When the Rev. Billy Graham came to Elon

Rev. Billy Graham, the prominent pastor and evangelist from North Carolina who became a counselor to presidents, passed away Wednesday, Feb. 21, at his home in Montreat, N.C. at the age of 99. 

It was the fall of 1951 when the Rev. Billy Graham, the son of a North Carolina farmer who would become one of the best-known and most highly regarded Christian leaders in the country, was in the midst of an extended crusade in Greensboro, N.C.

Then just 33 years old, Graham was filling a plywood, dirt-floor tabernacle where the 23,500-seat Greensboro Coliseum now stands during what would be a six-week crusade. According to the Greensboro News & Record, 15,000 people were showing up on many nights to hear Graham, who would go on to become a pastor to multiple presidents and one of the best-known evangelists in the country and passed away Wednesday, Feb. 21, at the age of 99 at his home in Montreat, N.C.

It was during that stint in Greensboro that Graham took time to travel east to what was then Elon College to conduct a special service for the student body. 

From the Nov. 7, 1951 edition of the Maroon and Gold, then Elon's student newspaper: 

"Rev. Billy Graham, whose evangelistic campaigns have swayed hundreds of thousands in the largest cities of the United States, will address the Elon College student body in Whitley Auditorium on Wednesday morning of this week, according to an announcement from college administrative authorities. 

"The visit of the eminent evangelist to the Elon campus comes as part of a month-long religious campaign, which Graham has been conducting in Greensboro since early October. His appearance also fits into the regular Religious Emphasis Week program, which is now in progress on the Elon campus."

The Religious Emphasis Week program in 1951 saw five ministers from the Congregational Christian Church offering a series of revival services on campus, with those ministers coming to Elon from Chuckatuck, Virginia, and the North Carolina cities of Southern Pines, Winston-Salem, Burlington and Chapel Hill. The services and the messages from the ministers fell under the theme of "A Living Christian Discipleship."

Cynthia Ward of Burlington was in the audience that day — first row, balcony — and remembers Whitley Auditoriaum being filled as Graham led the service. "I just remember sitting up high like that and looking down," said Ward, who with her late husband, C. Max Ward '49, has been a longtime supporter of Elon. "I was so awed by the experience. He was well-known, if not famous, so it was a real privilege to be able to come to Elon for that."

Back in Greensboro, Graham had been exceeding expectations for attendance after organizers constructing a building with seats for 10,000 in a city that at the time had a population of just 70,000. He arrived back in his native North Carolina following a crusade that had filled the Hollywood Bowl in California to overflowing. 

"Lots of people told me this place would never be filled, and my heart sank when I looked at it — 10,000 seats in such a small city as Greensboro," Graham told the News & Record in 2013. "This is the smallest city in which we've ever appeared."

Graham would go on to see nearly 400,000 attend his services during the six-week stretch in Greensboro. Add to that the crowds of Elon students who took in his preaching during the service in Whitley Auditorium on that November morning.

Read more about the Greensboro appearances here and find the Maroon and Gold article about Graham's service here