Billy Graham, who passed away last week, preached the gospel to mil­lions. He was known as “America’s pastor.” Flickr.

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.”

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Breana Noble
Breana Noble is The Collegian's Editor-in-Chief. She is a born and raised Michigander and studies politics and journalism. This summer, Breana interned in New York City at TheStreet, a business and finance news website. She has previously worked for The Detroit News, The American Spectator, and Newsmax Media. She eventually hopes to pursue a career in investigative journalism. email: | twitter: @RightandNoble
  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    so basi­cally very little impact on the college.… that’s good. We don’t want to be another Wheaton College.… or do we?

    • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

      We know where you stand on that topic…or do we?

      Better Wheaton College than Harvard, at least from a fun­da­mental beliefs per­spective. Have you read a recent edition of the ‘Harvard Crimson’? PC pop­pycock, stuff and non­sense. And these writers rep­resent the most cerebral stu­dents in the USA? Wow, what a con­dem­nation of the state of our edu­cation system!

      • Jen­nifer Melfi

        “Better Wheaton College than Harvard”


        Besides the two inci­dents below.… just wrong. So wrong I would guess you are trying to make a funny joke.

        • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

          Agreed those are appalling inci­dents, but you don’t think they take place at other col­leges including Harvard? If you think that, you’re deluding yourself. Harvard would not let black stu­dents enroll until quite recently. In fact, black stu­dents were forced to leave the Harvard Medical School at one time when white stu­dents protested. In my other Alma Mater last year, a student athlete on the WMU bas­ketball team was arrested after par­tic­i­pating in an armed robbery where another student was mur­dered. Anytime you get thou­sands of young people in a closed envi­ronment, away from home for the first time and mix in alco­holic bev­erages and/or illicit drugs you’re likely to have inci­dents with those who lack self-control. Are we to condemn the uni­ver­sities that they attend for that? Only if they fail to act to correct a problem after it is revealed, in my view. And that is the proper standard to use. In the Hazing incident, I hope and would expect that Wheaton College responded by expelling the stu­dents or a least sus­pending them for a year. That would be a lesson in life to help them grow up.

          • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

            The second link is worth a read. Ms. Hawkins appears to be very bright indi­vidual who got involved in ‘Black Lib­er­ation The­ology’ and all it entails. The embracing of Islamic values, as we saw in our last Pres­ident, seems to go hand in hand with BLT. Fine and dandy, but she never con­sidered the impact it would have on her career at a con­ser­v­ative Christian college. Note that there are many fine causes I support, but if I try and bring them into my place of business I will likely get fired-after getting the same warnings Ms. Hawkins received. As a final comment I’d like to note my own eth­nicity is that of a Christian minority in a nation dom­i­nated by Sunni Islam. My ancestors had every­thing taken from them by the majority Moslems and-the ones that weren’t out­right murdered-we’re forced to emi­grate. One suitcase each at the point of a bayonet-their homes, business and Church property were given away to Moslems. You can under­stand why I don’t have a lot of respect for Islamic ‘values’ having expe­ri­enced the worst of them in my own family. I mean, at the very worst Ms. Hawkins will likely get a tenured seat at UCLA, Harvard or Columbia where she can wear her Hijab and spout Black Lib­er­ation The­ology to her hearts delight and all the Lefties will gush what a great thinker and human being she is. She may even get the Nobel Peace Prize simply for being anti-western and a prominent African American pro­fessor-the precedent has already been set, afterall.