A Utah evangelical leader lauded him as a “humble farm boy” who helped changed the world. A Baptist pastor, who differed with him over theology, nonetheless recognized him as a trailblazer in the Christian cause. Even a politician, Mitt Romney, whose 2012 meeting with the “Protestant Pope” boosted Mormonism’s stature, saluted “this man of God.”
Such were the expressions of praise, sorrow, rejoicing and gratitude that flowed from Utahns after news of the death of Billy Graham, the iconic evangelist whose unvarnished and simple gospel message reached hundreds of millions of people around the world.
Pastor Greg Johnson, director of Utah’s Standing Together evangelical consortium, said that, from a believer’s perspective, Graham’s passing was a time for celebration.
“My heart is filled with joy today,” Johnson said, “knowing that, as Billy often said himself himself about this day, ‘The day that you hear that Billy Graham has died, don’t you dare believe it, because on that very day I will be more alive then than I have ever been in my entire life.’”
Graham — the pastor of presidents, inspiration for generations of evangelicals, and globe-trotting preacher who packed stadiums in televised “crusades” that saw millions convert to Christianity — died Wednesday at his North Carolina home. He was 99.
Johnson, the Beehive State coordinator for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, noted that Utah apparently is one of the few states his famous mentor never visited. Still, he said, the unprecedented success of Graham’s far-reaching ministry lives on as “a profound testament of God’s ability to use a simple, humble farm boy from North Carolina to influence, literally, the whole world.”
The Rev. Curtis Price, pastor of Salt Lake City’s First Baptist Church, said Graham “ushered in a whole new era of evangelism and perfected the revival meeting.”
”For good or ill, it transformed Baptist faith and Christianity in America and beyond. While Billy Graham and I are far apart theologically, I respect his sincere heart and his deep desire to share a faith that would restore people to a right relationship with God.
“I was impressed to find that he had taken a stand during the civil rights movement by desegregating his ‘crusades.’ … He will be remembered for serving the cause of Christ, as he saw it, with tireless faith and constant zeal. I applaud and honor him for the many positive contributions he made.”
Graham, who counseled with so many U.S. commanders in chief that he came to be known as the “pastor to presidents,” also influenced the nation’s policies and policymakers — on both sides of the aisle.
He met with every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, but was especially sought out by Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson.
He also huddled with more than his share of presidential wannabes.
In 2012, Mitt Romney met with the then-93-year-old preacher during the former Massachusetts governor’s unsuccessful run for the White House.
During their 30-minute chat in North Carolina, the two discussed Graham’s friendship with Romney’s father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, along with religious liberty and Christian ministries around the world, The Huffington Post reported at the time.
Mitt Romney asked Graham to pray for him. The ailing evangelist did so and then went even further by expressing support for the Republican nominee’s presidential bid.
“I’ll do all I can to help you,” Graham told his visitor in The Huffington Post piece. “And you can quote me on that.”
Graham took some heat from fellow evangelicals for tacitly endorsing Romney, a prominent Mormon. But he stood by his stance.
“What impresses me even more than Governor Romney’s successful career are his values and strong moral convictions,” Graham said in a statement after the encounter. “ ... I will turn 94 the day after the upcoming election, and I believe America is at a crossroads. I hope millions of Americans will join me in praying for our nation and to vote for candidates who will support the biblical definition of marriage, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms.”
Afterward, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association removed references on its website to Mormonism as a “cult,” Religion News Service reported.
The move elevated, to some degree, the status of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in some evangelical eyes.
“Mormonism no longer being named as a cult by the most prominent voice in American evangelicalism was a major coup for the LDS Church and its members,” the Juvenile Instructor Mormon history blog wrote Wednesday. “ ... At least for the 2012 election, Graham gave Mormonism, and its most famous adherent, his blessing.”
It wasn’t enough, though. Romney lost to Obama.
On Wednesday, Romney, who now lives in Utah and is pursuing the seat of outgoing Sen. Orrin Hatch, tweeted his admiration of Graham.
”[He] lifted eyes toward heaven and instilled heaven’s values in hearts,” Romney said. “The world mourns this man of character, this man of God.”
The LDS Church’s governing First Presidency hailed Graham’s ”legacy of ... love for the Redeemer of all mankind. ... We admire his courageous voice of moral witness to the world.”
The Rev. James Ayers, pastor of Life Church, an Assemblies of God congregation in Taylorsville, echoed that sentiment.
“I am rejoicing for him. After a long life of faithfulness to the Lord preaching to millions of people, he is now with the Lord he loved,” he said. “His impact upon American culture cannot be overstated.”
Ayers recalled attending a Billy Graham Crusade as a teenager and feeling “the power of the Holy Spirit in those meetings.”
“As a pastor myself, I am grateful for the example he left us,” Ayers said. “What a legacy.”
The Rev. Casey Brown, pastor at Salt Lake City’s Heritage Baptist Church, said “God used him mightily because he was surrendered to him. He proclaimed the gospel of salvation to millions. What a blessing. He is with his savior today.”
France Davis, longtime pastor of Salt Lake City’s Calvary Baptist Church, prayed for Graham’s “impact and legacy to continue for the cause of Christ. His preaching was powerful and practical.”
The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City praised Graham as an “outstanding preacher of God’s Word.”
“Whether in stadiums throughout the world or personal encounters, he bore witness to a dynamic faith in the Lord,” Utah’s second-largest faith said in a news release. “He leaves a legacy of personal integrity and commitment to all that is good.”
Bishop Scott Hayashi, leader of Utah’s Episcopal Diocese, noted how Graham brought a “religious voice of reason and compassion” after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“He said that the lesson of 9/11 was that ‘we need each other,’” Hayashi said. “In our day, that lesson needs to be relearned.”
Condolences also came from outside Utah’s Christian community.
Rabbi Benny Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah said Graham made multitudes “aware of the presence of a higher power in this world; a message so needed now more than ever. ”