The fascinating life story, told critically but sympathetically, of a paragon of twentieth-century white Christian womanhood—and the wife of evangelist Billy Graham.Ruth Bell Graham’s lega
The fascinating life story, told critically but sympathetically, of a paragon of twentieth-century white Christian womanhood—and the wife of evangelist Billy Graham.
Ruth Bell Graham’s legacy is closely associated with that of her husband, whose career placed her in the public eye throughout her life. But, while it’s true that her identity was significantly shaped by her role in supporting Billy Graham’s ministry, Ruth carried a strong sense of her own agency and was widely influential in her own right, especially in the image she projected of conservative evangelical womanhood—defined by a faith that was deep, private, and nonpolitical.
Beginning prior to Ruth and Billy’s meeting at Wheaton College, Anne Blue Wills chronicles the many formative experiences of Ruth’s life—especially the first decade of her childhood living in a community of American medical missionaries in China. Throughout the biography, Wills focuses not on Ruth’s role in Billy’s life, but on her own interests, ambitions, and fears—as a devoted mother of five, as the fastidious manager of a household, as a devout and well-read Christian, and as a beloved writer and poet.
Dealing honestly with a life of contradictory responsibilities that Ruth Bell Graham herself called “an odd kind of cross to bear,” Wills draws from nearly a decade of original research and presents a nuanced portrait of Graham apart from the reverential awe of her admirers and the oversimplified caricatures put forth by her detractors. In telling Graham’s story, Wills indirectly tells the story of millions of women who emulated Graham as a role model—women who spurned second-wave feminism and willingly submitted to patriarchy while maintaining an undeniable sense of independence and strength of conviction.
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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“The author elegantly balances historical perspective, narrative cohesion, and an eye for detail, crafting a richly textured biography. Intimate and insightful, this vividly illuminates the life of a major yet often overlooked figure of 20th-century American evangelicalism.”
“An Odd Cross to Bear is a meticulously detailed biography. Anne Blue Wills goes beyond simply telling Ruth Graham’s story; she immerses readers in Ruth Graham’s world. It will undoubtedly be an invaluable resource to scholars, journalists, and anyone interested in the life and legacy of Ruth Graham.”
—Emily Johnson, Ball State University
“Unlike her husband, Ruth Bell Graham rarely sought the spotlight, appearing in countless stories about Billy as a mostly silent, always faithful wife. In this empathetic and revealing biography, Anne Blue Wills does what all those stories about Billy and Ruth could not: Wills shows us how Ruth's Calvinist faith and ideas about women's roles shaped her commitments to home and family, as well as her approach to philanthropy and politics. Wills brilliantly captures Ruth's acerbic wit and searching poetry in her own nimble prose, uncovering the surprising contours of a life lived mostly out of the spotlight, but hardly in the shadows.”
—Seth Dowland, Pacific Lutheran University
“As famous as she was, most Americans know Ruth Bell Graham only as the wife of her world-famous husband, Billy Graham. In this fascinating biography, Anne Blue Wills shows that Ruth was far more than that: a thinker in her own right, a poet, a philanthropist, a log cabin designer, and a woman of faith who ministered to others in compassionate, practical ways. A conservative who rejected feminism, criticized changes in sexual mores, and strongly supported the death penalty, Ruth also had a tremendous wit and refused to take herself or her husband too seriously. An Odd Cross to Bear contributes significantly to our understanding of American evangelicalism and the roles of women in its flourishing.”
—R. Marie Griffith, Washington University in St. Louis
“Wills offers the first scholarly biography of Ruth Bell Graham, who may well have been the most visible ‘invisible’ woman among twentieth-century evangelicals. Wills tracks down the elusive details of Bell Graham’s upbringing in a missionary family in China, illumines the theological subtlety of her poetry, and analyzes the paradoxes of her taut yet loving relationship with Billy Graham, her husband of sixty years. The result is a book that is deeply researched, deftly executed, gracefully written, and brilliantly conceived.”
— Grant Wacker, Duke University; author of One Soul at a Time: The Story of Billy Graham
“Anne Blue Wills takes great care to construct a complete picture of Ruth’s early life, tracing out her unusual childhood in China, her close relationship to her parents and siblings, her evolving faith, and her interior wishes to be a single missionary to Tibet, which becomes derailed upon meeting Billy. By centering Ruth, her poetry, and her religious worldview, Wills draws Ruth out of the shadow of her famous husband and paints a portrait of a staunchly strong-willed woman with a sharp sense of humor. . . . Despite the lack of access to Ruth's personal writings, Wills’s innovative use of Ruth's published works and especially her poetry show how scholars can successfully use the tools of feminist historians to tell the story of a woman who decidedly rejected that label. An Odd Cross to Bear is a refreshing and highly readable biography that will interest women’s historians, religious historians, and scholars of evangelism.”
—Angela Tarango, Trinity University
“Anne Blue Wills has written a fascinating account of the life and influence of Ruth Bell Graham. This book not only tells the story of this remarkable woman who, as a missionary kid, poet, author, and homemaker, helped make the Graham name a powerful force within evangelicalism. It also succeeds, with nuanced argumentation and sparkling prose, in showing the complex negotiations of evangelical womanhood in its private and public forms. This is a superb book that should be read widely.”
—Aaron Griffiths, Whitworth University
View Biographical note
Anne Blue Wills is professor and chair of religious studies at Davidson College. She is also the coeditor, with Andrew Finstuen and Grant Wacker, of Billy Graham: American Pilgrim, in which she wrote a chapter about Ruth Bell Graham's influence on Billy Graham's career.
View Table of contents
Table of Contents
Introduction: What Language Shall I Borrow?
1. Missionary Daughter (1920–1937)
2. College and a Calling (1937–1943)
3. Marrying the Ministry (1943–1954)
4. Creating a Log Home in the Age of Levittown (1950s)
5. A Christian Mother on the Cusp of a Feminist Era (1958–1969)
6. Poems and Prodigals (1970–1975)
7. Poetry and Politics (1976–1987)
8. Prodigals (1989–2007)
A Note on the Sources