Graham’s ministry wowed Gibson City in 1966

By ROSS BROWN
bluehavanaross@gmail.com


GIBSON CITY — Known as “America’s Pastor,” the Rev. Billy Graham captivated the hearts of millions around the world over his many decades of ministry.

Graham, who died last Wednesday at age 99, spoke at 417 crusades across the U.S. and internationally. Preaching the gospel over multiple nights, audiences were invited to receive Jesus as a choir usually sang “Just As I Am,” the famous Christian hymn.

Although he did not visit Gibson City in his lifetime, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association sponsored perhaps Gibson City’s largest gathering in a generation from July 17 to July 31, 1966, at the Gibson City High School’s football field. The East Central Illinois Crusade attracted hundreds of people each night of the two-week event.

The idea for the crusade came during a series of meetings held by local churches in 1964, during which members decided to organize such an event. Ellis Unzicker, who was then the chairman of the Gibson City Bible Church’s youth committee, wrote a series of letters to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. It was a rarity for a small town like Gibson City to be chosen, as a Gibson City Courier article noted that the association “turns down 16 invitations for every one that is accepted.”

The event’s huge scale meant that hundreds of volunteers were needed to make the crusade a success. Each night of the crusade, 300 people were needed to sing in the choir, along with 300 ushers and 150 counselors. Around 200 families opened up their homes for prayer meetings during the crusade.

Before the event started, 50,000 people were visited by volunteers promoting the upcoming crusade and encouraging them to attend. An introductory event was held at the Ford County fairgrounds in Melvin the night before the show began, featuring evangelist John Corts.

Evening programs began at 7:30 p.m. and lasted until around 9 p.m., featuring several speakers. The main speaker at each nightly program was Dr. John Wesley White, an evangelist who served with BGEA until a stroke sidelined him in 1996. White’s three sons entertained the crowd each evening with songs and cornet music.

The choir was led by Graham’s choir director, Wesley White. Local residents were encouraged to sing in the choir each night at 6:45 p.m.

Youth gatherings were held each Tuesday and Saturday evening, each preceded by a large picnic. Reserved seating was made available, and members of local 4-H and church youth groups were encouraged to attend. Among the speakers at the youth gatherings was Russ Kemmerer, a former Chicago White Sox pitcher who at the time was pastor of a Methodist church near Indianapolis.

More than 25 area communities participated in the crusade, which resulted in an average of 30 people coming forward each night, including more than 50 at the first youth service and a reported 78 at the second. Busloads of visitors came from such distant cities as Danville and Peoria. Local restaurants and businesses were taxed to their limits due to the large crowds that came to Gibson City.

White and the other evangelists presented a different program each night, meaning that many of the attendees were present each night. Some sat in a section of metal folding chairs, others in the bleachers, and still more in chairs and blankets that they brought themselves.

The crusade’s second week brought back many of the speakers from the first week, along with some new laymen. Promotions include the giveaway of a large Billy Graham-autographed Bible to the largest family in attendance, as well as Graham’s “Talk to Teens” books at the final Saturday night youth service. Kemmerer returned one night during the second week after receiving numerous requests by attendees who appreciated his message.

On Sunday, July 31, 1966, the final nightly service of the Gibson City crusade was observed. The worship music that night included organist Donald Husted and beloved gospel singer George Beverly Shea, both of whom were well-known for their careers with Graham’s organization. Seventy-eight people committed their lives to Christ as White presented “Stand Before the Son of Man” before a crowd of 5,700 people.

Though the Graham crusade attracted thousands to Gibson City, it was not the first time the community of 3,400 had witnessed a famous evangelist preach.
During the summers of 1907 and 1910, former Major League Baseball player-turned-preacher Billy Sunday spoke before several large crowds in Gibson City. Sunday spoke at a temporary tabernacle at the first events in 1907 that was built in the south part of town and was torn down once the event was over.

The second event was a private one that occurred at the Chautauqua, which is now Gibson City’s North Park. Former resident J.H. Rasmussen told the Gibson City Courier in 1968 that he remembered hearing Sunday preach, but he could not recall the specific year it was. Rasmussen did, however, remember that “there was a telescope set up to offer views of Halley’s Comet.” Since the comet passed by earth in April 1910, it would be a good assumption that this took place that year.

The newspaper reported during the 1907 visit that Sunday also umpired a baseball doubleheader while he was in town.

Gibson City has a deep Christian history with 11 congregations. The fact that it pulled off an an event of this scale is truly remarkable.
 

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