Next week will mark the five year anniversary of Rev. Billy Graham’s passing on February 21, 2018. This month, in remembrance of his remarkable life and legacy, Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections commemorates the beginnings of Billy Graham’s evangelistic ministry as a fledgling undergraduate preacher at Wheaton College in 1940.
During Billy Graham’s time as a student at Florida Bible Institute (1937-1940), Alma Toff Edman, mother of then-interim president of Wheaton College, V. Raymond Edman, heard Graham preach at a local service. Impressed, she told her son Elner Edman and his friend Paul Fischer about the young preacher and urged that they hear him too. The two men invited Graham with them as a caddy for a round of golf. Similarly impressed with his passion for ministry and gift for speaking, they urged him to attend Wheaton College after graduating from FBI, to add a liberal arts education to his Bible and homiletics training. Graham applied to Wheaton and was accepted, starting on September 19, 1940.
At Wheaton, Graham jumped heartily into the life of a college student at a liberal arts institution. Under the influence of a beloved Wheaton professor, Dr. Anthony Grigolia, he majored not in Bible but in the newly introduced program of Anthropology. He tried other things as well, including a very brief and unsuccessful career as a college wrestler, and a stab at campus theatrics, with a small part in Macbeth. During his senior year he became president of the Christian Service Council, leading student gospel teams to churches and missions across Chicago and the Western suburbs.
While Graham’s time at Wheaton offered many new opportunities for intellectual and spiritual growth, perhaps its most enduring legacy was the relationships he made there.
During his first semester at Wheaton, Graham met fellow student Ruth Bell, daughter of missionaries to China. Despite Ruth’s determination to return to the mission field, she and Graham were drawn to each other and soon engaged.
Along with Ruth, Graham encountered many others at Wheaton: teachers, classmates, and local Christian workers, people like Hudson Taylor Armerding, Grady Wilson, Carl Henry, Ken Hansen, Jimmie Johnson, Harold Lindsell, and Robert Evans. They were some of the the first links in the vast network of friends, advisors, and mentors that later supported his ministry and the eventual creation of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. As Graham said at the groundbreaking for the Billy Graham Center in 1977, “Through contacts made here at Wheaton I first launched into a nationwide and then subsequently worldwide ministry of evangelism.”
Although Elner Edman and Paul Fischer had arranged some financial support for Graham, he still needed to work to pay for part of his expenses, so Graham took a job with the College’s Buildings & Grounds department. One of his first duties was to trim the shrubbery at the College president’s house, Westgate. While doing so, he met President V. Raymond Edman. Edman had heard enthusiastic reports on Graham from his mother and brother and Fischer but had never met him. This meeting began a friendship that continued to Edman’s death in 1967.
When Graham arrived on the Wheaton College campus as a twenty-one-year-old freshman in 1940, he had already 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 then-acting President Edman. When he was asked to assume the presidency of Wheaton College permanently, he 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.
More 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.
Explore further material on the early career of Billy Graham through CN 15: Ephemera of Billy Graham, CN 285: Records of Torrey Johnson, and CN 48: Records of Youth for Christ, or take a self-guided walking tour of Billy Graham’s Wheaton with this guide created by our archivists.