Tommy Underwood wasn’t even born when Billy Graham made his preaching debut in Florida, yet the Putnam County native easily recalls stories of the fledgling minister. The one about Billy Graham’s first sermon, for instance, was a particular favorite of Underwood’s late father, and, during a recent visit to the Billy Graham Library, Underwood shared the tale.
It was Easter weekend in 1937 when Billy Graham accompanied his college dean Rev. John Minder on a trip north of Tampa to Palatka, Fla. Tommy Underwood’s father, Cecil, greeted them and asked Minder if he would preach the upcoming weekend at nearby Bostwick Baptist Church. Minder declined and volunteered Billy Graham, much to the 18-year-old’s bewilderment. With knees knocking and four borrowed sermons to fall back on, Billy Graham delivered one after another in front of the 40 or so parishioners.
He concluded his first career sermon eight minutes later.
“After the service was over with, one of the men at the church came up to Billy and told him, ‘Boy you better go back to school and get a lot more education because you’re not gonna make it,’” Tommy Underwood recalled his father saying.
Billy Graham did return to school, and, after wrestling with God, he eventually gave way to his calling to preach. His confidence grew with practice, even though his audience sometimes was nothing more than alligators, birds and Cypress stumps, as he chronicles in his autobiography Just As I Am.
Cecil Underwood remained involved, and Tommy Underwood recalled his father describing weekend road trips in the late 1930s when he would fetch student preachers from the Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College) in Tampa. Cecil Underwood regularly loaded the bright-eyed pupils into the bed of his old pickup truck and drove them two-and-a-half hours northeast to Putnam County.
As the story goes, the weekend warriors would conclude their journey in Palatka, where Billy Graham and his fellow aspiring ministers often enjoyed fried chicken and mashed potatoes before finding a spot to sleep on the floor of the Underwoods’ home. On Sunday morning, Cecil Underwood, a lay pastor himself, assigned the students to preach at churches county-wide.
Cecil Underwood encouraged Billy Graham to get baptized in a Southern Baptist Church and performed the honors at nearby Silver Lake in 1938. A year later, Billy Graham was ordained by Underwood and a half dozen local Southern Baptist preachers.
Billy Graham was a household name with family memories attached. As Tommy Underwood grew up, he got to know the rising evangelist personally, and he never tired of hearing his message.
“What inspired me the most was that Billy, when he preached a message, a 6-year-old child could understand exactly what he was talking about,” Tommy Underwood said. “Or a 90-year-old person. He preached the Gospel very, very simply, and he preached it out of the Bible.”
Billy Graham’s reach evolved from preaching to 100 folks in small Florida churches to sharing the Gospel with hundreds of thousands in stadiums. Twenty years later, he was setting up for a Crusade in Clearwater, Fla.—176 miles southwest of Palatka—when he noticed a familiar face. Mr. Graham invited Tommy Underwood and his wife, Bonnie, to join him on the platform that night for the message.
Recently, the Underwoods had another opportunity to learn more about Mr. Graham’s ministry. The Grandin, Fla., couple made a stop at the Billy Graham Library as part of a road trip across the Southeast.
“We’ve been wanting to do it for a number of years, and we just never did,” Tommy Underwood said. “There is just so much there to absorb that we will go back.
“The museum is a really, really good thing because the people that are going through are getting the word of God. It just thrilled my heart to hear that.”