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Billy Graham’s early ministry took hold in Illinois

Revered evangelist dies at 99

CHICAGO – When Billy Graham graduated from Wheaton College and stepped into his first pulpit in suburban Western Springs, he preached with the volume and timbre of an evangelist out to save souls. It didn’t take long for him and the congregation of Western Springs Baptist Church to conclude he was better suited to preach in stadiums instead of sanctuaries.

Indeed, Graham’s first revivals and rallies in downtown Chicago’s Orchestra Hall and Soldier Field – forerunners to his later famous international crusades – launched the evangelist into the spotlight for decades to come.

“This is where he got a taste of glory, a taste of fame and the gratification that comes from speaking to huge crowds,” said Grant Wacker, the author of “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation,” a biography of the national icon. “And he got the response he was looking for.”

Graham died Wednesday at 99.

He was already an ordained Southern Baptist pastor and graduate of Florida Bible Institute when he sought a liberal arts education and bachelor’s degree at west suburban Wheaton College in 1940.

After hearing the 21-year-old Graham preach in Florida where he was studying at Florida Bible Institute, two members of the Wheaton College board, including the brother of its incoming president, hired him as their caddy on a golf course and offered to pay his first year of tuition if he attended the evangelical institution.

The Southern transplant struggled to belong until 1941, when Wheaton College President V. Raymond Edman recommended the 23-year-old sophomore to replace him in the pulpit of Wheaton’s United Gospel Tabernacle. It also helped that Graham met his future wife, Ruth Bell, a fellow student and daughter of Presbyterian missionaries.

The campus ended up becoming the laboratory where Graham learned to galvanize students, regardless of Christian tradition or denomination, to work for a common cause. He applied the same ecumenical ethos to his later ministry.

“It was where he acquired managerial skills for inspiring and leading organizations and expressing his ministry, not only by preaching but through other people,” said Bob Shuster, who oversees the Billy Graham Center Archive housed at Wheaton.

In 1943, after Graham and Bell graduated from Wheaton and married, he took his first job out of college as the pastor of Western Springs Baptist Church. But both Graham and the congregation knew the pastor didn’t belong in a stationary pulpit.

“He was not preaching what a pastor would normally preach to a church audience,” said one of Graham’s former classmates Glyn Evans in an interview with Shuster for the archive several years ago. “Most pastors preach sermons that are uplifting and designed to enable the Christians to grow deeper in their Christian faith. But when Billy preached, it was as if he was preaching to a group of sinners that didn’t know the way, that were looking for the way. And he was there to tell them the way.”

It was at Western Springs that Graham met musician George Beverly Shea and made his first foray into electronic ministry with the radio. He became a master of media and, in 1956, founded Christianity Today magazine, now based in Carol Stream, to provide an evangelical voice that didn’t lambaste fundamentalism like other Christian magazines.

On Wednesday, the evangelical magazine summarized the rise of Graham’s star after leaving Wheaton:

“Stunningly successful months-long revivals in London (1954) and New York (1957), triumphant tours of the Continent and the Far East, the founding of Christianity Today magazine (1956), the launching of nationwide television broadcasts on ABC (1957), and a public friendship with President Dwight Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon firmly established him as the acknowledged standard-bearer for evangelical Christianity.”


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