Billy Graham and the Presidential Election of 1944

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.

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A rare image of Billy Graham as a young pastor, speaking at Western Springs Baptist Church in 1944.

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.

Songs in the Night_1944

The August 1944 issue of the Songs in the Night newsletter, published a month after Billy Graham wrote to Thomas Dewey. Note that the issue commemorates the one year anniversary of Billy Graham’s pastorate.

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.

Graham to Dewey

A grainy photocopy of Billy Graham’s letter to presidential candidate Thomas Dewey.  While the original letter is found in the Western Springs Baptist Church Archives, a copy is held in BGC Archives Collection 74: Ephemera of Billy Graham, box 11, folder 2, along with original copies of the Songs in the Night newsletter.

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.

Billy Graham’s “Strange Things”

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.”

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The entire sermon outline of “Strange Things,” dated November 5, 1941. Over its lifespan, the document has obviously been folded in half, stored in a three-ring binder, and taped down the middle to hold it open during preaching.

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.

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September 13, 1941 article from the Wheaton-based Daily Journal 

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.

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An advertisement for United Gospel Tabernacle services in The Record, the student newspaper of Wheaton College. August 19, 1942

During Graham’s tenure as pastor, the United Gospel Tabernacle met in the Wheaton Masonic Temple, a few blocks from the college campus.

UnitedGospelTabernacle

The Masonic Temple in downtown Wheaton. Though devastated by fire in 1948, the Lodge was rebuilt nearly identical to the original structure.

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.

Record June 1, 1943

An advertisement from The Record, highlighting the end of the academic term and Billy Graham’s final weeks as the Tab’s pastor. Graham graduated from Wheaton the same month. June 1, 1943.

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.

265-17-149 Strange Things part1

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.

265-17-149 Strange Things part2

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.”

A digital copy of “Strange Things” is available to view here on the Billy Graham Sermon Database, along with other sermon outlines and transcripts from the 1940s to the 2000s.

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.