Billy Graham and Ruth Bell’s early love story didn’t unfold at all the way a romance writer might have penned it. There were no flirtatious winks across the room, no mushy meetings between classes, no plaintive pledges of undying love. They were far more serious about pursuing Jesus than each other.
In some ways, their courtship—and, eventually, their marriage—was an answer to Ruth’s prayer as a young girl: that God would let her live out her days as a missionary. She was 12, the daughter of a medical missionary in China, and she pictured herself an old maid, leading Tibetan people to the Lord. The more difficult the mission field, the better.
God answered her prayer, but not by giving her a post in Tibet.
He gave her Billy Graham.
There was nothing flowery or sentimental about their meeting, courtship, or marriage, nothing of a traditional romance. The sacrifices made for love were not made for each other, but for the sake of the call to serve Christ alone.
By the time they met at Wheaton College, Ruth had lived in China all but her last two years of high school. She was cultured, strikingly beautiful, and driven to deep devotions each day before sun-up. She had no interest in the guys who couldn’t help but stare at her; dating was out of the question.
Billy noticed Ruth long before she knew anything of him. That fall, Billy wrote to his family back home about the girl who had caught his attention. When a third party finally introduced the two, Billy was so taken by Ruth that he wrote home again, this time saying he’d fallen in love.
Now he only had to work up the courage to ask her out.
But Ruth wasn’t interested, that much was apparent. But Billy wasn’t dissuaded. With the gift of persuasion he would later use to lead millions to Jesus, Billy went about winning the unattainable Ruth.
When he took part in a small-group Bible study that Ruth attended, he prayed aloud, fervently and with passion. Suddenly he had Ruth’s attention; she had never heard anyone pray with such feeling. She could see that Billy’s deep relationship with the Lord was like only one other Ruth knew: her own.
When Billy found the courage to ask Ruth to accompany him to a performance of Handel’s Messiah, Ruth said yes. Afterward, they walked along a snow-covered path to a professor’s house for tea. For Billy, the night was magical. Again he wrote home, this time declaring that he would marry Ruth.
Ruth kept her feelings to herself, but she was just as changed by that first date. That night, she changed her prayer; instead of seeking an arduous place in the mission fields of Tibet, she asked God to let her serve him with Billy Graham.
But Billy had begun to doubt himself. How could he win over such a girl? His insecurity kept him away for six weeks, and when he finally asked her out again, he expressed his hesitancy. He didn’t share her interest in the mission field and didn’t want to hinder her. He said he was willing to walk away if Ruth felt called to Tibet.
“I’ve asked God to give you to me if that’s his will,” Billy said. “But I’ve also asked him to keep me from loving you if that would be best for both of us.”
Over the ensuing months, it wasn’t romance or sweet talk or shows of sentimentality that drew Ruth to accept Billy’s proposal of marriage. Rather she felt God calling her to be Billy’s wife. In what may have seemed more like a ministerial partnership than a glorious love story, they were married. But the glorious love story most certainly followed.
Being married to Billy meant sometimes six months or longer without seeing him, even as their five children came along. From early on, Billy made it clear that preaching and evangelizing took first place in his life. Typically Ruth handled that with feisty determination. But one day she read a letter from a missionary who wrote, “It must be glamorous to be the wife of a well-known evangelist. I’m just stuck here with my husband.” Ruth’s eyes welled as she told a friend, “At least she’s with her husband.”
Being married to Billy was a mixed blessing. It was a marriage in which love was always fresh and new, since Billy was often away. It also wasn’t far from the old maid life Ruth had prayed for. But she would tell anyone who asked that she would rather have Billy part-time than anybody else full-time.
Though she was a strong nurturer and disciplinarian of their children—often playing both mother and father to them—she regularly asked God for wisdom on how to better live out her calling. Often that wisdom came in the form of practical, even comical, advice to her husband. When he was considering a career in politics, Ruth said, “I don’t think the American people would vote for a divorced president, and if you leave ministry for politics, you will certainly have a divorce on your hands.”
Though his ministry cost Ruth much, she wouldn’t have had it any other way. Ruth was Billy’s lifelong bedrock, often speaking up to offer advice, yet she just as often stayed silent so that he could focus on his mission.
“There would have been no Billy Graham … had it not been for Ruth,” said the late T. W. Wilson, a key member of Graham’s staff, in A Prophet with Honor, William Martin’s biography of the evangelist.
Ruth’s sense of humor continued. Once when someone called the home and asked if Billy was handy, she replied, “Not very. But he keeps trying.”
With Ruth to keep him grounded, Billy could easily admit publicly that he was merely a sinner saved by grace, and that he had to constantly seek the Lord for forgiveness. It has been noted that their sins were not those that plagued other famous evangelists, and maybe that was why they both excelled at their calling. They did not struggle with immorality or financial disgrace, but with ever attempting to live a life worthy of their holy God and Savior.
Time proved that Billy and Ruth were indeed made for each other. As they reached their later years, something amazing happened: They found romance. The love story that did not mark their beginning marked their twilight years.
Shortly before Ruth died in 2007, after almost 64 years of marriage, Billy said, “I am more in love with Ruth now than ever before.”
For those who knew them, Billy’s words came as no surprise, because God blesses those who follow his call. Billy’s mission field was the world; Ruth’s was the faces around their dining room table. But in the end, they served out their separate callings in a way that brought them together.
Ruth and Billy found love born of a passion to serve Christ—in humility, whatever the cost. They set about that endeavor almost as teammates driven to a common goal. Maybe that’s why their marriage stands as a beacon of faithfulness in a world of shallow commitments. Because their love came as a result of the greatest calling.