When Billy Graham died, the first thing I thought of was his wife’s poetry. I can recall countless times in college, crumpled in a ball on my bed, reading her words. I fell in love with neither Ruth nor Billy, but them together. I saw him as this faithful steward of the mysteries of God, and this spitfire woman, willing to follow him yet maintaining her anchored convictions.
Don’t believe me on her spitfire character?
Take note of one their early conversations, taken from Footprints of a Pilgrim.
“I haven’t tried to win you, Ruth. I haven’t asked you to fall in love with me. I haven’t sent you candy and flowers and lovely gifts. I have asked the Lord, if you are the one, to win you for me. If not, to keep you from falling in love with me.”
I started dating other men.
“Either you date just me or you can date everybody but me.”
“I think being an old-maid missionary is the highest calling there is.”
“Women was created to be a wife and a mother.”
“God has many exceptions, and I believe I am one of them.”
Spitfire to the bone.
A Spitfire Woman
Ruth Graham lived a life of support for her husband’s very public ministry. Billy was gone often and she maintained their home. She understood that in marrying Billy, in some ways, his life would eclipse her own. His public ministry required her to be the foundation to the other important aspect of the Grahams’ life—their family.
She took this role very seriously. Ruth set out to create a normal life for her children, despite tourists traipsing around their yard.
But she never left behind her gumption. Ruth’s spitfire spirit bled into her parenting.
Their oldest, Franklin, wouldn’t stop smoking. What was Ruth’s solution? Have him chain-smoke an entire pack of cigarettes.
Her spitfire didn’t fade when she was dealing with her children nor was it reserved for them. She was constantly writing Billy letters full of her trademark spunk, and when she spoke to “America’s Pastor” she saw no reason to compromise her spine.
Case in point, Ruth once confused the accelerator for the brake, which led her car into a fence. Billy called her immediately and demanded she surrender her driver’s license. Ruth wouldn’t have it and she told him so.
According to the story, Billy said, “I don’t recall reading in Scripture that Sarah ever talked to Abraham like this.”
Ruth retorted, “Well, I don’t recall reading in Scripture that Abraham ever tried to take Sarah’s camel away from her.”
This may not be the kind of exchange you expect from one of the defining couples of Christian America. You’d expect stories of limitless agreement with this influential man wrapped up with the pretty bow we call submission.
But that bow has become quite crumpled and distorted. Because what do you do with women whose passion for the church runs as deep as their DNA? Do you hand them scripture such as 1 Corinthians 13:34, which reads, “the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not submitted to speak, but are to submit themselves as the law also says” and ask them to be quiet?
Or is there something deeper? Is there some way to take and hold these mandates while processing what to do with women like Ruth?
Often women are expected to alter their personalities to align with our ideas of femininity. Their passion is seen as “too much.” Their emotion is seen as weakness. And in all honesty, women can still be seen as arm candy—including pastors’ wives. The embodiment of sugar and spice and everything nice.
But, in this way, Ruth was a nonconformist. She maintained a dynamic personality and passion despite her husband’s very public role as a pastor. And it seems as though Billy didn’t try to take that away from her. In fact, he was quick to praise his wife, calling her “The finest Christian he ever met,” a woman whose primary goal was to “live for Christ and reflect his love.”
With all her spunk, spitfire, and spine, Ruth’s personality was a tool in her work as a mother, a wife, and minister of the gospel, not a detriment to it. We need to see and praise more Ruth Grahams, women who refuse to give up their gumption regardless of what life path they choose to.
Let’s choose to celebrate the spitfire, not silence her, and see what direction the church begins to take.
Cover image from the Billy Graham Evangelical Association.