News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 21, 2012

Pivotal Sermon: Appearance in Terre Haute helped open door for evangelist Billy Graham

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Numerous moments paved Billy Graham’s path to becoming “America’s pastor,” as he’s often labeled.

This month, the evangelist prayed in his North Carolina home with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. In 2010, Graham also prayed with President Barack Obama, whom Romney is challenging in the 2012 election. Thus, regardless of the Nov. 6 outcome, Graham will have prayed with every U.S. president dating back to Harry Truman in 1950.

For 55 consecutive years, including this one, Gallup has placed Graham on its Ten Most Admired Men in the world. No one else comes close to the streak by Graham, who will turn 94 on Nov. 7, the day after the election.

More than seven decades ago, though, Graham was an unknown anthropology student at Wheaton College, preparing for a career in ministry. It was then, during his first year at that small, Christian, liberal-arts college just west of Chicago that Terre Haute became an important stepping stone in Graham’s path to prominence.

Graham came to Wheaton in September 1940 to continue his education, after graduating from Florida Bible Institute. Though Graham pursued an anthropology degree, “he knew what he wanted to be doing — to be an evangelist,” Bob Shuster, archivist at Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center Archives, said last week by phone.

The college fit his intention, and was a “mecca of evangelism,” said Philip Goff, executive director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at IUPUI in Indianapolis.

Older than most other Wheaton students, Graham already had experience in the pulpit from his training in Florida. He was known to be “directed and concentrated,” Shuster said.

So, in late 1940 and early 1941, when the college’s Student Christian Council began assembling student “Gospel teams” to travel to churches around the region on weekends, singing and preaching, Graham was anxious and ready to ply his skills beyond the South, in America’s heartland.

In his 1997 autobiography, “Just As I Am,” Graham described his task, laid out by the Student Christian Council. “They assigned me to go with a singing quartet and preach at a church at Terre Haute in southern Indiana. I leaped at the chance to give my first sermon since arriving at Wheaton.”

Readily remembers trip

This fall, the Tribune-Star asked Graham — through his publicist, Larry Ross — to elaborate on his visit to Terre Haute. A staff member at the Billy Graham Evangelical Association office in Montreat, N.C., where the minister resides, personally asked Graham for his recollections of that trip to Indiana, Ross explained.

The summary of Graham’s remembrance, relayed by Ross this fall, said, “Time has dimmed the memory of the physical facts of the Terre Haute preaching event (such as which church and who accompanied Mr. Graham in the quartet), but the evangelist readily remembers going there in that first preaching experience at Wheaton.”

Graham quipped that his selection as a traveling student minister was for utilitarian reasons.

“Mr. Graham likes to say it was because he was one of the few students at Wheaton who had a car and could provide transportation to these ministry opportunities,” Ross’ summary stated.

Termed as “youth revivals” and “student emphasis weekends,” the journeys primarily consisted to Saturday night and Sunday morning services, the summary said. The coed singing quartet would perform, and then Graham would deliver a sermon.

Such a ministry format became prevalent in that era, according to Goff, who specializes in mid-20th-century evangelicals at IUPUI. Goff is writing a book on the “Old-Fashioned Revival Hour,” a popular national radio show hosted by Baptist minister Charles Fuller from 1937 to 1968; that program opened with Gospel music before the preaching. The songs “helped draw people in,” Goff said.

The similar song-then-sermon mix used by Graham and the singing Wheaton students apparently worked in Terre Haute.

“The quartet must have liked what they heard [in that initial sermon at Terre Haute],” Graham wrote in his autobiography. “Their report back to the council director opened a flood of requests for me to speak here and there.”

Worried about his grades, Graham put off many of those inquiries. “Lest my dismal academic history repeat itself, I turned down most of the invitations, at least at first,” he wrote.

His anonymity, though, was about to fade.

Pastor to presidents

In less than a decade, Graham was praying in the White House with Truman. Ironically, that first presidential experience did not end well. Graham was young and the subject of rising notoriety through intense coverage of his revivals in California by newspapers owned by tycoon publisher William Randolph Hearst, who liked the evangelist’s opposition to communism. Following a 25-minute White House meeting with Truman, who was embroiled in the turmoil between North and South Korea, Graham and three colleagues got peppered with questions from the press corps. The minister told the reporters everything he’d discussed with the president.

Truman was livid. He never invited Graham back.

Graham recalled the “fiasco” with humility in his autobiography. Wiser from it, “I vowed to myself it would never happen again if I ever was given access to a person of rank or influence,” he wrote.

That access did reopen. He met and prayed with all of Truman’s successors — Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama. A lifelong registered Democrat, Graham developed close relationships with many, firmly maintaining a sense of political neutrality, Goff said. Beginning with Reagan, Graham “tilted toward Republicans, but he never played favorites,” he added. “He and Clinton got along famously.”

In various political issues, Graham occasionally felt that other religious figures, such as Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell and “700 Club” host Pat Robertson, “crossed the line” with their activism, Goff said.

His success in connecting with the masses is apparent. In 70-plus years of ministry, Graham has preached to more than 215 million people in 185 countries, according to the Billy Graham Library.

His climb to notability in the 1940s and ’50s was helped by a penchant for bridging gaps between people and factions, Goff said. He drew inspiration from 19th-century evangelist Dwight Moody, whose style was “getting past doctrinal issues,” Goff said. Graham “pushed to the forefront through his charisma and good looks.”

As a result, “He’s this integral figure in American Christianity in the 20th century,” Goff said. He’s remained active, but close to home in the 21st century, coping with prostate cancer, failing eyesight and hearing, and hospitalizations for various ailments in 2007, 2011 and August. His doctor declared Graham in “remarkably good health,” nonetheless. In 2007, Graham lost his wife and close campanion, Ruth, at age 87.

His appeal hasn’t faded, though. When Gallup released its 2012 Ten Most Admired Men list, Graham made it again.

Seventy-one years earlier, the good reviews of Graham’s sermon in Terre Haute — relayed by his accompanying singing quartet to the director of the Wheaton College Student Christian Council — put him a step closer to his destiny.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or