WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and congressional leaders saluted Billy Graham as the plain wooden casket bearing the evangelist's body lay in honor in the Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday morning. Graham was the first American clergyman to be honored in that way.
"Today we give thanks for this extraordinary life, and it's very fitting that we do so right here in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, where the memory of the American people is enshrined," Trump said. "Here in this room we are reminded that the United States is a nation founded in prayer."
Trump joined House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the Capitol service honoring Graham, who died Feb. 21 at age 99. Billy and Ruth Graham's five children � Franklin, Gigi, Ruth, Anne and Ned � stood beside the president and First Lady Melania Trump.
"The man we recognize today shared the gospel with more people than anyone else in history," McConnell told the gathering. "His warmth and graciousness lit up living rooms and touched millions of hearts."
Added Ryan: "In those moments when we felt weak in spirit, when our country felt weak in the knees, he reminded us that's exactly when we find our grace and spirit.... Here lies America's pastor, a man made great not by who he was but by who he served with all of his heart and all of his soul and all of his mind. We give thanks for this great and humble servant now and forever."
Trump alluded to the story of a 1934 gathering in Charlotte at the dairy farm of Graham's father in which the group prayed for a preacher who could bring the gospel to the world.
"We are here today more than 80 years later because that prayer was truly answered," he said. "The North Carolina farm boy walked out of those fields into a great and beautiful history."
The president talked about attending a Graham crusade at New York's Yankee stadium with his father, Fred Trump, a "big fan" of the evangelist. He praised Graham's compassion for the poor in body or in spirit.
"He felt a great passion for those that were neglected," Trump said. "Everywhere Rev. Graham went, he delivered the same message: God loves you, he really does."
Christian singer Michael W. Smith sang "Just As I Am," the signature song of Graham's crusades and the title of his autobiography, to close the service. The Trumps then joined McConnell and Ryan in placing wreaths at each corner of Graham's casket before the service's benediction.
North Carolina's U.S. senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, prayed at the casket after greeting members of Graham's family.
Members of the North Carolina delegation, including Reps. George Holding, Mark Walker, Robert Pittenger, Mark Meadows and Richard Hudson were among the first to lead House members into the Rotunda for the service. At least seven members of Trump's Cabinet also attended.
Graham joined a select pantheon of 33 other Americans, including the bodies of unknown soldiers from four conflicts, whose bodies have lain in honor at the Capitol. The tradition is normally reserved for military officers or elected officials � including 11 presidents � but in recent years has included private citizens.
The Charlotte-born evangelist was the fourth such individual to be honored, joining civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks in 2005 and U.S. Capitol Police officers Jacob Joseph Chestnut and John Michael Gibson, who were killed in the line of duty in 1998.
Graham's casket rests on the same catafalque that was used to hold the body of President Lincoln in 1865 and others who have lain in state or in honor.
Graham's ministry took him to 185 countries, where he preached to more than 200 million people, according to Ryan's office. He also served as an advisor to 12 consecutive U.S. presidents � including former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who paid their respects at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte this week.
Graham's casket was to be flown from Charlotte to Washington on a DC-8 cargo plane operated by Samaritan's Purse, the Christian relief agency led by Graham's son Franklin. Franklin Graham and other family members will also travel to Washington, the ministry said.
Graham's funeral service at the Billy Graham Library will start at noon Friday and be open only to 2,300 invited guests. Burial will follow. Trump will attend the service.
(Bruce Henderson writes for the Charlotte Observer. Brian Murphy writes for the McClatchy Washington Bureau. Observer saff writer Tim Funk contributed.)