Ruth Bell Graham
A Life Well Lived
One of the first people I will be looking for when I get to heaven, will be Ruth Bell Graham. I cannot think of any woman whose writing has influenced me more. When I was in graduate school I worked part-time at a Christian bookstore, and I remember reading Ruth’s book of poetry Sitting by My Laughing Fire. There was just something about it that made me want to know her better. As the years wore on Patricia Cornwell wrote her biography, A Time For Remembering. I inhaled the story of her life and have read the book multiple times. Just what was it about Ruth Bell Graham that has challenged and influenced me so much?
Let’s start with her childhood. Ruth was born in China to missionary parents serving with the China Inland Mission under Hudson Taylor. Her father, Dr. Nelson Bell, was a surgeon and another giant of the faith. I have mentioned the story of his life in my spring newsletter about biographies, A Foreign Devil in China. Ruth and her family lived in incredible turmoil and danger in China, but her love for the land of her birth never ceased. Having been homeschooled for her primary years Ruth was then sent to boarding school in Korea. She prayed she would die rather than leave the security of her family’s compound, but her Heavenly Father did not answer her prayer. She said that the leaving of family and home prepared her for a lifetime of goodbyes. While at boarding school Ruth was overcome with intense homesickness; she coped by reaching out to the younger and needier students. This developed a pattern for how she coped with her own pain the rest of her life. Ruth’s parents were forced to leave for America due to political instability and foreign invasion. That year Ruth joined her sister Rosa at Wheaton College.
She was "the belle of the campus" having more boyfriends than her sister could count. But Ruth observed one young man who stood out from the others. She first saw him rushing down a flight of stairs on campus and she thought, “There is a man in a hurry to get somewhere”. Their mutual friends introduced them and they quickly began a rather rocky courtship. Ruth had determined to be, as she termed it, an "old-maid missionary in Tibet." Billy, her beau, was not convinced he was called to the mission field. There was trouble on the horizon. He finally asked her if she believed God had brought them together. She said “Yes!” He responded, “Then I will do the leading and you do the following.” They were married soon after and Ruth became Mrs. Billy Graham.
After graduation, Ruth became a pastor’s wife in the Chicago suburbs. The small church’s attendance quickly doubled under their leadership but the call on Billy’s life was to itinerant evangelism. God started opening doors for Billy to travel and speak. As they began their family it became obvious that Ruth needed a safe haven in which to live and raise their children. Her missionary parents had settled in the quiet Presbyterian enclave of Montreat, North Carolina. Ruth followed them there. As the years and the scope of Billy’s ministry increased, Ruth and the children needed privacy from the inquisitive busloads of Christian tourists that would descend upon their front lawn. Ruth and Billy were told about a large piece of mountain property that was soon to be available. Billy left for a trip and told Ruth to decide while he was gone. When he returned from the trip Ruth met him with the news that she had gone to the bank, borrowed $45,000, and bought the land. He responded, “You did what?!” This was the beginning of Ruth having to run their home while Billy traversed the globe.
As the years drew on Ruth raised their five children and served the Lord in quiet and invisible ways while holding onto Jesus for dear life. She also determined to grow in knowledge and set herself on a steady course of reading Christian biographies, literature, history, geography, constantly feeding Billy with the information she was gleaning.
Ruth spent much of her adult life rubbing shoulders with royalty, international heads of state, the rich, and the famous. But at the end of the day in her journals, she often wrote the names of the servants in those households to add to her prayer list. Regardless of who she was with, prince or pauper, drug addict or theologian she was always exactly the same person. Never drawing attention to herself, she always remained in the background by her choice.
Once when visiting her grandchildren, Ruth, always the daredevil, decided to test the safety of a zip line that she had designed. During this safety test she had a terrible fall. When she came out of her coma her short-term memory was lost, including the thousands of Bible verses she had memorized throughout her life. She lived with chronic pain the rest of her life but Ruth never complained.
Some other books that will give you a window into Ruth’s life and heart are Footprints of a Pilgram: The Life and Loves of Ruth Bell Graham and Ruth: A Portrait, by Patricia Cornwell. Ruth wrote several books of her own, among them Legacy of a Pack Rat and Prodigals and Those Who Love Them. Her recommendation of Catherine Vos’ The Child’s Story Bible changed our family's quiet time. Ruth said it was the best retelling of the Bible anywhere in print, and she was right!
Ruth’s personal Bible was so worn out that she wrapped a leather belt around it to keep it intact, which she laughingly referred to as her “Bible belt.” Ruth was first and foremost a lover of God’s word, an intercessor, and a lover of hurting people. She truly was an example of a life well lived.