Graham graduated from college in Illinois.
Graham met and married his wife in Illinois.
Graham pastored two churches in Illinois.
Graham held his first evangelistic events in Illinois.
Graham founded an influential Christian magazine and ultimately a publishing giant that still operates today from its headquarters in Illinois.
Graham inspired a museum and evangelism center that still educates and inspires church leaders in Illinois—and beyond.
Many people have many reasons to be grateful for—and feel close to—Billy Graham. But at his passing, we are especially aware of his early ministry in Illinois and the lasting legacy of a lifetime as America’s pastor and the world’s evangelist.
Graham at Wheaton
On the campus of Wheaton College, the administration building sits on a hill, a stone fort with a tower and great buttresses. Across the street and in a slight valley is a red brick building, colonial style with white columns and several sets of large doors. As challenging and foreboding as the hilltop castle is, this one is easy, accessible, and inviting. It is the Billy Graham Center, part museum and part advocacy center for the evangelistic movement encouraged by its namesake. Some would say the fortress represents the perception and perhaps ethos of conservative Christian faith prior to the ministry of Billy Graham, while the gracious building at the bottom demonstrates evangelism since Graham’s formative contributions.
At Graham’s death, eight months shy of his 100th birthday, we can trace important years Southern Baptists’ most famous member spent in Illinois.
The story begins on a golf course in Florida, where young Billy Graham has been invited to serve as caddy for two visitors with Illinois connections. The men were interested in 21-year-old Graham after hearing him preach. He was a student at Florida Bible Institute, but the men wanted him to attend the school where they served as board members, and they offered to pay his first year’s tuition—at Wheaton College.
The young preacher accepted.
At Wheaton, Graham laid a solid foundation for his biblical, salvation–oriented preaching. It was in the town of Wheaton he got a regular invitation to preach, at the Wheaton Gospel Tabernacle.
And it was in Wheaton he found the most important earthly asset to his ministry, his wife, Ruth. The daughter of missionaries to China, Billy called her a “slender, hazel-eyed starlet” after their first meeting. Later, he would call her “determined.” It was a quality that they would both need in an itinerant evangelism ministry.
Billy and Ruth graduated from Wheaton College in June 1943. They married in August, and in September he began serving as pastor in Illinois.
Graham as pastor
As it is told today, Graham’s first congregation recognized quickly their young pastor was no ordinary preacher. His style was big and fiery, and perhaps oversized for the small sanctuary at The Village Church, now called Western Springs Baptist Church. The church in the Chicago suburbs seated about 100 in the basement. In the middle of World War II, the congregation had been able to finish only the lower level, which Ruth likened to a bomb shelter.
After a radio appearance on the Moody Bible Institute’s late-night program, the church was packed, and Graham began receiving more invitations to preach. The deacons had agreed to Graham’s title as pastor/evangelist, but the frequency of his engagements caused some discord among them. And preaching throughout the Midwest, by Graham’s account, made him restless with the pastorate. After a year, a near call into Army chaplaincy, and a bout with the mumps that changed their plans, Graham resigned the pulpit of the Western Springs church and began traveling full-time with Youth for Christ to preach the gospel.
Graham the soul-winner
Billy Graham’s first evangelistic events were in Chicagoland, while he was serving as a pastor. He was the first speaker at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, holding a Youth for Christ rally in 1944. What eventually became the crusade phenomenon included great gatherings in Wheaton in 1959, Chicago in 1962 and 1971, and St. Louis in 1953, 1973, and 1999.
At a Milwaukee Billy Graham Crusade in 1979, Barb Troeger walked the aisle to make public her decision to follow Christ. The walk, she remembers, took a while.
“I told my mom, ‘I need to go forward,’” said Troeger, an event coordinator for IBSA’s Church Resources Team. Her mom, she remembers, looked at her like she was crazy. “It was going to be hours getting out of there, and we were with a group.”
Her mom relented, and Troeger joined the crowds in the aisles moving toward the stage at County Stadium, home of the city’s Major League Baseball team. That night started her journey as a Christian.
Since then, “I’ve always had a special place in my heart” for Graham and his ministry, Troeger said. On a visit to Wheaton College’s museum about Graham, she looked up statistics from the Crusade where she was saved. And at The Cove retreat center, Troeger saw what she calls “his mountains”—the Blue Ridge peaks shared by The Cove and Graham’s nearby North Carolina home.
The Milwaukee Crusade itself wasn’t flashy, she said, certainly not by today’s standards. George Beverly Shea sang hymns accompanied by piano. Graham preached a long message, but a clear one.
“That was probably the first time it had been presented so clearly,” Troeger said, “that God’s looking for you to make a decision.”
Troeger’s story is a common one. For Barb, and millions of others, the buses, as Graham promised, did indeed wait while they took the most important journey of their lives down the aisle and into the counseling area where they prayed, received a booklet about salvation, and made a connection with a local believer and church.
Follow-up by local churches was always a vital part of Crusade ministry. Graham told pastors in Chicago in 1962, “The Crusade is like a grenade that opens a hole in the line—the church has to move in and hold the position.”
An Illinois Baptist article from the time shows that Graham had exhorted pastors before coming back to Chicago. “You have the reputation of more division than any city in the United States. This was one reason that we were reluctant to come here,” Graham said at a pastors’ breakfast. “But I believe that under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, you have been brought together…This is the work of the Holy Spirit. Let’s not interfere with it.”
In that Chicago Crusade, 1,200 churches cooperated to organize and follow up. In 19 days of meetings, 16,451 “inquirers” had responded to the invitation. In all, 703,000 people attended the Crusade. Graham told the pastors to continue preaching evangelistic sermons for the next six months.
An Illinois Baptist report of the 1999 St. Louis Crusade is typical of Graham’s mass evangelism. Churches on the Illinois side of the Mississippi were fully invested in the evident. A member of Eastview Baptist Church in Belleville said at the time, “Illinois often stakes a claim to St. Louis just as much as Missouri.” She volunteered as security at the Crusade.
Darlene Westbrook from First Baptist Church of Fairview Heights served as a counselor for those who came forward to share a decision. “We counseled at the Billy Graham Crusade in Oklahoma City in the fifties,” she said. “We are still using things we learned at that Crusade. This is our chance to give back.”
Graham’s first Crusade in St. Louis in 1953 was held in Kiel Auditorium. It lasted a month, and drew 12,000 nightly. At the last Crusade in 1999, a total of 200,000 people attended in five services, and 12,820 decisions were reported.
Between 1947 and 2005, he conducted 417 crusades in 185 countries. He preached to more than 100 million in person, and more than 3 million people are believed to have responded to his invitations to salvation.
Graham as world influencer
The friend of presidents and monarchs told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch when he was 80, “I am not a professor. I am not a theologian. I’m a simple proclaimer.”
That “simplicity” is perhaps what made him endearing and accessible and believable. But, while he was an advocate of a simple faith in Jesus Christ, Graham had a great role in giving evangelical theology and the Evangelical movement a solid and intellectual foundation that it had not had before the mid-1950s.
In his Crusades, the preacher espoused a passionate, even fiery theology like the fundamental movement that preceded him, but personally he embodied a warm and gracious spirit that came to typify “Billy Graham-style evangelical.” It was smart, but loving.
In the early 1950s, Graham was seeing the effects of liberalism on the theology and practice of the mainline Protestant churches. He feared its spread. Graham’s response was to draw together the finest conservative Christian thinkers of his day, and utilize the most effective communications methods of his day, to bring solidity to the evangelical movement that would outlast any one preacher, proponent, or educational center.
The result was Christianity Today, a magazine of evangelical thought, mailed at its inception to all the pastors in the nation, “fortnightly” (every two weeks). While most people are more familiar with Graham’s innovations on radio (the Hour of Decision) and television (a weekly series, then later on worldwide broadcasts of his Crusades), it is the magazine that gave the movement feet to stand on and legs to propel it forward.
That publishing group, which is today a multimedia ministry of multiple magazines and websites, is headquartered in Carol Stream, Illinois.
With its founding in 1956, Graham spent the next 30 years personally involved in the direction of Christianity Today, according to Harold Myra, who served as CEO and publisher from 1976 to 2005. “With his tremendous sixth sense about people and communications, he has recruited editors and trustees and communicated regularly with CT’s leadership as the organization grew from one magazine to a broad communications ministry,” Myra said. “CT continues to resonate with his original vision.”
From Illinois to the world, Graham’s influence continues.
Graham at the end
The world’s most famous evangelist, next to Paul perhaps, once said he wasn’t expecting a big reception when he got to heaven. “I am expecting just to get to heaven by God’s grace and his mercy, because I am a sinner. I have broken his laws. I’ve sinned against him. I deserve judgment. I am going (to heaven) because God is a God of grace and love and mercy. I pray the prayer: God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
That was in an interview 20 years ago. More recently, since the passing of his believed Ruth in 2007, Graham has lived quietly at his mountain cabin in Montreat, North Carolina, not far from his childhood home.
With failing hearing and sight, Graham has grown almost silent in recent years. “It’s as though he’s said everything he wants to say,” reported his daughter, Anne, in mid-February. But what he said—proclaiming salvation in Jesus Christ and the centrality of the gospel in our lives and in the world—goes on uninterrupted.
-Reported by the Illinois Baptist team, with additional info from Just As I Am (Zondervan, 2007), Chicago Tribune, Christian Post, Christianity Today, St. Louis Post-Dispatch