Last Thursday we marked the one year anniversary of Billy Graham’s passing, the culmination of a remarkable life and legacy. This March, the BGC Archives pauses to commemorate the beginnings of Rev. Graham’s evangelistic ministry as a fledgling undergraduate preacher at Wheaton College in 1941.
The BGC Archives holds thousands of Billy Graham’s sermons and talks, on paper, wire recordings, phonograph records, audio tapes, digital files, films and videos. He delivered these messages in a wide variety of locations and circumstances, both in the United States and abroad, from the Sports Stadium in Berlin where Hitler once orated, to the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference in Monterey, CA, to the National Cathedral in Washington DC after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Of all the Billy Graham sermons the Archives contains, one of the most interesting as well as the earliest in the collection is “Strange Things.”
When Graham arrived on the Wheaton College campus as a twenty-one-year-old freshman in 1941, he had already completed a thorough three-year course in Bible at Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College). In addition to his coursework at FBI, Graham spent hundreds of hours preaching in churches across Florida and Georgia, held several multi-day evangelistic campaigns, and evangelized on street corners, over the radio, and from caravan to caravan in one of the country’s first trailer parks.
After matriculating at Wheaton, Graham continued to preach while a student, accepting invitations from churches across the upper Midwest. Before long, he was called to pastor his very own congregation—the United Gospel Tabernacle in Wheaton, IL. Dubbed “The Tab” by locals, the United Gospel Tabernacle started as a prayer and Bible study group before morphing into a nondenominational church, drawing congregants from both city and college.
In the fall of 1940, the Tab was pastored by V. Raymond Edman, a professor of history and acting interim president of Wheaton College. When asked to assume the presidency permanently, Edman resigned his role at the Tab and recommended Graham as his replacement. Already familiar with his preaching style, the congregation ratified Graham as their new pastor. Between September 1941, when he became pastor, and June 1943, when he graduated from Wheaton College, Graham preached at the Tabernacle over a hundred times. The Tab was a popular service for Wheaton undergraduates to attend on Sunday evenings, and many who saw and heard him preach there agreed that Graham’s style in later years remained much as the same as his student days. While perhaps a little less vocally and physically enthusiastic, the sermons Graham preached at the Tabernacle were not significantly different from the messages he preached before packed stadiums over the next several decades of evangelistic ministry.
During Graham’s tenure as pastor, the United Gospel Tabernacle met in the Wheaton Masonic Temple, a few blocks from the college campus.
The rented assembly hall featured a slightly raised platform with a simple pulpit and piano. Every Sunday, volunteers lined the hall with several hundred folding chairs before services commenced with hymns, prayers, and finally a sermon from Graham. His messages were always evangelism-oriented, calling listeners to respond to the call of Jesus Christ. Wheaton undergrad Ann-Lisa Madiera, a classmate of Graham’s and the Tab’s pianist, recalls the young preacher’s energy and conviction:
“He had something to say, and he said it so well, and . . . his whole control of his voice and the crescendos and decrescendos that all went with that message, you know, he was an enthusiastic preacher I would say. . . . He was enthusiastic about the message that he had to give and, well, the fact that the place was full every Sunday says something” (Oral History Interview with Ann-Lisa Madiera, Collection 74, T67.
Another student attendee remembers Graham’s budding talents as a communicator.
“Oh, he was tops. There was no question about it. And I think it was obvious that he was going to go places…. You could sense his heartbeat. That it was really coming from his heart. It wasn’t just knowledge that he picked up in college. I would say that’s the main thing. It came from his heart. You know, you can go to college and get a lot of knowledge, but it doesn’t always get down to the heart…. [His preaching style was] very plain. Very simple, very clear. You couldn’t mistake understanding what he was saying” (Lorraine Payne, Collection 74, T63).
Graham’s reputation as a preacher continued to grow during his undergrad days, and he often arranged for guest speakers at the Tab when he accepted weekend preaching invitations across the Midwest and especially throughout the summer vacation.
The BGC Archives holds thousands of sermons Graham preached over the course of his ministry, but only one from his days as the Tab’s pastor—”Strange Things” (Many records from the United Gospel Tabernacle were lost when the interior of the Masonic hall, including the church office, was gutted by fire in 1948). The typed outline below is annotated in what looks like Graham’s handwriting and dated November 5, 1941, only a few weeks after Graham became the pastor of the Tabernacle. November 5th was a Wednesday, so the message may be a Bible study Graham presented during the Wednesday evening prayer meeting, rather than a Sunday sermon. But it contains the same emphasis that his classmates remembered from his sermons—the power of Jesus to confound the world, forgive sins, and save souls.
This original manuscript is much worn, possibly reused for multiple preaching occasions, clearly previously folded and held together by clear tape. The number 850 at the top of the first page was one assigned by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association staff many years later, when they created an index of all Graham’s sermons.
The sermon outline describes the “strange things” of Jesus—how strange the Pharisees and Sadducees found this man who said such outrageous words, knew their thoughts, and performed miraculous deeds. Graham’s conclusion was a fitting introduction to the message he would continue to preach for the next sixty years: “That man is well saved who can glorify God in his own house. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, but until his sins are forgiven he has lost his chief end.”
Reminiscences about Graham by his Wheaton College classmates, including his congregants at the United Gospel Tabernacle, are available in Collection 74: Ephemera of Billy Graham.