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Remembering the life of Billy Graham

February 22 2018

Billy Graham at Wheaton

Ruth and Billy in front of Blanchard Tower
Courtesy of Special Collections, Buswell Library, Wheaton College, Wheaton IL

Billy Graham transferred from Florida Bible Institute to Wheaton College at the beginning of his sophomore year, graduating in 1943. He met Mrs. Alma Edman, her son Elner Edmam and Paul Fischer, when they stayed at the Institute’s hotel. After hearing Graham preach, Paul Fischer offered to pay his tuition for the first year at Wheaton and Elner Edman, the brother of the then-president of the college, volunteered to cover his other expenses. Though hesitant about the high level of academic rigour at Wheaton, Graham eventually accepted their offer. He later became friends with V. Raymond Edman, the president of the college at that time. He described his first encounter with the president in his autobiography, “Just As I Am”: “Crossing campus one of my first days there, I was greeted by a person I did not recognize. ‘Hi, Bill!’ he said. ‘How’s everything in North Carolina?’ I found out the next day he was the president of the college.”

Contrary to what you might guess, Billy Graham did not major in Bible, theology or public speaking. Since he came from a Bible institution, he was able to transfer several hours of credits in Biblical studies. He decided that he would use his time at Wheaton to get the best liberal arts education possible before he continued on to seminary, so he chose to major in anthropology. In his autobiography, he lists the reasons why he decided on anthropology. Besides a desire for a comprehensive liberal arts education, Graham was considering and preparing for the possibility of being in the mission field and felt that anthropology would prepare him well. Graham admits in in his autobiography however, that part of the reason he took anthropology in the first place was because he had heard it was an easy class and the professor who taught it had a hard time reading students’ handwriting. Dr. Alexander Grigolia, the head of the anthropology department, had greatly impacted Graham and Graham’s enjoyment of the professor’s class, as well as Grigolia’s amiable, quirky personality, influenced the choice of major. Another faculty member, Dr. Mortimer B. Lane, a professor of government and economics, left a lasting impact on Graham by welcoming him into his home.

Beginning a ministry

Billy Graham preaching
Courtesy of Special Collections, Buswell Library, Wheaton College, Wheaton IL

Billy Graham met his wife Ruth while at Wheaton College, and they married shortly after graduating. Graham then began serving as pastor of Western Springs Baptist Church, which he renamed The Village Church. According to current senior pastor Dean Monkemeier, at the time the church had fewer than 100 congregants and met in a basement until they raised enough money to build the upstairs portion of the church. In November of 1943, Graham started hosting a radio broadcast called “Songs in the Night,” previously hosted by Pastor Torrey Johnson of Midwest Bible Church in Chicago. The program was broadcast to 45 domestic and 10 foreign outlets and continued at The Village Church for 25 years before being transferred to The Moody Church, where it continues today, according to Moody Church Media. Monkemeier told the Record that people would come from all over the area to attend the broadcasts live. “I’ve heard stories of people that that was their date, to ‘Songs in the Night,’” he said. “That, more than the fact that Billy Graham was the pastor here … kind of gave this church an area-wide recognition.” However, Graham only stayed at The Village Church for a little over a year. Monkemeier told the Record that Graham was frequently absent from the church due to speaking engagements and his work with Youth For Christ, which caused tension between him and the deacons. “I think when it was time for him to leave, it was with the blessing of the board here that said this is probably a better situation for you rather than pastoring a local church,” he said. “I say that our church has the historic claim to fame of being the only church that Billy Graham ever pastored, but our deacon board probably convinced him that he ought to be an evangelist instead of a pastor anyway.”

The Grahams and Edmans enjoying tea and conversation together
Courtesy of Special Collections, Buswell Library, Wheaton College, Wheaton IL

Billy Graham and Ruth had five children: Virginia (Gigi), Anne, Ruth, Franklin and Nelson (Ned).  Graham recalled in his autobiography his first impression of meeting Ruth. She mediated and prayed on Saturday nights so as to properly prepare for the Sabbath the following day. He was unsure whether he could ever deserve a woman like that. Ruth brought up their children with the strict understand that their father was doing the work of the Lord by spreading the gospel. According to “Billy Graham: Evangelist to the World” by John Pollock, “The children were never featured as public examples of a Christian family but had a healthy sense that home, in Franklin’s words, ‘is private and personal; it is not for the world to see.’” Graham was often away from his family for long periods of time, but according to his children, that made the time that they did have with him all the more special. From watching their mother miss their father, Graham’s daughters learned to be reliant on God for support, not just their husbands. For the most part, however, the Graham children had a fairly normal upbringing, relatively unconcerned with their father’s increasing fame. Pollock noted concerning the children’s experiences, “They heard about luncheon with the queen or the president; the vice-president or other famous people came to the house, but it all was accepted casually.”

Remembering a Legacy

Billy Graham’s crusade in Seoul, South Korea
Courtesy of Special Collections, Buswell Library, Wheaton College, Wheaton IL

Billy Graham went on 417 crusades in 185 countries, reaching an estimated 215 million people with the gospel. In William Martin’s book, “A Prophet with Honor,” he notes the reactions of several influential figures to Graham. Richard Halverson, United States Senate chaplain from 1981-1994, said this about Billy Graham when he came to Washington D.C. in 1986: “When Billy Graham comes to the Capitol … suddenly, the Senate and Congress are unimportant. To me, it’s a miracle. Wherever Billy is, there is the gospel for Christ. Everybody knows what he stands for, so he says it without a word. Just yesterday, after he opened the Senate with prayer, it was almost impossible to get away. Pages wanted to get his autograph. Senators kept coming off the floor to talk with him. It was just absolutely exciting. Here is a man who personifies the gospel of Christ, the love of God in Christ. Wherever he goes, all over the world, it’s not like they are receiving just him; it’s like they are receiving Christ. I wish that were true of more of us.” At the end of his speech, Vice President George H. W. Bush said, “We welcome to America’s city … America’s pastor, Dr. Billy Graham.” (Martin, “A Prophet with Honor” 28).

This sentiment was echoed by Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center in an email to the Record yesterday: “[Billy Graham] was a great hero of the faith, unequalled in exemplifying godly character. He provided spiritual counsel to presidents from Eisenhower to Obama. In a very real sense, he was America’s Pastor. In all circumstances, he was loving yet uncompromising in unashamedly declaring the gospel. His impact in the United States and abroad will be felt for decades to come.”

Later in his life, Billy Graham began to receive criticism for a variety of things, including his application of fundamentalist doctrine. One topic which received some heat from the evangelical community was the construction of the Billy Graham Center, which broke ground in Sept. 1977 and cost $22.9 million, which was funded by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association.

Newspapers from the Chicago Daily News to the Charlotte Observer, the newspaper from Graham’s hometown in North Carolina, criticized him for using funds that were not widely publicized, even though then Director of the Billy Graham Center Dr. Donald Hoke had submitted an article about six years prior disclosing the existence of the funds, according to an article in the Sept. 30, 1977 issue of the Wheaton Record.

Despite the initial negative perceptions of the Billy Graham Center (BGC), it has become a crucial part of the campus culture of Wheaton. When asked about Graham’s legacy, Stetzer pointed to the “ Billy Graham Center — a center for strategic planning, inspiration and preparation of leaders to fuel the evangelism mission of the Church worldwide,” as “a direct reflection of Reverend Graham’s passion to preach the gospel.”

An unmistakable fixture of Wheaton’s campus, the BGC has impacted a vast number of students — and not just for the brutality of schlepping to class through the snow and wind in the middle of February. “One of the deciding factors of coming here was because I knew how much of an impact he [Billy Graham] had on the building of Wheaton,” said freshman Nicole VanCuylenburg. Senior Anna Charles echoed the sentiment, saying, “Even from Chapel this morning when Dr. Ryken was saying Billy Graham was so influential in breaking down segregation and how his movements and crusades were desegregated, I just thought that was so cool. Leaving that impact and giving that to Wheaton is huge.”

Sophomore Yazmin Spearman told the Record that she hadn’t really heard much about Billy Graham before coming to Wheaton. “When I went to the museum,” she said, “I saw how much of an impact he had. I had not known about him at all. Just to be able to see how humble his beginnings were, being able to point to his crusades … it was really cool.”

Learning from a legend

A portrait of young Billy Graham
Courtesy of Special Collections, Buswell Library, Wheaton College, Wheaton IL

Students remember Billy Graham fondly and extend their condolences to the Graham family. “I think it’s hard because you want to lament with his family and loved ones, the people who were close to him,” said Charles. “Just knowing he had … assurance and hope and was so sure of that hope in being able to see Jesus face to face … that’s something we can hope in and not be brought down by our sadness but have joy in the face of lament.” Junior Nathan Kwon said, “I’m sad to hear that he passed on, but also I think it’s an honor to be part of that wave of evangelism when he was alive.”

Billy Graham’s influence has extended well beyond the bounds of Wheaton College. In his book, “The Canvas Cathedral,” Lewis A. Drummond commented on Graham’s contribution to evangelical and secular communities alike. “Billy has clearly made a contribution to society generally. The integrity and authenticity of the man and his methods have helped create a favorable view of evangelism and the Christian faith generally. Moreover, his influence on world leaders has benefited society perhaps more than can be realized. People in high places have looked to the evangelist for guidance in moral, ethical issues. That is no insignificant contribution.”


Maddy Preston, Bethany Peterson, Giselle Gaytan, and Jessie Smith contributed reporting.


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