An Odd Cross to Bear: A Biography of Ruth Bell Graham

Written by Anne Blue Wills Reviewed By Karin Spiecker Stetina

In her biography Ruth, a Portrait: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham, author and family friend Patricia Cornwell shares Ruth’s words about the tension of her fame: “It’s an odd kind of cross to bear. Yet those who have not been through it would consider it some kind of glory” (p. 133). Anne Blue Wills draws on this quote as the title for her new biography on the well-known wife of evangelist Billy Graham, seeking to flesh out her picture from the lens of an academic interested in gender issues. This work comes on the heels of her former professor Grant Wacker’s biography One Soul at a Time: The Story of Billy Graham (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019). As a student, Wills was encouraged by Wacker to write a gender perspective conference paper on Billy Graham and his relationship with Ruth. Her biography, which emerges out of that essay, argues that as an ultrafeminine, ultracapable woman, Ruth helped to strengthen her husband’s manly image. Ruth Bell Graham, the wife of the “people’s pastor” Billy Graham for more than 60 years, has long been revered by white evangelical women. This new biography presents her as the epitome of the twentieth-century white evangelical woman with all of its nuances and complexities.

Anne Blue Wills (PhD, Duke University) is professor and the chair of religious studies at Davidson College and an expert in American religion, culture, and 19th-century women’s religious activism. In her article published in Fides et historia in 2017, “Heroes, Women, Wives: Writing other Lives,” she reflects on Ruth Graham as a case study for scholars writing women’s history. She also co-edited Billy Graham: American Pilgrim, published by Oxford University Press (2017), making her well-suited to give a more nuanced, feminist perspective on the significant evangelical woman, Ruth Bell Graham.

This well-researched biography, which relies heavily on Ruth’s published poetry, articles, TV appearances, and Nelson Bell’s correspondence, took Wills ten years to write. While she did not have access, like Cornwell, to Graham’s letters and journals, she interviewed two of Graham’s five children, Gigi and Bunny. In addition, she painstakingly researched Ruth’s life from her childhood in China as the daughter of Southern Presbyterian missionary parents to her burial next to her husband on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina. As she explains in her “Note on Sources,” Wills also makes use of feminist and gender research, such as Margaret Lamberts Bendroth’s Fundamentalism and Gender: 1875 to the Present (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993). In eight chapters, she paints a picture of Ruth as a woman who “devised her own ethic of Christian womanhood, characterized by ‘adjusting’ to Bill.” She effectively argues, “in doing so, she helped bring his preaching to the world” (p. 8). In a loosely chronological narrative, Wills covers the various periods of Graham’s life: her experience as a missionary daughter and student years at Wheaton College (chs. 1–2), her marriage and early years of ministry with Billy (ch. 3), her role as homemaker and Christian mother (chs. 4–5), and her later decades, devoted to writing and caring for prodigals such as former televangelist Jim Bakker (chs. 6–8).

In her critical yet appreciative examination of Ruth’s life, Wills asserts that Ruth was more than Billy Graham’s wife. She was a complicated woman who spurned second-wave feminism while still maintaining her independence; who supported the death penalty while befriending an inmate on death row; who shunned the limelight and fiercely protected her family while publicly supporting her husband’s successful career as an evangelist. Wills establishes a nuanced picture of Ruth as having achieved a balance of gratitude and acceptance, submission and strength. At times this work focuses on details rather than on Ruth herself, such as the log cabin in Montreat, North Carolina, or her children’s marriages– understandable divergences, given that the author did not have access to Ruth herself or her personal writings. The author holds Ruth Bell Graham in high regard without making her out to be a flawless hero, as biographers often do. For instance, Wills points out how Graham was a woman of her context and generation in terms of perspectives on race and white privilege, her law-and-order view of the world, and her not taking an active public stand for women. Yet, the author still recognizes Ruth’s value in accomplishing what she most famously set out to do–evangelize the world for Jesus Christ. Not only would there have been no Billy without Ruth, according to Wills, but evangelical women would not have had the powerful example of a woman who chose to “embrace the role as background player” (p. 146).

The feminist historian aptly argues that for better or for worse, Ruth used her agency to partner with her husband. This book is well-suited for those interested in American evangelicalism, Billy and Ruth Graham, Ruth’s poetry, and the role women have played in American evangelical culture. For someone looking for an intimate look into Ruth and Billy’s relationship or a biographical novel about Ruth, this may not be the best choice, as the author situates this work in the academic gender studies category of biographies.

Karin Spiecker Stetina

Karin Spiecker Stetina
Talbot School of Theology
La Mirada, California, USA

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