Biographers of Billy Graham and scholars of American evangelicalism have long been interested in Graham’s involvement in U.S. politics, particularly his relationship with every U.S. president dating back to Harry S. Truman. While whole books have been dedicated to examining these connections, Graham’s earliest foray into presidential politics has, to date, escaped notice. This July, the BGC Archives highlights Billy Graham’s brief, but fascinating, correspondence with presidential candidate Thomas Dewey during his 1944 election campaign against incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In August of 1944, the twenty-four year old Billy Graham was serving in his first and only pastorate, a small congregation in the Chicago suburbs. After graduating from Wheaton College the year before, Graham and his new wife Ruth accepted a call to Western Springs Baptist Church, where they ministered for the next two years. During his pastorate, Graham became increasingly involved with Youth for Christ, touring the upper Midwest and eventually coast to coast, preaching at youth rallies with Torrey Johnson and other rising YFC evangelists.
Graham brought an evangelistic fervor to his pastorate at Western Springs, immediately establishing a vigorous outreach program, which included a Chicago-wide men’s fellowship group and a fund-raising drive to complete the church building. Most ambitiously, he launched a radio ministry, Songs in the Night, out of the church basement. The Sunday night program featured an evangelistic message from Graham and live music by soloist George Beverly Shea and the Carollers for Christ, a women’s quartet from Wheaton College. To promote the radio ministry and church programming, Graham started the church newsletter, also called Songs in Night, which featured original writing, sermon extracts, and news items.
A year into his pastorate at Western Springs, Billy Graham made his first recorded foray into presidential politics after reading a profile of Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey in the August 1944 issue of Reader’s Digest, one of the most popular general circulation magazines in the country. Whatever the exact contents of Stanley Walker’s article, “Snapshot of Tom Dewey,” his discussion of Dewey’s religious convictions caught Graham’s attention, and he mailed the following letter to Dewey’s New York residence, declaring his personal support and offering to galvanize evangelical votes by promoting Dewey’s campaign in Songs in the Night.
In future presidential elections, many candidates would have given a great deal more than a brief personal statement in return for Billy Graham’s public support. However, Thomas Dewey likely never read Graham’s letter, and no endorsement of Dewey or even a reference to the election appeared in later issues of the church newsletter. Graham did receive a reply from Dewey’s office, dated August 24, 1944. Signed by Reuben B. Crispell, Acting Secretary, the letter did not provide the requested personal statement of faith or favorite Scripture passage Graham requested. Crispell did confirm that the Dewey children always observed nightly prayers at the governor’s mansion and underscored Dewey’s longstanding membership in the Episcopalian church, where he served on the vestry. Crispell even highlighted Dewey’s association with the Freemasons, listing his membership in at Kane Lodge Number 454, F. & A. M., NY; Aurora Grata Scottish Rite Consistory, Valley of Brooklyn; and Kismet Temple, Brooklyn, NY. The Crispell letter is located in recently-transferred Collection 580: Records of the Montreat Office, now held at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association headquarters in Charlotte, NC.
Graham’s hopes for a Dewey administration were disappointed in November, when Franklin Roosevelt was reelected to a fourth term. This brief letter, however, provides a glimpse into the young evangelist’s burgeoning interest in presidential politics, his concern for the spiritual convictions of political candidates and the religious climate of the nation, and his lifelong emphasis on family values. Most significantly, Graham’s letter reveals a shift in his own political allegiances, a transformation he credits, in part, to Thomas Dewey.