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Ruth Bell Graham (1920- )
The Christian Family

She lives halfway up the side of Middle Mountain, a part of the Black Mountain Range, in Montreat, North Carolina. The view from the house is breathtaking, which is fortunate, because with her job she needs all the morale boosting she can get.

Montreat is a main Assembly ground for the Presbyterian Church U. S. There every summer the Presbyterians go for church conferences along with a pleasant vacation. People of other denominations also go to Montreat to enjoy the scenery and cool mountain air.

Either way it means that nearly all the tourists want to see where Billy Graham lives. And even though the Grahams have moved further up the mountain from where they once lived and now have a private road, it doesn't mean much. The well meaning tourists will poke, spy, and try to pry.

To be Mrs. Billy Graham, the wife of a world famed evangelist, is a difficult job, though Ruth Bell Graham wouldn't be caught dead feeling sorry for herself. Yet to live in the public searchlight - - to be at the least, polite, and at the most, interested genuinely in every soul, to get in some time for family living and some well deserved privacy- -is a challenge.

Mrs. Billy Graham has to appear regularly, be a part of the Graham "team," give her husband the time he needs, and the family her time. Perhaps the one who can really feel for her is Queen Elizabeth II who also has to appear brightly, smile bravely no matter what, look nice always, help her husband, raise a family, deal with the ever present publicity, and always be a sincere person.

To be a preacher's wife is to be like the wife of Caesar, and Ruth Bell Graham is the wife of the most publicized preacher since Jesus Christ. Has this phased her? No, she's a preacher's wife who hang-glides for a hobby. She also drove her motorcycle into the lake once. She drives a motorcycle for fun. After Ruth Graham, the role of preacher's wife will never be the same.

When Ruth Bell was a young adult, she wished to be a missionary to Tibet. Instead she married an evangelist who has carried the Gospel to the corners of the world. In many of his appearances and very much in his life, Mrs. Graham has been there- -quiet, devout, humorous, very much a presence. If not perfect, at least perfect enough to fool Billy who has commented, "Heaven is being married to Ruth."

If the two of them are not sold on each other, they give a good act. The fact of a fictionalized image for public reasons is not unknown in the cynical 20th Century, but the integrity of their marriage, friends acknowledge, really cannot be questioned. They love one another deeply and have sustained a complementary and happy relationship since they were married in 1943.

If to the world Ruth Bell Graham is Mrs. Billy Graham, to many Presbyterians in the South she is known simply as the late Nelson Bell's daughter.

Dr. Nelson Bell was one of the lights of his generation. He was a medical doctor, an ex-missionary to China, the man originally behind the "Southern Presbyterian Journal," and a Moderator of the General Assembly. He also was gentle, good humored, and popular even among many with whom he disagreed, but there were some enemies, because he was a real man who had definite views and said what he thought. John Pollock's book, A Foreign Devil in China, deals with Dr. Bell's missionary career.

Dr. Bell was born in Virginia. Joseph Bell, his distant ancestor, was a Presbyterian elder and commissary in George Washington's army. His mother, Ruth McCue, was a descendent of the Rev. John McCue, an early Presbyterian minister of Virginia who died in 1818 at an advanced age after being thrown from a horse. (John McCue's ministry from 1791-1818 was at the wonderfully named church, Tinkling Spring, which was founded in 1738. Its congregation decided in 1744 to build a sanctuary on a pleasant spot beside a bubbling stream and named it Tinkling Spring.)

James Bell, the father of Nelson, was recognized as a so unusually religious young man that he was elected at nineteen an elder in his church. James Bell was a Christian business man, and with a mother conscious of her Presbyterian descent, it was perhaps fore-ordained that Nelson took his faith seriously.

After attending Washington and Lee in 1912, Nelson decided to be a missionary. He transferred to the University of Virginia Medical School in Richmond. The church had mission programs at this time in China, Korea, Japan, Brazil, and Africa.

At the conclusion of medical school Nelson married Virginia Leftwich, and they went to China together under the auspices of the Mission Board. He was assigned as physician and surgeon to the mission at Tsingjianpu, China, which had been founded by Andrew Sydenstricker, the father of novelist Pearl Buck. The Nelson Bells arrived in China in 1916.

In China their second daughter, Ruth McCue Bell, was born. It was a world where she learned Chinese before English. And what was perhaps more important for Billy, she first learned to cook the Chinese foods she loves. (As a friend put it: Billy is happy as long as it's steak. She's more Chop Suey.) It was also a world where in the evenings the missionary family read the classics together.

Nelson's medical mission work was really a godsend to the poor Chinese who came to him in droves and often in very pitiful condition. The mission treated them all as best it could. On one occasion Dr. Bell removed a ninety pound ovarian tumor from a woman who weighed ninety-two pounds.

Growing up in China, Ruth saw the real value of the Judaic-Christian tradition. On a steam boat on the river a girl fell overboard. Nelson jumped in immediately to save the Chinese child. The Chinese on board thought Dr. Bell was crazy because the child was "only a girl," and in the China of that period girl babies were unwanted. She experienced areas where compassion was an unknown message.

The Bells were taken out of China by World War II. In 1941 they moved to Montreat, and bought a house near the Presbyterian Assembly buildings. Many others of the pious had homes there. It was an atmosphere they found congenial. Dr. Bell set up a medical practice. After Billy and Ruth were married, the couple with a loan from Nelson bought a home there, too.

In the United States Dr. Bell became a leading voice of conservatism in his denomination. He was the man behind the Presbyterian Journal, and was much sought after as a speaker.

He was not only a voice of conservatism but often one of common sense. He, for example, did not advocate splitting the denomination over theological disagreements. He believed in staying to witness and knew his witness was needed, if for no reason than to have a more balanced church.

Of the many things Dr. Bell said, and he was the author of the column, "A Layman And His Faith," in Christianity Today, as well as two books, one was that a major problem in both church and society was an almost unbelievable ignorance of the Bible.

Ruth Bell met Billy Graham in college where she majored in Bible. After they were married, the young couple had seventy dollars for a week long honeymoon they spent at nearby Blowing Rock, North Carolina.

Billy Graham was born into an Associate Reformed Presbyterian family near Charlotte, North Carolina. The "ARP" Church is a small but very honorable branch of Presbyterianism in the South. It is an "Old Covenanter" Church, made up historically of covenanting families who came to America centuries ago. That Billy Graham should come out of this tiny, quiet, dignified but spiritually deep church is ironic, since it is not particularly graced by enthusiasts.

However, Billy as a young man had a dramatic conversion experience. It was of the type associated with revivals. He subsequently became an evangelist, specializing in revivals meant to further emotional and crisis religious experiences in everyone. He was immersed and became a Southern Baptist.

Naturally as a Baptist evangelist he is for both immersion and a crisis religious conversion. However, he is aware that God in his mysterious way affects people in different ways. He is not literal enough to say these experiences are necessary to salvation. A wise man, he leaves salvation to God's judgment. Graham merely testifies to what he knows.

In a different way Ruth Graham testifies to what she knows: for, true to her Presbyterian training, and knowing more than enough Bible to defend it, she has not been immersed nor felt a conversion experience necessary for everyone alike. This does not mean she does not see the good in those who have conversion experiences.

Ruth Graham notes, "I have had 'crisis' experiences but my salvation did not happen to be one of them, for I cannot remember the time when I did not love and trust Him. In fact my earliest recollections are of deep love and gratitude that He should love me enough to die for me."

There has never been a time in Ruth Graham's life when God was not a part of it. God always has been part of her life as the air she breathes. A crisis conversion experience would have been incongruous when God's love always has been accepted as a fact of life, when God has been seen as love inside the organic church, not as an outside force that has to be surrendered to. Ruth Bell, a child of the church, has grown up with God, grown into Him as the result of Christian associations.

If their experience on immersion and conversation has been different, Billy sees Ruth as an individual whose rights and spiritual integrity he respects. Respecting each other's rights to be different has not pulled them apart. They have become one in spirit, because they know each admires and respects the other's views. Billy certainly does not try to force his Baptist beliefs on her Presbyterian ones.

Yet, it is really questionable whether anyone could force Ruth Bell Graham anywhere theologically. She is something of an intellectual, a learned woman, the Presbyterian bluestocking. Mrs. Graham insists that she has never made an honor roll in her life and could not lay claim to being an intellectual. But at the same time she asserts this, she admits that she has over twenty translations of the Bible, plus concordance and Bible dictionary in her bedroom for Bible study.

Mrs. Graham chose to put Billy and their children first. She frankly enjoys being a wife and mother and likes the role of homemaker. She does not feel gypped at being a housewife, although she has not always liked some housework. Instead she has felt fortunate to be a wife, mother, and the helper of a man whom she believes is called of God to proclaim the Gospel.

Rather than going out to preach, Ruth Graham is more likely to give Dwight L. Moody's story about the woman who told him she was called to preach. "You are indeed," said Mr. Moody," and God has given you a fine congregation- -your husband and five children.

The Grahams have had five children, and Ruth has not always had an easy time of it. The money sent to Billy Graham goes into a foundation for evangelism. The Grahams receive from it not a large salary to live on. Rather like most wives and mothers, she has had to make do on limited means. She remarks, "And while I might not have had the money that at times I might have wished, I've had all that was good for me. Certainly enough."

She has also had to be both father and mother at times in a family where the father, though ever so conscientious, has had to travel a lot, and she has had to cook, clean, wash dishes, drive the children, and at one time, help care for her nearly-blind and partially paralyzed mother.

Her home life has been a remarkable monument to Christian common sense. She never forced her children to try to behave like specially singled out "minister's children." She rarely went to the wall with them except on moral issues. Fads, fashions, beards, long hair, jeans and adolescent crazes were tolerated. Her children were not raised as Baptists or Presbyterians, but Christians. She recommends plenty of forgiveness in marriage and maintains that women should not look to their husbands for those things Christ gives in a special way. By these she means the security, peace, love and other spiritual qualities that only God gives perfectly.

She has also had the common sense to be herself and, while doing her duty, also do her own thing. She has not hesitated to learn hang-gliding, go motorcycle riding, make her own clothes, or kick her preacher husband beneath the table when he ought to be quiet. The things that characterize Mrs. Graham within her circumstances are honesty, good values, common sense and a pronounced Southern accent. There is no pretense about her as one would expect from a woman who makes her own clothes and once fell out of the tree where she was nailing up the grandchildren's swing. The fall left her unconscious for a week but she recovered undaunted and ready for the next adventure.

In the midst of all this Mrs. Graham has tried to follow the Biblical instruction, "Pray without ceasing. She has a Bible study table in the bedroom where her Bible stays open at all times. There she keeps different translations and works for reference. Her daily round of housework has always been interspersed by prayer and thought on the scripture she is studying. She studies the Bible at every quickly snatched chance, as she waits for things to cook or warms a leftover.

While Dr. Graham is a man who owns himself, Ruth Graham has had a definite influence on his career. She has been a moderating influence on a man who needed it in earlier years. The younger Billy was by nature a romantic and rhetorical man, given to impulsive generalizations. This habit, largely outgrown, used to get him into trouble. He once remarked on this tendency by saying, "I said a lot of things five years or so ago out of immaturity which I wouldn't say today."

Ruth is remarked upon for her sense of humor, energy, and the light touch she brings to things. Her home has never been a dull and depressing place.

She also wears make up and dresses well. She does not look like the old-fashioned and rather depressing preacher's wife. She is a new breed of church woman. It is obvious her faith is not a depressant that has served to make her an object of pity. She does not look like a churchy person and all that. Rather she looks as if faith has added to her life, given her an elan, fulfilled rather than drained her energies.

Her spiritual eagerness comes, perhaps, from her devotional life. During college she used to get up at five in the morning so she would have two hours of prayer and Bible study to start the day. She has kept devotional habits. She remarks that with the children gone, she has more time during the day for Bible study.

But the fact her views on religion are happy may be due to being father Nelson's daughter. He once wrote her as a very serious young girl, "all of us need and must have some recreation and relaxation, and God wants His children to be happy and have a good time." She was never raised on funeral parlor or dour Christianity.

The Presbyterian continuity of the Bell family has lasted nearly two hundred years. The Rev. Clayton Bell, Ruth's brother, is now minister of the Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas. It is a chain of life they look back on, past Nelson, the missionary, and Grandfather James, a nineteen year old elder, to Joseph Bell, the elder and commissary in Washington's army, and John McCue, the minister 1791-1818, at Tinkling Spring. They are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.

Yet they are aware that a religious tradition means nothing, unless it is interpreted meaningfully to each new generation by the teaching of their parents, and the children make the tradition theirs. For in each generation faith must be tested again and evangelists go out once more.

 


N.B.
An interesting study of Mrs. Graham is found in Special People by Julie Eisenhower, Simon and Schuster Company.

 

 

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