Wheaton magazine

Special Issue // February 21, 2018
Wheaton magazine // Billy Graham
Photo courtesy of the Wheaton College Archives, Buswell Library

The Global Evangelist & His Alma Mater

BY HIS OWN ADMISSION, Billy Graham’s undergraduate career had an ominous start. After compiling a less-than-impressive high school resume, Billy racked up enough demerits in one semester at Bob Jones College to alarm the administration. He transferred to Florida Bible Institute, where he loved the concentrated study of God’s Word. But when he wanted to switch schools again, this time to Wheaton College, few of those credits would transfer. Of more immediate concern, the Graham family could not afford the school’s tuition.

Still, Billy’s mother had long prayed he would attend Wheaton, and God made a way. Two university benefactors met Billy and saw something special in the young but gifted preacher. They pledged to provide the first year of tuition and board. Yet they couldn’t help the lanky Southerner immediately find his niche at Wheaton, hundreds of miles from his North Carolina home.

“On Wheaton’s elm-shaded suburban campus 25 miles due west of Chicago’s downtown Loop, I felt like a hick,” Billy remembered in his autobiography, Just As I Am.

Billy would not graduate a rube. The renowned evangelist's Wheaton years opened his eyes to God’s work in many denominations around the world. The school gave him a strong intellectual foundation. Most importantly, at Wheaton he met Ruth Bell ’43, L.H.D. ’75, his dynamic, devoted wife. Over decades of ministry, Wheaton’s most famous alumnus left for his alma mater a legacy of gospel simplicity, moral integrity, and academic excellence.

A personable new student like Billy didn’t struggle to adjust for long. On top of his studies, he agreed in 1941 to become the pastor of the United Gospel Tabernacle, which met in downtown Wheaton. Between 200 and 300 students and faculty packed “The Tab” in downtown Wheaton to hear Billy preach in his first regular pulpit.

Wheaton’s challenging academics stretched Billy, who spread himself thin filling pulpits across the Midwest on many weekends. When on campus he learned much about anthropology, his major. “Anthropology would give me empathy for people in social settings different from my own and an understanding of social customs and primitive religions,” said Billy, who also considered majoring in Bible or public speaking. “A focus on anthropology would give me a liberal arts education in the best sense, obliterating any condescending notions I might have toward people from backgrounds other than my own.” Professors such as Alexander Grigolia helped develop his respect for academic accomplishment.

But no one at Wheaton would influence Billy Graham more than a beautiful missionary kid, Ruth Bell. “If I had not been smitten with love at the first sight of Ruth Bell, I would certainly have been the exception,” he recalled. “Many of the men at Wheaton thought she was stunning.”

Their marriage would give Billy his most trusted adviser, a partner who challenged his assumptions and shared with him her overseas experience. He never did persuade his Presbyterian wife to become a Baptist. But their marriage would become a model of evangelical cooperation that typified Billy’s ministry to the ends of the earth. Before Billy Graham graduated in 1943, he left a lifelong impression on many classmates.

“Our senior year a number of us fellows, including Billy, were praying every Friday night in each other’s rooms,” Dr. Samuel Faircloth ’43 said. “I will never forget Billy stretched out full-length between the bunks on the floor face down. As we prayed, he pounded the floor asking God to use him, ‘Lord, all I want to do is win souls.’ Little did we know how God would answer that prayer.”

Over decades of ministry, Wheaton's most famous alumnus left for his alma mater a legacy of gospel simplicity, moral integrity, and academic excellence.

For as much as Wheaton gave Billy Graham, the evangelist gave back much more in subsequent decades. His most visible legacy is the Billy Graham Center, one of Wheaton’s signature buildings since it opened in 1980. Billy raised millions of dollars to open the center, then gave it to the College.

Wheaton has reaped “enormous benefit” from what has become the “single largest gift of resources ever committed to the college,” said David Johnston, who twice served as the center’s interim director. Graham took particular interest in graduate education through the center. Wheaton College educated about 200 graduate students when Billy began talking with his alma mater about the center in the mid-1970s. Since the center opened, Wheaton has developed graduate programs in missions, evangelism, theology, and biblical studies, among others. In 2017, 375 graduate students from 40 states, 18 countries, and 20 denominations prepared at Wheaton for various types of ministry.

The 35,000 or so visitors to the Billy Graham Center each year may not learn much about these graduate studies, but they do hear the gospel. During Billy’s initial visit to the first-floor Billy Graham Museum, he characteristically complained that the museum featured too much of him. Today the museum guides visitors through the history of evangelism and concludes with a brief gospel presentation delivered by video from Billy. The simple gospel, juxtaposed in the same building with serious theological study, typifies Billy Graham’s contributions to the broader evangelical movement. 

“Probably Graham’s strongest influence on Wheaton was the main direction of his entire career—to keep a simple but profound message of the need for Christ right at the center of his ministry,” said Mark Noll ’68, a Notre Dame history professor who taught for decades at Wheaton. “He provided an example of how to prioritize Christian life in the world. Other things are important, but nothing is as important as the encounter with Christ. A college can be interested in a lot of things. Wheaton College, too, could have a mission focused on Christ and his kingdom without a lot of the baggage inherited from previous generations. That was a tremendous gift to the College.”

If the Billy Graham Center had only been dedicated, it would have still left an important legacy. During the center’s dedication in 1980, Billy explained how then President Hudson Armerding ’41 presented to him the idea of the center. Louisville, Minneapolis, and Charlotte had wanted to store his records, but Billy wanted a center that would host conferences and train leaders to carry the gospel to millions. He asked trusted colleagues, “What institution of the world could best carry out the vision we had?” They settled on Wheaton.

“Wheaton had a long history of unswerving dedication to the theological concepts we hold, to the world vision we hold, to the academic excellence we believe in, and to the social concern that we have,” Billy told the masses assembled in front of the new center on a warm September day. He warned them not to abandon core theological beliefs. In case anyone misunderstood, he rattled off what he had in mind: the infallible Word of God, Adam and Eve’s fall in Eden, Jesus Christ’s virgin birth, vicarious atonement, bodily resurrection, and Christ’s impending return. Then, over the noise of a passing train, he delivered a powerful exhortation. “Therefore as Moses charged succeeding generations, so today I charge future generations of Wheaton College trustees, faculty, staff, and students: This center has been dedicated this day to the glory of God and the advancement of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. So be it.”

Yet Billy’s message might not have been the most memorable one that day. The keynote speaker was Charles Malik, the Christian statesman who helped craft the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Malik delivered an academic charge to match Billy Graham’s call to theological fidelity. “With great gentleness and magnanimity of soul, but also with great courage, Malik took us evangelicals straight to the woodshed,” Mark Noll recounted in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Christians must avoid the dangers of anti-intellectualism, Malik warned. They must win minds, not just souls.

“Who among the evangelicals can stand up to the great secular or naturalistic or atheistic scholars on their own terms of scholarship and research? Who among the evangelical scholars is quoted as a normative source by the greatest secular authorities on history or philosophy or psychology or sociology or politics?” Malik asked as the simple gospel preacher looked on. “For the sake of greater effectiveness in witnessing to Jesus Christ himself, as well as for their own sakes, the evangelicals cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual exercise.”

Billy Graham never followed his Wheaton years with further theological training. Late in his life he often said he regretted the mistake. With a keen sense of his weakness, he spent the rest of his life encouraging others to pursue academic excellence. Christianity Today, founded by Billy in 1956, gave many evangelical leaders, including Wheaton professors, an important outlet for their study and reflection. The relationship between Wheaton and CT only grew closer when the magazine moved next door to Carol Stream.

“It’s so fortunate that Billy went to Wheaton College, because it was thoroughly biblically orthodox but at the same time thoughtful and academically quite good,” said Harold Myra, co-author of The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham and former CEO of Christianity Today International. Billy tapped Dr. Carl F. H. Henry ’38 as the first editor. Another Wheaton graduate, Dr. Harold Lindsell ’38, succeeded Dr. Henry in 1968. These leaders from the fabled World War II era at Wheaton encouraged each other in ministry as God used them each to build his church. Their prominence and faithfulness, in turn, bolstered the College they loved.

“Billy Graham brought renown to Wheaton because, as many secular media outlets are quick to point out, his fame as a preacher of the gospel never moved him beyond the simple gospel, or caused him to abandon his lifestyle of obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ,” said Marilee Melvin ’72, executive assistant to the Wheaton College president. “Billy Graham’s ministry went on straight as an arrow thanks to wise and biblically based decisions he and his team made early on about finances, relationships, and priorities. The Grahams’ lifelong witness and ministry has blessed Wheaton College greatly because of their loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ.”

President Philip G. Ryken ’88 is confident Billy Graham’s legacy will continue to influence the church and society for generations to come.

“Wheaton’s ongoing connection to Billy Graham is an immense privilege, blessing, and responsibility,” President Ryken said. “His faithful witness inspires every member of our community to share the gospel faithfully and persuasively. At the same time, his advocacy for Christ-centered higher education calls us to intellectual excellence. We praise God that the legacy preserved in his letters and sermons remains with us as a sacred treasure for the church worldwide.”