Americans honor Billy Graham, pastor to presidents

President Trump led a grateful nation in paying tribute February 28 to “America’s Pastor,” the Reverend Billy Graham, in the solemnity of the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

“Today, in the center of this great chamber, lies legendary Billy Graham, an ambassador for Christ who reminded the world of the power of prayer and the gift of God’s grace,” said the president, who as a boy heard the evangelist preach in New York’s Yankee Stadium.

People queuing along fences on Capitol Hill (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
People queued outside the U.S. Capitol to pay respects to Graham, only the fourth private citizen to lie in honor in its rotunda. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

Graham’s family heard leaders of Congress add their tributes for the charismatic preacher who prayed with and counseled presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.

Graham, who died at age 99 on February 21, is only the fourth private citizen ever to lie in honor at the Capitol.

Ordained a Southern Baptist minister in 1939, Graham quickly gained renown for his sermons across the United States and then around the world. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association says he spoke before nearly 215 million people in 185 countries and territories and reached millions more on radio and television.

In 1954, Graham spoke to packed crowds in London for 12 weeks and brought his message to many other European cities. In subsequent decades, he preached in Asia, Latin America and Europe, as well as in Australia and New Zealand. A crowd of 1.1 million — the largest in the history of Graham’s ministry — gathered to hear him speak at Yeouido Plaza in Seoul, South Korea, in 1973.

Man standing facing large crowd of people in stadium (© Edward Miller/Getty Images)
Graham addressed the throng at Stamford Bridge football stadium in London between halves of a Chelsea–Newcastle United match on April 24, 1954. (© Edward Miller/Getty Images)

Memorials in the Capitol Rotunda are normally reserved for U.S. presidents, other elected leaders and military commanders. Eleven presidents — including Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan — have lain in state there.

Civil rights icon Rosa Parks (2005) and two U.S. Capitol police officers killed in the line of duty (1998) were the other private citizens to lie in honor in the Rotunda.

Graham will be buried alongside his late wife, Ruth, after a funeral service March 2 at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina.