Wheaton magazine

Volume 21 // Special
Wheaton magazine // Billy Graham
1959 Wheaton College Crusade, Centennial Field (now Fischer Hall and adjacent property). COURTESY OF WHEATON COLLEGE ARCHIVES, BUSWELL LIBRARY

Heaven Bent Low

BILLY GRAHAM’S REMARKABLE CRUSADES began unostentatiously in a tent in downtown Los Angeles in 1949. Ten years later, the press reviewed the breathtaking pace of the evangelist’s rise from obscurity to global fame. A long list of crusades following hard on the eight-week Los Angeles event established Billy Graham as a man with a message for the times. Those in London (1954—the first overseas crusade), New York’s Madison Square Garden (1957), and Australia and New Zealand (1959) were high points of his first decade. Around these larger endeavors, Graham conducted scores of crusades and rallies at home and abroad. He preached to overflow audiences in the world’s largest arenas and conversed with presidents and royalty. Some 600,000 people had come forward in that first decade in response to Graham’s invitation to come to Christ.

The crusades were only one part of an extraordinary story that touched millions of lives everywhere. It included as well the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (1950), the Hour of Decision radio broadcast (1950), the Hour of Decision television broadcast (ABC, 1951), a syndicated Billy Graham “My Answer” newspaper column (1951), World Wide Pictures, and more. Crusade hymns influenced wider hymnody.

Secular journalists concurred that Graham was dynamic and humble. Christian reporters often added “an instrument of the Holy Spirit,” but no one seemed able to provide a full explanation for what they called “the Graham phenomenon.”

Graham displayed a sure instinct about people and identified early Clifford Barrows and George Beverly Shea as the two men he wanted beside him on crusade platforms. With pianist Tedd Smith, Barrows and Shea gave Graham’s endeavors a signature sound that featured congregational singing, mass choirs, Shea’s solos, and the invitation hymn, “Just As I Am.” As the ministry grew, associate evangelists and other staff joined each crusade.

The Wheaton Connection

Journalists noted Graham’s first-decade accomplishments, but they paid little heed to his whereabouts on the weekend his second decade of crusades began.

En route to his long-anticipated October 1959 Crusade in Indianapolis, Indiana, Billy Graham detoured to Wheaton, Illinois, where President V. Raymond Edman had invited Graham to conduct fall chapel special services to launch the college’s centennial celebration.


Graham’s Los Angeles Crusade had opened on Sunday, September 25, 1949. He began an eight-day crusade on the campus of his alma mater, Wheaton College, on Sunday, September 27, 1959. The site of this crusade was the college’s Centennial Field (currently occupied by Fischer Hall and adjacent property). Graham’s life since his graduation in 1943 had, by any measure, modeled the college motto: “For Christ and his Kingdom.”

When the wider community learned of Graham’s coming for the fall chapel special services, requests for a more ambitious event poured in. Graham suggested an area-wide effort based on the Wheaton College campus. Suchan approach would permit student participation and allow them to see a crusade firsthand. Some 130 churches in Wheaton and neighboring communities recruited choir members, counselors, and ushers, and the 1959 annual fall special services became an event to remember.

In a pre-crusade press conference, Graham acknowledged a personal debt to Wheaton College: “When I arrived at Wheaton,” he told local journalists, “I was green, narrow, and provincial. Wheaton’s students come from all over the world, representing many cultural backgrounds. Immediately my horizons were broadened. My spiritual roots were pushed deeper. My social concern was amplified—it was the first institution I had attended where Negroes were on an equal footing with the whites.”

1959 Wheaton College Crusade
Credit Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

A True Son of Wheaton

With a population of 25,000 and 1,600 students on the College’s campus, Wheaton may have been the smallest community to host a Graham Crusade, but Graham’s team provided the same level of support they offered for major crusades around the world.

Graham’s staff trained counselors, Cliff Barrows directed a mass choir, and George Beverly Shea sang solos that seemed, one student remarked, to be directed personally to each hearer. Graham’s associate evangelists conducted daily chapel services in the new Centennial Gymnasium. The public was welcome, and chapel attendance averaged 3,000, but compounded by live coverage on WMBI.

The opening service on Sunday afternoon drew 18,000. Thursday evening attracted 16,500 teenagers to a youth night. Wheaton College students constituted nearly half of Cliff Barrows’ 1,000-voice choir and 250 of the 1,000 counselors. Wheaton ROTC directed traffic, and the old College gym served as Crusade headquarters. Inclement weather forced the final Sunday service indoors. Centennial Gym accommodated 5,000, and the College wired six nearby buildings for closed-circuit television. More than 16,000 crammed in, but nearly 10,000 more had to be turned away. All told, attendance reached 101,000, and counselors prayed with 2,812 inquirers. More than 60 percent of these represented first-time commitments to Christ.

The Wheaton Crusade set the tone for a memorable centennial year. A message from Billy Graham and a live recording of the Crusade choir singing “All That Thrills My Soul is Jesus” featured on a centennial album and gave the Crusade a place in college centennial memories.

From Indianapolis Graham wrote to Edman that his team had found at Wheaton “the warmest hospitality we have ever known.” “Heaven bent low,” he wrote, “and its music will always echo in our hearts. It is with great pride that I consider myself a true son of Wheaton.”

The Wheaton Crusade heightened area interest in a crusade in Chicago, a dream that became a reality in the spring of 1962. Billy Graham never conducted another Wheaton Crusade, but he maintained firm ties to his alma mater as a trustee and occasional speaker.

In the 1970s, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association chose Wheaton College as the repository for its ministry records. The BGEA provided most of the funding for the construction of the Billy Graham Center to house an archive documenting Graham’s evangelism, a library focused on missions, revivals, and evangelism, a museum to tell Graham’s story and present the gospel to every visitor, and other programs to advance evangelism. The goal was to make the Center “a vigorous living extension of Billy Graham’s ministry.” Graham spoke at the groundbreaking in 1977 and at the dedication in 1980.

From Wheaton to Eternity

When Graham’s long career ended, crusade music lingered, indelibly woven into crusade memories. In his heyday, thousands serenaded Graham at airports, train stations, and hotels around the world with crusade favorites “Blessed Assurance,” “To God Be the Glory,” and “How Great Thou Art.”

When Graham died on February 21, a different crusade hymn welled from grateful hearts around the globe. People recognized “Just As I Am” as Graham’s legacy, a metrical expansion on the gospel he preached. A few days later in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, the program honoring Graham featured just one song: “Just As I Am.” It was featured as the postlude at Graham’s private funeral service as well.

Graham, the “true son of Wheaton,” would have approved. After all, he devoted his life to preaching and modeling that coming “just as I am” made possible a life devoted to Christ and his kingdom.