of Billy Graham, let’s not forget to honor the beautiful family he created with his wife, Ruth. Their six-decade marriage is a testimony to the power of shared faith—and to a commitment to marriage that went beyond each other to something greater than themselves.
Alysse ElHage is editor of the Institute for Family Studies blog. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.