NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- The Rev. Billy Graham, who transformed American religious life through his preaching and activism, becoming a counselor to presidents and the most widely heard Christian evangelist in history, has died.
Spokesman Mark DeMoss said Graham, who long suffered from cancer, pneumonia and other ailments, died at his home in North Carolina on Wednesday morning. He was 99.
Graham was known for bringing the born-again religious movement into the mainstream.
Graham reached more than 200 million through his appearances and millions more through his pioneering use of television and radio. Unlike many traditional evangelists, he abandoned narrow fundamentalism to engage broader society.
Graham once wrote that it was never his intention to preach in arenas and stadiums, but that's how he is remembered.
Ministering to thousands at a time, he became so popular churches weren't big enough. His message: No matter how many mistakes you've made, there's always another chance.
Former President George H.W. Bush offered a statement on Graham's passing on Wednesday afternoon.
"Billy Graham was America's pastor. His faith in Christ and his totally honest evangelical spirit inspired people across the country and around the world," Bush said. "I think Billy touched the hearts of not only Christians, but people of all faiths, because he was such a good man. I was privileged to have him as a personal friend. He would come to Maine to visit with Barbara and me, and he was a great sport. He loved going really fast in my boat. I guess you could say we had that in common. Then we would come home and talk about life. He was a mentor to several of my children, including the former president of the United States. We will miss our good friend forever."
Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan gushed over his fondness for Graham.
"As anyone growing up in the 1950's and 1960's can tell you, it was hard not to notice and be impressed by the Reverend Billy Graham," Dolan said in a statement. "There was no question that the Dolans were a Catholic family, firm in our faith, but in our household there was always respect and admiration for Billy Graham and the work he was doing to bring people to God. Whether it was one of his famous Crusades, radio programs, television specials, or meeting and counseling the presidents, Billy Graham seemed to be everywhere, always with the same message: Jesus is your Savior, and wants you to be happy with Him forever. As an historian, my admiration for him only grew as I studied our nation's religious past, and came to appreciate even more the tremendous role he played in the American evangelical movement. May the Lord that Billy Graham loved so passionately now grant him eternal rest."
President Donald Trump initially responded to the news on Twitter, but later offered a statement.
"Melania and I join millions of people around the world in mourning the passing of Billy Graham. Our prayers are with his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and all who worked closely with Reverend Graham in his lifelong ministry. Billy's acceptance of Jesus Christ around his seventeenth birthday not only changed his life -- it changed our country and the world. He was one of the towering figures of the last 100 years -- an American hero whose life and leadership truly earned him the title 'God's Ambassador.'
"Billy's unshakable belief in the power of God's word to transform hearts gave hope to all who listened to his simple message: 'God loves you.' He carried this message around the world through his crusades, bringing entire generations to faith in Jesus Christ.
"In the wake of the September 11th attacks in 2001, America turned to Billy Graham at the National Cathedral, who told us, 'God can be trusted, even when life seems at its darkest.'
"Reverend Graham would be the first to say that he did not do it alone. Before her passing, his wife Ruth was by his side through it all -- a true partner, a wonderful mother, and a fellow missionary soul. He also built an international team and institution that will continue to carry on Christ's message.
"Melania and I were privileged to get to know Reverend Graham and his extraordinary family over the last several years, and we are deeply grateful for their love and support.
Billy Graham was truly one of a kind. Christians and people of all faiths and backgrounds will miss him dearly. We are thinking of him today, finally at home in Heaven."
Graham met with every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, but always denied any role in setting policy saying, "I don't advise them, I pray with them," CBS News reported. Lyndon Johnson looked up to his close friend, the pastor. Richard Nixon asked for his counsel during Watergate. The elder Bush called Graham to the White House the night before he launched the first Gulf War. Younger President Bush has credited Graham with turning him away from drinking and towards embracing God.
A Graham grandson, also a preacher, said the reverend's reach had no bounds.
"My granddad wasn't just Christian-famous, he was famous-famous, he was crossover famous," Rev. Tullian Tchividjian said.
William Franklin Graham was born Nov. 7, 1918 in Charlotte, North Carolina and raised on as his family's dairy farm. He knew at 15 he wanted to spread the gospel.
"Christ came into my life, transformed me, changed me, made me a new person. I've seen him change thousands of lives," he said in April 1956.
He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1939 and started holding revival meetings, or crusades, in the 1940s.
He graduated from college in Illinois and married fellow student Ruth McCue Bell in 1943. They went on to have five children in a marriage that lasted nearly 64 years.
Graham seemed to have endless reach, from global cities to faraway villages.
In 1952 he stopped segregating his crusades and began a friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"All the problems of America tonight and of the world stem from the fact that we as the human race have sinned against Almighty God," he said in May 1997.
Graham's son, Franklin, became CEO of the family ministry in 2000.
Graham led his "Final Crusade" in 2005. An estimated 230,000 people attended the three-day event at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens.
"Circumstances have changed, problems have changed, but deep inside man has not changed and the gospel hasn't changed," he said. "Our country's in a grave need of a spiritual awakening."
As his prominence faded, he began to temper his views on the automatic damnation of non-Christians.
In 2007, a frail Graham was honored by three former presidents at the dedication of his library in Charlotte.
In 2010, President Obama was the first sitting president to visit Graham at his North Carolina retreat.
When he celebrated his 95th birthday in 2013, his final sermon, entitled "My Hope America," was released on video. Reverend Graham closed with a prayer and peace he expressed on his on his final crusade in New York. He said then his life had been full and he had no regrets.
"I look forward to death with great anticipation. I'm looking forward to seeing God face to face," he said.
He will be buried at his library in North Carolina next to Ruth Graham, his wife of 64 years who died in 2007.
He is survived by his five children, 19 grandchildren and 41 great-grandchildren.
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
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