Billy Graham, who died last week, was scheduled to speak at a Center for Constructive Alternatives seminar to discuss “Is God Dead?” and to debate an Eastern thinker, The Collegian reported on April 1, 1984. April Fools.
Although the article was satirical, it shows the influence the evangelical pastor had on Hillsdale College’s campus community. The writer placed his name beside other “bigwigs” noted in the fake piece, including author C.S. Lewis and the pope.
Graham died on Feb. 21 at his home in Montreat, North Carolina, at the age of 99, after years of health problems. Known for his oratorical abilities and command of the stage, Graham traveled the world, spreading the message of the gospel in sold-out stadium events he called crusades and taking advantage of opportunities in radio and television. He also reinvigorated a Protestant social movement that encouraged Christianity be brought into the public square.
“This is not mass evangelism, but personal evangelism on a mass scale,” he often said.
Professor of History Tom Conner saw Graham speak four or five times at the pulpit of Duke University Chapel and during a lecture series in the 1980s in Chapel Hill at the University of North Carolina.
“I never have heard a preacher with his forcefulness and genuineness, and I doubt that the world will see anyone like him again,” Conner said in an email. “I knew this moment was going to come, but Graham’s death is a true marker. He was one of the great and dominant figures of the 20th century, in my opinion. Very sad that he is gone.”
Graham’s crusades actually began about two hours from Hillsdale in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in October 1947. Although he never addressed an audience in Hillsdale, students did attend his crusades on trips organized through clubs and local churches in the ’70s and ’80s.
The college also has a personal connection to Graham through Professor of English John Somerville. The reverend married Ruth Bell, the sister of Somerville’s mother, after meeting her at Wheaton College in Illinois.
Somerville grew up in Korea with missionary parents, so he said he did not see his uncle often. Somerville’s father, sister, and brother now live in the same small town in which Graham called home. Somerville said he and his family would travel there a few times a year, though health issues prevented Graham from having visitors recently.
Somerville recalled visiting his uncle’s house and seeing Christmas cards from well-known people such as presidents and the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, which he said he found particularly impressive. To John and his siblings, though, he was just Uncle Bill.
“I didn’t know him well at all, but my memory is of a very kind man, gentle, even perhaps a little shy when he had the chance to be,” Somerville said in an email. “Though many people — world leaders, celebrities, famous athletes — knew him, he was just himself when we visited.”
He said Graham had a particular fondness for his daughter, Katherine, who has cerebral palsy. When visiting the Mayo Clinic one time with her, Somerville said they saw Graham touring the facility.
“He saw her and recognized her right away,” Somerville told The Collegian. “It was a pretty great moment.”
The English professor said he did attend one of Graham’s crusades in the seventh grade. He and his brother “went forward,” as Graham requested his audience members to do at the end of each meeting to commit their lives to Christ. Somerville, though, said his uncle did not have a significant influence on his own spiritual life.
Graham, however, did transform the direction of religion and philosophy department chairman Tom Burke’s future. Impressed by Graham’s message and oratorical skills after hearing him speak, Burke’s father had his children watch a few television broadcasts and then brought them to see him speak at New York City’s Madison Square Gardens in 1957. Burke credits this event for his conversion.
“At the conclusion, we all went forward to receive Christ as our personal Lord and savior,” Burke said in an email. “We had been nominal Christians all our lives, attended church and Sunday School (my sister and I), but did not really understand the Gospel. That Christ died for me personally and that ‘salvation’ was a free gift received by faith when one ‘accepted Christ’ was a message I had never heard. Till then, I just figured if your good works outweighed your bad, you’d make it into heaven; if not, bad news.”
A year after the crusade, Burke’s family began attending an evangelical Reformed Church. There, Burke said he became interested in understanding the Bible and going into ministry.
“At first, becoming a Graham-type evangelist was my goal, but in time it became evident that was not my gift, by a long shot,” he said.
Burke attended Nyack Missionary College (now just Nyack College) in New York and later Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois, where he became interested in going into academics to understand and defend Christian faith. Eventually he became the pastor of College Baptist Church in Hillsdale and was hired to start the Christian studies program at the college.
“My conversion under Graham led to my direction in life, my education, and to my wife who attended a church in Milwaukee where I was assistant pastor while in seminary and grad school,” he said.
Graham may have influenced some people on Hillsdale College’s campus, but at least one former Hillsdale student influenced his early preaching. Judson Wheeler van DeVenter, who attended Hillsdale from 1874 to 1876 and wrote the popular hymn “I Surrender All,” met him when Graham attended Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity Bible College). Van DeVenter had retired from the institute as a professor of hymnology, but frequently had the students in his home for fellowship and singing. Graham would often sit with Van DeVenter and helped take care of the old man.
Graham was present at Van DeVenter’s death in 1939 and carried on his ministry by popularizing “I Surrender All” at his revivals. Today, the hymn still is sung in many churches and its lyrics used in contemporary worship songs.
“I used to know a man by the name of J. W. Van DeVenter, and he wrote a song, ‘I Surrender All,’” Graham said on Sept. 3, 1992, in Atlanta. “And that’s what Jesus is calling you to do tonight: Surrender all to him, and let his blood cleanse your sins, and come to the cross, and then realize that there’s a resurrection.”
Professor of History Daryl Hart, author of “From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism,” said Graham’s popularization of evangelism brought about an influential political movement today.
Graham was not necessarily conservative politically, but he was somewhat conservative in Protestant circles, according to Hart. He was part of a religiously conservative Protestant movement that sought to distinguish itself from the Scopes Trial fundamentalists. In the 1940s, these conservatives adopted the term “evangelical” instead.
“Evangelicals didn’t want to be angry or sectarian,” Hart said in an email. “They wanted to present Christianity in a more positive and culturally engaged way.”
Although not explicitly political like the moral majority or Christian coalition, Graham’s movement and the attention it received was implicitly political, giving rise to the religious right of activist-minded pastors such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson later, Hart said.
“Trying to gain a place at the table, to speak to important matters in national life from an evangelical perspective,” he said, “was an attitude that was essential to later political conservatives who identified as evangelical.”
Despite this, in his later years, Graham isolated himself from politics and said he did not want to alienize groups of people from the Bible’s message he aimed to share.
In 2005 before his final crusade in New York City, he stated his mission: “I’m just promoting the gospel.”