Ruth Bell Graham – missionary, writer, mother, grandmother and wife of evangelist Billy Graham
Ruth McCue Bell was born June 10, 1920, in Quingjiang, Kiangsu, China, the second daughter of Dr. L. Nelson and Virginia Leftwich Bell, medical missionaries at the Presbyterian Hospital 300 miles north of Shanghai.
Ruth and her three siblings Rosa, Virginia and Clayton, grew up in China. During much of her youth, she experienced the harsh and crude realities of a country that was locked in a bloody civil war between Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek and communist rebels.
Late in the spring of 1927, when Ruth was seven years old, the civil war in China forced the Bells and other missionaries to return to the United States, where Dr. Bell performed surgery and served as a lay minister in Virginia, West Virginia and Texas. When China re-opened to missionaries the following year, the Bell family returned to Quingjiang, only to discover that soldiers had ransacked the hospital and their home while they were away.
Although surrounded by unspeakable hardship – pestilence and plague; the loss of a baby boy; unstable political and military turmoil; communists and Japanese invaders – Ruth and her family considered China their home. Their love of the Chinese people and their abiding faith in God sustained them during the dangerous – and often lonely – times on the mission field.
As a young girl, Ruth enjoyed drawing and writing poetry and she kept regular journals. She was an unusually spiritual child, who cultivated a deep faith in God as well as a strong desire to serve Him once she became of age.
When she was just 13, Ruth’s parents sent her to the Pyeng Yang Foreign School in what is today Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, where she spent most of her high school years. While attending boarding school, Ruth became terribly homesick, and her journal writing and poetry began to adopt a sad and lonely tone. (She later reflected that her initial separation from her parents would serve as her “spiritual boot camp” for the years that lay ahead when she would be separated for long periods of time from her famous evangelist husband.)
In 1935 the Bells furloughed to the United States and rented a house in Montreat, N.C., near Asheville, where Ruth finished her senior year, graduating in 1936. Barely 16, she returned to Korea for a year of post-graduate study because her parents thought she was too young for college.
Despite her loneliness at school, Ruth developed a strong sense of independence and self-assuredness that would prove invaluable as she matured. She even vowed never to marry, so that she could serve as a single missionary in the mountainous nation of Tibet upon graduation from college.
In her journal, Ruth writes:
At the age of 17, the spunky and resolute Ruth left the Far East to attend Wheaton College in Illinois. As she contemplated her avowed spinster existence on her way to the United States aboard the USS McKinley, she penned these now prophetic words:
Despite her vow never to marry, Ruth couldn’t refuse the “fascinating” William F. “Billy” Graham, who proposed in 1940, just three months after they met. However, it wasn’t until 1941 that she actually accepted the proposal, having turned down many other suitors during that time.
Ruth and Billy Graham were married Friday, August 13, 1943, at the Montreat Presbyterian Church in Montreat, North Carolina. In Footprints of a Pilgrim, Ruth includes the following reflection of her wedding day:
After a brief honeymoon in Blowing Rock, North Carolina’s oldest travel attraction, the Grahams headed for Hinsdale, Illinois, where Billy had taken a pastorate at the Western Springs Baptist Church.
Soon, Billy’s speaking schedule would separate the young couple, but Ruth kept busy with her writing and daily Bible readings and study. In the mid-1940s, Billy resigned from the pastorate, applied for an army chaplaincy, and then became a full-time evangelist for Youth for Christ. The Grahams then moved to Montreat, North Carolina, to be near Ruth’s parents, who had returned from the mission field. In 1950, The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was founded and Ruth found herself alone more often.
In 1954, the Graham’s purchased a 150-acre homestead in the mountains of western North Carolina, called Little Piney Cove, and Ruth settled in to make a home and raise a family.
Of her children, Ruth writes:
Over the years, family life was often pressured and Billy’s travel schedule horrendous, but Ruth felt it her calling to stay home with the children while they were growing up. Although she was very supportive of her husband and had an enduring influence upon his ministry, Ruth was also very independent. She had enormous energy and loved adventure – she even broke an arm once while hang gliding and tried to hide it from Billy. She did not, however, hide her opposition to Billy being involved in politics, and she writes that, “I reminded him of this whenever I could.” Ruth felt strongly that Billy should limit advice to moral and spiritual issues and stay out of politics.
Only Ruth’s love of people could outweigh her love of life. With grace and the gift of hospitality, she endeared folks with her welcoming spirit and wacky sense of humor. One time, Ruth’s grandson, Aram, challenged his fiancé by claiming his grandmother’s blackberry cobbler could beat her grandmother’s in a taste test. At the scheduled bake-off, Ruth presented a dead chicken and claimed, “Did you say ‘cobbler’? I thought you said ‘gobbler!”’
In 1974, Ruth suffered a spinal cord injury and concussion from a 15-foot fall out of a tree, while helping hang a rope slide for the grandchildren. Although she suffered from chronic pain after the terrible accident, she resumed most of her activities and continued to travel with Billy to his crusades around the world until the late 1990s, after which she spent much of her time at her beloved house that became her base of operations.
In Footprints of a Pilgrim, daughter Gigi writes of her mother, “No, her nest is not, nor has it ever been, empty. Her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren all gravitate to this loving, accepting, encouraging, unselfish, fun-loving, positive, and very spunky little lady whom they call Tai Tai (a very respectful term for little old lady in Chinese).”
Ruth is the author of many Christian books, as well as a regular contributor for newspapers and magazines. Her biography, A Time for Remembering (later reissued as Ruth: A Portrait), was an early work of her friend, novelist Patricia Cornwell.
Ruth and Billy Graham’s five children are Virginia (Gigi), Anne, Ruth (Bunny), Franklin and Ned. The Grahams have 19 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren.