John Shearer: Billy Graham Actually Made Several Visits To Chattanooga Area

Saturday, February 24, 2018 - by John Shearer

In the fall of 1936, a young man named Billy Graham from Charlotte, N.C., showed up at what was then Bob Jones College in Cleveland, Tenn.

It was the same campus that had formerly been a Methodist school called Centenary Female College and would later be the site of Lee University, a Church of God-affiliated school.

The young man and two sibling friends had been driven by his father to attend the school after Dr.

Bob Jones Sr. had impressed them with a speech at his high school. A former Alabama Methodist minister who later became a well-known evangelist, Dr. Jones had decided to start a non-denominational Protestant college after fearing that America’s youth would quickly lose their Christian values when they went away to secular colleges.

At his school, which had moved from Florida in 1933 and would remain in Cleveland until relocating to a needed larger campus in Greenville, S.C., in 1947, he instituted a strict regimen.

Although he knew Dr. Jones had the students’ interest at heart and he enjoyed the daily chapel talks, the future Rev. Graham did not care for the strict regimen. That ranged from the rule that a couple on a date could not sit on the same couch, to the fact that students could not ask ideological or theological questions.

“I disliked the overwhelming discipline, which often seemed to have little rationale behind it,” wrote Mr. Graham in his 1997 autobiography, “Just As I Am.”

So in early 1937, he transferred to the Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College) following what he said was an amicable parting with his old school. And hardly anyone in Cleveland outside of the school and apparently no one in Chattanooga noticed.

They later would, however, but it took awhile.

He would later attend Wheaton College and take a pastorate at Western Springs Baptist Church (now the Village Church) in the Chicago area and become a speaker for the Youth For Christ movement that was popular during the 1940s.

While his reputation as a preacher who could inspire listeners was growing, he was still not well known when he came to Chattanooga’s Memorial Auditorium in 1945 for a Youth for Christ gathering and shared the stage with the Central High band.

Former Chattanooga Times columnist Gilbert Govan, who liked to write about events that took place 25 years earlier, said in a July 1970 column that the Rev. Graham’s message was apparently not covered in the paper afterward.

But a future visit would dominate the newspapers for several weeks.

Mr. Graham may have also come to First Presbyterian Church shortly after that while still not a household name in Chattanooga, although he had become a popular radio show host.

By the time he came to Engel Stadium in 1950, his reputation as an inspiring and engaging spreader of the Gospel had finally become cemented in the minds of Chattanoogans. That was in large part a result of his crusades that had begun in 1947. Those, along with his spiritual counseling of numerous presidents, made him into America’s pastor.

As Chattanoogans and others mourn the recent death and praise the nearly 100 years of life of this man with the unique voice and welcoming Christian manner of preaching, a look at his life shows that Chattanooga was a somewhat regular stopping point in his busy schedule.

Of course, as has been discussed in the local news in recent days, his month-long crusade in 1953 was by far his most memorable local visit, even though it was not his only one.

Further research would be required, but perhaps the 1950 Engel Stadium rally was the catalyst for the 1953 crusade.

By the time of the crusade here, Mr. Graham had already held crusades in such Southeast towns as Charlotte, N.C., in 1947, Augusta, Ga., in 1948, Atlanta in 1950, and Memphis in 1951.

The one here was organized by the Greater Chattanooga Evangelistic Crusade and sponsored by the Chattanooga Pastors Association. The chairman of the executive committee was Dr. Carl Biers, pastor of First Baptist Church downtown, while other top clergy organizers were the Rev. Frank Trotter and Dr. James Fowle.

The Chattanooga Public Library has on file a letter from Dr. Fowle, the longtime pastor at First Presbyterian Church, seeking donations from the general public to raise money for the field house at Warner Park after about two-thirds had already been donated.

The field house came about after plans were initially made to put a tent on Chamberlain Field. Weather concerns during that time of year were a question, so a permanent structure was decided upon after building another temporary structure was discussed.

The thinking was that the facility could be taken over by the city of Chattanooga for multiple uses after the crusade. The $200,000 structure was designed by architect William Martin and built quickly by John Martin. The chairman of the building committee was Chattanooga News-Free Press official Everett Allen.

Articles at the time of construction say the 343-by-180-foot structure was built on the former picnic area. To make room for it, Quonset huts used during the Interstate Fair were torn down.

In his fund-raising letter, pastor Fowle wrote that a Billy Sunday crusade had come to Chattanooga 34 years earlier, which would have been 1929, and he hoped this crusade would have a lasting impact as well.

It was definitely a community altruistic effort, and not just a Christian one. As evidence, local steel producers Mose and Garrison Siskin, who were of the Jewish faith tradition, had donated steel and metal for the building.

Preparation had also begun spiritually and emotionally, including with a lay training session at what was then Centenary Methodist Church in its now-razed worship facility next to Memorial Auditorium.

Local singers could also join a large choir of several hundred who performed and had special seating in an inclined area.

When the first day of the crusade was held on Sunday afternoon, 15,000 people packed into the Warner Park field house for the mid-afternoon session. Those who arrived early could view the live taping of Mr. Graham’s “Hour of Decision” radio program.

By later in the first week, the audience was averaging about 9,000 to 10,000 a night.

A check of the first couple of weeks of the crusade in the old newspapers on microfilm at the library shows that the general schedule was to have Mr. Graham preach on Sunday afternoon and every night except Monday, when there was no service. They did apparently have a crusade service that first Monday.

On Sunday, March 29, the crusade moved to Chamberlain Field for a special gathering, with First Presbyterian providing a nursery.

Crusade associate minister the Rev. Grady Wilson also preached at the Tivoli Theatre at noon every TuesdayWednesdayThursday and Friday.

Other members of the Graham team in Chattanooga for the crusade were music director Cliff Barrows, who directed the large choir of locals, singer George Beverly Shea, pianist Tedd Smith, organist Paul Mickelson, and public relations director Jerry Beavan.

They were spotted around town some during the crusade. Mr. Mickelson’s wife bought an Easter bonnet at Pickett’s for the holiday that took place on April 5, while the crusade was in Chattanooga, while Mr. Smith and Mr. Mickelson played at the Brainerd Baptist Church services one Sunday.

Mr. Graham was also spotted playing golf – reportedly cross-handed -- at the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club on March 17. The then 34-year-old said that the doctors thought he needed to get some exercise for his circulation.

His foursome for his round when the reporter found him included the Rev. T. Perry Brannon. He was the minister of the Chattanooga Gospel Tabernacle and a man who had once preached a revival service that Mr. Graham heard while attending the Florida Bible Institute.

Also playing with Mr. Graham were Country Club pro Red Gann and the club’s Scottish greens keeper, Alex McKay. A member of the club also came up to him and said he was welcome to play there during the remainder of the crusade.

While in Chattanooga, Mr. Graham stayed at the Hotel Patten.

An author, Janet Baird, who was helping Mr. Graham write a book, was also in Chattanooga for part of the crusade, as was Tennessee Gov. Frank Clement and his wife.

While many years have passed, a few Chattanoogans still remember that crusade. Among them is Jim Smith, a retired North Georgia educator, who was a teenager at the time and went with his family. His father, the Rev. Bill Smith, was pastor of Woodland Heights Baptist Church near the south end of Dayton Boulevard.

“Yes, we attended Billy Graham’s Crusade and members of Woodland Heights Baptist Church also attended,” said Mr. Smith, who also remembers being at the Graham Engel Stadium gathering and possibly the one at Memorial Auditorium.

“Some folks from our church were in the choir.  George Beverly Shea sang with such conviction and amazing fervor, that his words set the mood for Billy Graham’s later invitation to come forward.”

He added that the Rev. Graham’s sermons were so inspirational and he believes they were definitely inspired by God. “He was a humble man with an important message from the Lord,” said Mr. Smith.

Betsy Anderson, the wife of the late former Chattanooga Free Press editor and publisher Lee Anderson, also recalls going. “I don’t have many memories,” she recalled over the phone from her Atlanta residence. “We attended a couple of nights.”

She said she never met him, but her husband did. The Graham team was so impressed with the coverage of writer George Burnham, a self-admitted recovering alcoholic, that he later wrote on some of his other crusades overseas. The stories were picked up and were run by numerous newspapers in the United States.

Also writing stories about the 1953 crusade for the News-Free Press was Hilda Spence. She covered a gathering of pastors with Rev. Graham in the early days of the crusade at First Baptist Church, when it was still on Georgia Avenue.

Rev. Graham later wrote that the Chattanooga crusade was where he first took up the seating ropes to prevent segregated seating. From then on, he said, he enacted a policy that his crusades would have open seating for all races.

No reference to this is found at a quick glance of the Chattanooga newspapers during the first few days of the crusade. But there was a small item where crusade chairman Dr. Giers was quoted about four days into the crusade saying that special seats for the “colored” attendees were available.

“This crusade is for all Chattanoogans of all races and creeds,” he said, perhaps setting a welcoming atmosphere that made Rev. Graham’s move easy to accept amid the laws of the time.

Rev. Graham left Chattanooga after it ended on April 12 and soon headed to St. Louis and then to London and Europe in 1954 for his first of several international crusades.

He also went to Nashville in 1954 and held a memorable crusade in New York City in 1957. By the time he came close to Chattanooga again when he held a crusade at Knoxville’s Neyland Stadium in 1970, he was drawing crowds greater than in Chattanooga.

Many Baby Boomers from the Chattanooga area too young or not born when the Warner Park gathering was held attended the Knoxville one during the height of the Vietnam War and protests. Opportunities also existed in later years to attend ones not too far from Chattanooga.

Cooley’s Fine Clothing proprietor and area church choir director Jim Cooley had not been born when Mr. Graham came to Chattanooga, but he did go to a crusade at Nashville’s Dudley Field at Vanderbilt in 1979, one at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in 1994 and one at what is now Nissan Stadium in Nashville in 2000.

He thinks the reason the Rev. Graham was such a gifted evangelist was easy to decipher. “I think he had a great way to offer the gospel of Christ to everyone,” said Mr. Cooley, who was also a member of the Glenn Draper Singers. “He could speak to everyone, and everyone would understand.”

After the 1953 crusade, Mr. Graham came back to Chattanooga once more for a public event. On Sept. 24, 1991, he helped dedicate the new Baylor Alumni Chapel.

The building had been built through a gift from Coca-Cola bottler and school alumnus and benefactor Frank Harrison Jr., who was open about his Christian faith. Mr. Harrison and his son, Frank Harrison III, who knew the Graham family from working with the bottling company in Charlotte, had arranged the noted evangelist’s visit.

Mr. Graham, then 72, was introduced by First Presbyterian Church pastor Ben Haden, Glenn Draper led his singers in a performance, student body president David Yann read scripture, and Brian Stratton sang a song that was later praised by Mr. Graham.

Rev. Graham’s talk was actually closed to the media and the non-ticketed public, at least in theory. But some media members were there, and his speech was posted to YouTube by David Carroll of WRCB-TV Channel 3 in later years. It had been originally shot by Scotty Williams of "Changed Lives" ministry. 

As has become somewhat a funny story, he accidentally mentioned that he was glad to be at rival McCallie, not Baylor.

McCallie headmaster Spencer McCallie was actually in attendance as an invited guest, as was Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter.

Longtime Baylor development staff member Matt Lewis was involved in the efforts to build the chapel as Baylor’s enrollment began growing following the admission of girls. He said he remembers Rev. Graham’s visit well.

He recalled that the day was rainy and ugly, but that otherwise did not dampen the spirits of the festive event. “There were lots of dignitaries here from Chattanooga and the state of Tennessee,” he said.

And, yes, he remembered Mr. Graham’s faux pas in mentioning McCallie. “I was about three rows behind Spencer McCallie, and I could see Spencer bend over in his pew,” he recalled with a laugh. “All you could do was chuckle.”

Another somewhat humorous memory he has is of noted conservative street preacher Dan Martino coming to Baylor, not being allowed to go past the gate because he did not have a ticket, but still standing there in the rain holding a sign.

Mr. Martino was then sporting a beard, and Mr. Lewis recalled with a laugh that one alumnus who had come to hear the talk mentioned to Mr. Lewis that he saw what he thought was a certain bearded Baylor faculty member holding a sign. Mr. Lewis had to let him know the person was actually Mr. Martino.

But overall, the day was very special and upbeat, remembered Mr. Lewis. That included the nice luncheon for Mr. Graham at the school after his talk, when he was presented with a glass-encased replica of a Baylor chapel window.

The noted evangelist seemed appreciative in return.

“I felt like he was being very humble, kind and genuinely happy to be there, that it was a big deal for him,” Mr. Lewis recalled.

Now-retired Baylor faculty member Bill Cushman was there and remembered that his talk was based on the Biblical story of David and Goliath. He added that the chapel had opened 13 days earlier with a talk by Baylor chaplain Ed Snow, who now works at – yes – McCallie.

Mr. Cushman said people also should not forget the gift of Frank Harrison in not only helping get Mr. Graham to Baylor, but also in building a large facility that is still quite usable more than 25 years later.

“I believe that the chapel serves us magnificently, and that we should not allow the passage of time to cause us to take it for granted,” he said.

This structure, which has a plaque and collection of photos in the back as a reminder of Mr. Graham’s visit, still appears quite strong and sturdy, as does the Warner Park field house, which has morphed into multiple uses in recent years.

And many might believe that the Christian messages Rev. Graham preached off East Third Street many years ago led to stronger and sturdier spiritual lives as well and helped transform the Scenic City.

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