By age 30, Billy Graham’s name was appearing in headlines across America. But it was his obedience to God during his college years that forged and fostered the direction of his life and ministry.
Billy began his college career in the fall of 1936 at Bob Jones College. Although he stayed there for only one semester, he later said, “It was there that I received my passion for the souls of men and began to realize the desperate need of a world outside of Christ.”
After transferring to the Florida Bible Institute, in Temple Terrace, Fla., Billy participated in street corner meetings. One or more students would preach, and others would provide music.
During this time he preached his first formal church sermon, to about 40 people at Peniel Baptist Church in Palatka. Billy said of the experience, “My repertoire consisted of about four borrowed sermons. My knees shook and perspiration glistened on my hands. Eight minutes—that was all it took to preach all four of my sermons.”
Despite that rough start, Billy sensed that God was calling him to preach. One moonlit night in the summer of 1938, on the 18th green of the campus golf course, the 19-year-old wrestled with that call. He wept as he told the Lord, “I’ll go where You want me to go, I’ll be what You want me to be. Yes, Lord, I’m Yours.”
Opportunities to preach increased. Billy preached regularly at the Tin Can Trailer Park, with crowds of up to 200 people. Until he graduated in 1940, he preached in cities, camps and revival meetings throughout Florida. He would practice one sermon 25 times. He would practice on the bank of the Hillsborough River, in empty churches and on the golf course to the trees and birds.
After graduating from the Florida Bible Institute, Billy attended Wheaton College, where he continued to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. Soon, he was getting invitations to preach in Chicago churches, as well as churches in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and even back in Florida.
Wheaton President V. Raymond Edman became a warm friend and mentor. Edman was pastor of the United Gospel Tabernacle in Wheaton, and in the spring of 1941 he called on Billy to fill in as preacher. This led to Billy being called as its pastor, on Edman’s recommendation, while Billy was only a sophomore. Shortly before his graduation, Billy accepted his only other pastorate, at Western Springs Baptist Church.
Billy also conducted evangelistic services during his college years. In the summer of 1942 he conducted meetings in the South, including a weeklong revival at Sharon Presbyterian Church in his hometown of Charlotte.
In February 1943, the Holy Spirit moved on the Wheaton campus. Many prayed on their knees, confessing their sins. Classmates recalled prayer meetings that year in which Billy lay prostrate on the floor, pleading and crying for revival: “Lord, all I want to do is save souls!”
Many students focus on two goals during their time in college: Earn a degree and try not to incur too much student debt. Billy Graham’s college years show how much more can be accomplished when a student is responsive to God’s call and willing to go wherever He may lead. ©2016 BGEA
Wayne Atcheson is historian for the Billy Graham Library.