Forty years ago this month, the newly completed Billy Graham Center was dedicated for Christian service on Wheaton College’s campus, the culmination of a decade’s worth of prayer, planning, and construction. The open-air dedication ceremony featured an array of processions, invocations, addresses, and prayers, flanked by performances of Caesar Giovannini and Ralph Vaughan Williams by the Wheaton College Conservatory combined choral groups. The ceremony’s centerpiece was a dedicatory address (Part 1 and Part 2) by the building’s namesake, Dr. Billy Graham, detailing the evangelist’s own intentions for the Center and its impact on the global Christian Church through ongoing education, training, and resources. This September, we celebrate the ongoing realization of Graham’s guiding hopes and commemorate the past four decades of fruitful Christian ministry documented in the Archives’ Collection 3: Records of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center.
Envisioning The Billy Graham Center
The Wheaton College Billy Graham Center can trace its origins to archives (literally) and the thorny question of where to deposit the papers of Billy Graham and the records of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA). In 1970, a committee was established to amass the historical records of the BGEA, including both the files of various BGEA offices as well as the papers of Association employees and ministry partners spanning the past 20 years of service. Focus eventually shifted from building an archival repository solely to envisioning an institution dedicated to catalyzing global evangelism, through ongoing research and training programs.
This center would include not only the BGEA’s archival repository but also a library of evangelism training resources, and a museum exploring Billy Graham’s ministry within the broader history of North American evangelism, spanning the likes of George Whitefield, Charles Finney, D.L. Moody, and Billy Sunday, among others.
Selecting a site for the new center was paramount to the project. Multiple locations were considered, including Billy Graham’s hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. Ultimately, the decision was made in 1974 to build the center on the campus of Wheaton College, Graham’s alma mater, where he majored in anthropology, met his future wife, Ruth Bell Graham, and graduated in 1943. Graham’s brother-in-law, Leighton Ford, another Wheaton alumnus and BGEA Associate evangelist, was especially instrumental in bringing the future evangelism center to Wheaton campus.
Funded by the BGEA’s “World Evangelism and Christian Education Fund” (WECEF), construction on the center structure began in 1977, following a groundbreaking ceremony in September at the designated site on Wheaton campus’s southernmost edge. Two years later, another ceremony unveiled the building’s cornerstone, bearing the Wheaton College motto, “For Christ and His Kingdom.”
The completed Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College was dedicated in September 1980, in a two-day celebration that included the formal ceremony on September 13th, followed by a gospel music concert and an evangelistic crusade the second day.
Immediately prior to the dedication ceremony, the fledgling Center launched official its ministry, hosting a three-day Forum on the Church’s Future, featuring a Who’s Who of American Evangelical leaders, with the likes of Bill Bright, James D. Kennedy, Leighton Ford, and Pat Robertson serving as panelists.
Since its inauguration in 1980, the Billy Graham Center has housed the Wheaton College Graduate School, the BGC Archives, Library, and Museum, as well as a host of training programs and research initiatives (current and former), including the Institute of Evangelism (later the Institute of Strategic Evangelism), Institute of China Studies, Institute for the Study of Christianity and Marxism (later the Institute of East-West Christian Studies) Institute of Muslim Studies, Institute of Prison Ministries, Institute of Cross-Cultural Training, and the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, among others.
While the imposing red brick colonial structure at 500 College Avenue was renamed “Billy Graham Hall” in 2020, and the individual programs have changed titles, directors, and emphases over the decades, the Center’s core devotion to evangelism research and training remains unchanged in its current iteration.
Four Decades of Ministry
In the past four decades, thousands of Christian workers, visiting scholars, students, and curious members of the public have researched missionary records in the Archives, browsed rare memoirs in the library, and walked the sawdust trail of revival history in the Museum. Hundreds of international students have studied at Wheaton College Graduate School and committed themselves to full-time ministry around the globe through the support of the Billy Graham Scholarship Fund.
Over the years, the Billy Graham Center equipped pastors, evangelists, missiologists, and the average layperson by hosting conferences, symposiums, workshops, and institutes focused on a broad range of issues pertaining to Christian evangelism and social issues with topics like the Bible in American culture, urban leadership and ministry, evangelism in Muslim contexts, Christianity and Marxism, singleness in the Church, and sharing the gospel through the dramatic arts.
The history of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center is documented in Collection 3 at the Archives, where after more than 40 years we continue to preserve the legacy of North American, nondenominational evangelism and global missions efforts as a resource for the living Church, recalling Dr. Graham’s dedicatory challenge: “God forbid that the Archives should ever become objects of intellectual curiosity rather than forces of spiritual stimulation.”
More information about the founding of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center is found in Collection 698: Papers of Lois Ferm.