London: Billy Graham, the Christian evangelist who preached to more than 200 million people in 185 countries and became the confidant of world leaders including every US president from Harry Truman to George W Bush, has died. He was 99.

He died on Wednesday at his home in Montreat, North Carolina, according to a spokesman, Mark DeMoss.

Graham had reduced his public appearances in the 1990s after developing Parkinson’s disease. He also suffered from hydrocephaly, or water on the brain, and prostate cancer.

With his lanky frame, wavy hair and chiseled features, Graham gave sermons with a riveting, rapid-fire delivery that earned him the nickname “God’s machine gun." His ability to publicize his crusades for half a century through all forms of media—radio, television, movies and the internet—helped make him one of the most influential evangelists in history. For five decades, he made Gallup’s list of most admired people.

His reputation as “chaplain to the White House" gained him access not only to US presidents but to countries untouched by evangelical Christianity, and to leaders such as Winston Churchill, Mikhail Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II. He was a fixture at presidential inaugurations and other national ceremonies, delivering the sermon at the National Prayer Service on 14 September, 2001, in memory of the victims of the 11 September terrorist attacks.

“Here’s one of the most famous people in the world, and in his presence you realize how humble he is," Bush said in 2010, recalling how a 1985 meeting with Graham gave him inspiration and direction in his life. “His humility and obviously his love for God and Christ can overwhelm the cynic. And I was a cynical person at the time, and his spirit overwhelmed me."

Graham helped create a movement comprising a mix of denominations, from Southern Baptists to Assemblies of God, representing an estimated 60 million Americans who consider themselves “born again." A Southern Baptist himself, he followed fundamentalist theology that personal salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ. He cooperated with, instead of condemned, other churches and invited them to participate in his crusades.

In 2001, Graham designated his son Franklin as his successor to run the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

Historians said Graham’s success was due to a simple message, vibrant delivery and a relatively scandal-free ministry. Some of the televangelists who followed in his footsteps, such as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, were forced to resign from their ministries in disgrace.

Though he frequently gave counsel to politicians, Graham tried to avoid potentially alienating subjects such as abortion and gay marriage in his sermons. He said he often used the same few sermons for decades, updating them with current references.

He called racism immoral and refused to hold segregated services, beginning in 1952. Though criticized in some quarters for not being more aggressively supportive of the civil rights movement, he pointed to his work with Martin Luther King Jr and other black ministers as evidence of his belief in racial equality.

At a 1952 crusade in Mississippi, Graham spoke out against the governor’s desire for separate religious meetings for white and black. “There is no scriptural basis for segregation," he said. “The ground at the foot of the cross is level, and it touches my heart when I see whites standing shoulder to shoulder with blacks at the cross."

Graham backed Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon on US involvement in Vietnam. He visited troops during Christmas 1966 and 1968 and criticized anti-war protesters. In later years, he toned down anti-communist comments and urged nuclear disarmament.

Graham endorsed Nixon for president in 1960, 1968 and 1972 and quietly worked to get him elected. He became Nixon’s golf partner and unofficial chaplain, frequently speaking at White House prayer breakfasts and church services. Graham also served as an unofficial spiritual adviser during the Watergate affair.

His reputation was tarnished in 2002 when previously secret White House tape recordings revealed Graham and Nixon in an anti-Semitic conversation. In the 1972 discussion, Graham said Jews had a “stranglehold" on the media and that if Nixon were re-elected, the two “might be able to do something."

Graham apologized and said hearing the tapes was the biggest shock of his life.

On another tape recording, part of a batch released in August 2013, Graham told Nixon that CBS had been the only television network not to react positively to an address he had just given on the then-developing Watergate scandal.

“I felt like slashing their throats," Graham said, referring to the network. “But anyway," he said to Nixon, “God be with you."

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association quoted Graham explaining his support of Nixon this way: “I wanted to believe the best about him for as long as I could. When the worst came out, it was nearly unbearable for me."

According to The Preacher and the Presidents, a 2007 book by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, Dwight Eisenhower would ask Graham how people could know if they were going to heaven; John F Kennedy wanted to discuss how the world would end; and Johnson was obsessed with his own mortality.

Graham’s travels were greatly limited by the time Barack Obama became president in January 2009. In April 2010, Obama visited Graham at his North Carolina home, the first time a sitting president had done so.

In a January 2011 interview with Christianity Today, Graham said he had some regrets about his involvement in politics.

“I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places," he said. “People in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now."

William Franklin Graham Jr was born on 7 November, 1918, on a dairy farm near Charlotte that his grandfather, a Confederate soldier, had bought. His parents were Presbyterians who taught him to read the Bible, pray and work hard. He wanted to play professional baseball.

Graham experienced a religious conversion at 16 after hearing fire-and-brimstone evangelist Mordecai Ham. He studied ministry at what is now Bob Jones University and the Florida Bible Institute and was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister in 1939.

He received a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Wheaton College in 1943. Later that year, Graham married Ruth McCue Bell, a missionary’s daughter. They moved to Western Springs, Illinois, where he led a church.

Graham took literally a portion of Mark 16:15—“Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature"—and set out as a travelling evangelist. He was vice president of Youth for Christ International from 1945 to 1950, conducting revival meetings nationwide. He was president of Northwestern College in Minnesota from 1947 to 1952. Meanwhile, Graham began to hold revivals in churches and tents.

He became a national celebrity in 1949 when he and two fellow evangelists held a tent revival in Los Angeles. It ran for two months instead of two weeks, packing the 6,000 seat “Canvas Cathedral." Graham was soon preaching in stadiums.

He established the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1950 to organize his crusades. He also began his weekly Hour of Decision radio show, heard on more than 700 stations worldwide, and conducted telecasts that reached 60 million viewers by the 1990s. He founded a film production and distribution company and a training centre for evangelists in North Carolina.

“Behind his rise to prominence lay a series of strategic decisions and an organization whose efficiency would be the envy of any presidential campaign or Fortune 500 company," said Randall Balmer, a religious-history professor at Dartmouth College.

Graham’s preaching, whether from small churches or stadiums, remained the bread-and-butter of his ministry. He conducted more than 400 crusades. One in 1957, at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, drew more than 2.5 million people from mid-May to Labour Day. It was the first Graham revival broadcast on TV.

From the 1970s to the ’90s, he focused on world crusades. A 1973 five-day outdoor revival in Seoul drew 1.2 million people. Graham was quick to visit the former eastern bloc after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

He wrote about three dozen books. The 800,000-copy first edition of How to Be Born Again (1977) was said to be the largest initial printing in publishing history at the time. Graham published his memoirs, Just as I Am, in 1997.

At the 2007 dedication of his library, Graham told the crowd that the building, which cost $27 million and occupies 40,000 square feet, glorified him beyond his desires.

“My whole life has been to please the Lord and honour Jesus," he said, “not to see me and think of me."

Ruth Bell Graham, his wife of more than 60 years and most trusted adviser, died in June 2007.

In addition to Franklin, the couple had another son, Nelson, and three daughters, Anne, Ruth and Virginia. They survive him, as does his sister, Jean Ford, plus 19 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren. Bloomberg