As we celebrate Black History Month, we remember the efforts of an essential Billy Graham team member, Ralph Bell.
Ralph Bell was born on May 13, 1934, in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. After a brief time of rebellion at the age of 16 when he left home against his parents’ wishes to pursue a career as a minor league baseball player, he felt God’s call as he attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago from 1954-57 and then Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1963, Bell received his Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary and then pursued pastoral clinical training with Metropolitan State Mental Hospital in Los Angeles from 1963-64. He married his wife Jean in 1957.
While he was working towards his Master’s Degree, Bell pastored West Washington Community Church in Los Angeles from 1960-1965 and for part of that time, he concurrently served as chaplain for the Los Angeles County Jail from 1964-1965. He also became a part-time evangelist with the Billy Graham Evangelical Association beginning in 1963 when he helped organize the Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles Crusade that year.
It was in 1965 when Ralph Bell accepted a full-time evangelist position with the Billy Graham team, serving at every Billy Graham Crusade from that point. In Billy Graham’s autobiography, Just As I Am, he says of his friend, “A forceful and clear preacher of the Gospel, Ralph has not only held numerous citywide and church Crusades but has also had an especially fruitful ministry in prisons, one of the most difficult places to preach.”
The Billy Graham Archive & Research Center has numerous letters from Billy and Ruth Graham to their friend, encouraging and thanking him for his efforts in citywide Crusade efforts. In a letter from 1995, Ruth Graham writes to Ralph saying:
Our prayers are with you as you continue to present the claims of Christ.
May God prepare hearts, and may there be a great response to Him.
With love to you and Jean,
In a letter from 2004, as both Billy Graham and Ralph Bell were preparing to retire from full-time evangelical work, Billy Graham writes to Ralph:
My dear Ralph,
Please forgive me for not writing long before now. I seem to have had my hands full with physical therapy, and have fallen woefully behind with the mail.
I, too, was disappointed that the new dates for Kansas City fall at the same time as your final Celebration scheduled for Colorado that same weekend. However, we praise God for the outreach you will have there.
We will look forward to you being with us in Los Angeles in November. Please make sure that we see each other for some fellowship at that time. The week quickly gets away from us and my strength is limited. However I want to make it a priority to enjoy some time with you.
Meantime, please give our warmest Christian affection to Jean.
It is clear from his letter just how much Billy Graham valued Ralph Bell as a friend and as a preacher of the Gospel. Billy Graham also owed a debt of gratitude to Ralph for protecting him during his Crusade in Oslo, Norway. In Just As I Am he recalls:
“Shortly after our meeting began, the students broke out into shouts and screams. One man scaled the fence, cutting his hand on the barbed wire, and ran for the platform; he was determined to stop me. Team member Ralph Bell, who had been a star football player in his youth, tackled him just as he was about to reach the platform.”
Certainly, the Billy Graham team would not have been the same without the enormous contributions and efforts of Ralph Bell. His focus on many who are often forgotten, particularly those in prison, was such an amazing ministry and led so many to Christ.
When once interviewed by Decision Magazine, he said he had a simple but important message:
“Death is the great leveler of mankind,” he said. “It is also a great separator… You may be successful in life, but that is no guarantee that you will be successful in death. You have to ask yourself, ‘Where will I go? Where will I spend eternity?’ Maybe your life is all mixed up, and you can’t find a way out… Level with God, and you will discover that he is able to give you a brand new beginning.”
Now nearly 90 years-old, Ralph Bell continues to live in Colorado.