By Greg Laurie
The Scriptures are filled with God’s promises, and throughout our lives, we must learn to rely on them. This is especially true in the small beginnings when we first step into the calling God has placed on our lives. Even Billy Graham had to learn this as he was getting started.
In the spring of 1937, Billy was a student at the Florida Bible Institute in Tampa, Florida.
After a rocky fall semester at Bob Jones University, Billy eagerly formed a relationship with Reverend John Minder, the nurturing and gentle dean of men at the Florida Bible Institute. That semester, Minder invited Billy to accompany him on a three-hour jaunt north to Lake Swan Camp, a Christian retreat center opened by Minder’s family in 1927 in Melrose, Florida.
Billy recalled in his autobiography taking a drive with Minder to see his friend, Cecil Underwood, a part-time Baptist preacher and interior decorator. Underwood was in charge of the Peniel Baptist Church, five miles west of Lake Swan. When they arrived, Underwood was setting up the pulpit for the next night’s sermon.
Shortly after they exchanged greetings, Underwood asked Minder to speak that evening at Bostwick Baptist Church in Palatka, Florida, a nearby church for which Underwood had taken responsibility.
“No,” Minder replied. He had a much better idea: “Billy’s going to preach.”
I would have loved to have seen Billy’s reaction when Minder offered him up to preach right then and there. This is one of those moments a preacher both dreams about and dreads.
When God has gifted you and you have something to say, you want to take that opportunity when it presents itself. At the same time, you find yourself not feeling up to the task. And add to that the weighty responsibility of knowing you are, in fact, speaking on behalf of God himself (no pressure there!).
Billy’s theological repository was extremely limited at the time. It consisted of four borrowed sermons. When Billy stammered that he had never delivered a sermon in front of a live audience before, he didn’t get much sympathy from Minder and Underwood.
They actually laughed in unison then said they’d pray for him.
There wasn’t much Billy could do other than grin and bear it. He wanted to preach, and here was his moment. Billy’s nerves ensured no rest for him the night before. He spent the evening studying, praying and rehearsing aloud. When it came time to speak, Billy was confident one of his sermons might last between 20 and 30 minutes.
The white clapboard church built in 1909 was populated with characters who looked to be right out of central casting. They were a humble congregation of up to 40 people — cowboys and ranchers in denim overalls and women in cotton dresses. For whatever reasons, they even brought their hounds with them for the evening service.
The meeting room where Billy was to deliver his first sermon was, shall we say, modestly sized. A pot-bellied iron stove was strategically placed near the front door to keep the cold weather at bay. The song leader was a non-career type. That means he held a variety of odd jobs, from collecting junk to fishing. He led the congregation in hymns, pausing occasionally to spit tobacco juice out the front door. I’m surprised there wasn’t a spittoon in the place. Billy found none of this humorous because he was a bundle of nerves.
Underwood gave him a proper introduction as the skinny, tall teen took his place behind the small wooden pulpit. Neither his message nor the delivery took the world by storm, but it was a start.
Billy zipped through all four of his sermons in eight minutes, falling way short of the goal he had set for himself. He then quietly sat down, feeling totally deflated. He questioned in his heart if he truly was meant to preach the gospel.
But Billy wasn’t as bad as he imagined, according to Underwood. “He had a bit of difficulty, but he got through all right,” Underwood said to Billy’s biographer, John Pollock. “He ran out of words. He ran out of thoughts. His delivery was impressive, even that first sermon, because of his sincerity.”
Today a historical marker sits in front of Bostwick Baptist Church to commemorate what took place on March 28, 1937, Easter Sunday night in that tiny church — all eight minutes of it.
Zechariah 4:10 says, “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin….” Billy had a long way to go after his first sermon, and so do many of us. But big doors swing on small hinges, as Billy would soon discover.
Be encouraged. God used Billy’s small beginning, and he can use ours, too.
This excerpt is adapted from Greg Laurie’s book “Billy Graham: The Man I Knew”, released April 13, 2021, via Salem Books.