The sporadic clanking of the radiator heating their room was a metronome of prayer for a young man referred to as Setterlund. Known as “the Swede” to many students, he was one of a handful of students who hadn’t bought into a Biblical perspective at the Bible School yet, and the students were aggressively bringing their friend to the throne room of Christ. Gjerde wrote of the incident some sixty years after the day in a Lutheran Brethren periodical. “‘Fire’ fell! All of us started to pray again, not for the unsaved one, but for ourselves - and all at one time! The room filled with the presence of God. And in His presence we saw ourselves unclean.” Tears filled their eyes as the group of young men began a string of repentance prayers that evening. Waking the next morning, the young men saw revival fire spread through the entire student body. Students were going to bed sure of physical illness, only to find in prayer that they suffered instead from spiritual ailments.
Billy Graham brought revival to Minnesota in 1950.
Young and filled with the Holy Spirit, Billy Graham preached about souls broken down by sin on the road of life, and of the redeeming power of Christ to fix what was wrong. The Baptist evangelist attracted throngs of Minnesotans to the Minneapolis Auditorium for a twenty-day evangelistic crusade.
Hillcrest students got to go to the Sunday evening crusade, traveling on the school’s choir bus. Lovingly known as the ‘Old Blue Jet,’ the GMC school bus featured special individual seats so that its forty-two passengers could travel long distances in comfort. And travel they did; the bus brought the choir on 4,000-mile-long tours, once a year, every April. Brand-new in 1947, the bus transported the Hillcrest Choir to Seattle; in 1948, the choir toured in California. In 1950, it went all the way to New York City and the 59th Street Church in Brooklyn, and then back to Fergus Falls.
The bus would also bring a group of students to attend Billy Graham’s Minneapolis event. The trip to hear a young and spirit-charged Billy Graham was deeply memorable for the forty girls and boys from Hillcrest.
Dr. Billy Graham had electrified the nation, becoming America’s number-one evangelist by 1950. 1 Seating at his event in the Minneapolis Auditorium was on a “first come, first serve[d]” basis, with 11,000 chairs available. Graham’s basic message was simple: “This is God’s hour of decision and Minneapolis hangs in the balance.” The “hawk-nosed and handsome” preacher spoke with fiery passion.
“Flailing his arms, crouching and pointing, coiling his big [6’ 2”] frame around the Bible he read from” or “wrestling with the microphone, he gave his audiences not a moment’s emotional letup.” After preaching about “Heaven, Hell & Judgment Day,” his stirring concluding appeal was for sinners to make “decisions for Christ.” 2 Dr. Graham clearly expounded upon the idea that “heaven is a literal place,” and that “Christians go there the moment they die.” He preached that “there will be wonderful reunions as loved ones are recognized up there. . . . What a glorious place it will be—with streets of gold, the gates of pearl . . . and the trees bearing a different kind of fruit every month.” He gave a “detailed picture” of Heaven, and a description of Hell, as well. He described Hell as a place where “there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.” He said, “I believe . . . that there is literal fire in Hell, but if there is not . . . then the Bible is talking about something far worse when it speaks of the flames of hell. What ever it is going to be is so horrible that it cannot be expressed in the language of man.”
Graham’s “old-time religion,” as it came over the public address system, stressed the need for repentance from sin. Graham spoke in a metaphor about Judgment Day: “God is going to say, ‘start up the projector!’ Because from the cradle to the grave God has had His television cameras on you. God has every sinful word on his recording. The only thing that can save your soul is to let Jesus Christ come into your heart. Are you ready?”
Thousands of Americans had responded to Billy Graham’s call for revival. The blond-haired Calvinist-inspired Baptist preacher had become nationally known after his four-week- long Los Angeles Crusade in 1949, when over 250,000 came to hear him at “the largest revival tent in history.” The Hillcrest administration gave students an opportunity to be a part of that “great national revival,” as Dr. Graham proclaimed it, “an old-fashioned, heaven- sent, Holy Ghost revival.”
The Old Blue Jet bus took the students on a trip that was memorable not only for the chance to hear the “deep, cavernous voice” of the Southern Baptist evangelist, but also for a mishap-filled bus ride that had the students laughing and yawning and cringing and snoozing along the way.
One of those students was Mabel Benson, a Brooklyn girl who had just turned age sixteen. She recorded the events of that day in a letter to her mom and dad back east. Mabel had arrived in Fergus Falls just two weeks before the trip to the Crusade. She was new to Minnesota, being a junior at a boarding school far away from home. Here is Mabel’s story about her adventure as she wrote it to her parents, and as she has told it to this day.
All the Hillcrest students got an opportunity to attend the Billy Graham Sunday Crusades. The Old Blue Jet bus made three trips to the Twin Cities that fall in 1950—two of the trips were smooth with no problems, but the bus ride Mabel Benson was part of would live on in her memory. It would go on to become a Hillcrest legend—an unforgettable combination of spiritual revival mixed with skunk scent and cranky engine troubles, with the thunder and roar of a late- September cloudburst, complete with the crackle of lightning in the dark of night.
It was funny how it worked out—Mabel Benson, the Brooklyn girl born to Norwegian immigrant parents, graduated from Hillcrest Academy in 1952 and returned to the East Coast to work. There, she became reacquainted with Harland Helland, who by this time had graduated from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary and was a youth worker at Brooklyn’s 59 th Street Church, where Mabel attended youth group. And so it was that the former bus driver and innovative mechanic who had grown up on a dairy farm in Fergus Falls married the big city girl who had once laughed at his ungainly appearance, draped on a blue-and- white bus fender, on the way home to Hillcrest after the famous Billy Graham Crusade.
Vern Watson, in his youth, received the Gospel at Ebenezer Lutheran Brethren Church in Minneapolis, and attended the Summer Bible Camp at Lake Geneva in Alexandria, Minnesota, where the Lutheran Brethren Church rented the camp facilities from the Assemblies of God.
After some rousing singing and a friendly handshake from everyone in the room, President Brad Hoganson stepped to the front of the service group meeting to bring a greeting from Hillcrest. He spoke of a move from New Jersey, the ease of coming back to a place like Fergus Falls because it feels like home, and the first few months he's had in the office of President at Hillcrest. Following the introductions, President Hoganson introduced long-time staff member, Wayne Stender, to deliver an update from Hillcrest.
The update started with a short story of a student from Norway who clapped her hands in delight in driving down Alcott avenue, seeing Hillcrest over the top of the hill as the steeple peaked from behind buildings. The student was driving with her parents after a shopping trip in Minneapolis, and in returning to Hillcrest the student cheered from the back seat, "I'm home! I'm home!"
Stender then went on to explain why students have a love for Hillcrest and the Fergus Falls community. He started by outlining the three core values of Hillcrest: to build faith, develop intellect, and strengthen character. He went on to explain how Hillcrest does this with the interlinking of knowledge and virtue in a faith-based education environment.
To close, Stender pulled up a document from Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the man known as the father of American medicine. Rush was writing to a group in Pennsylvania as the nation looked to develop an education system.
Rush believed that education was a foundation that would equip people for productive citizenry in a republic. He spoke to a link in what some have called the triangle of freedom. Namely, Rush believed that in order to have freedom one must have developed virtue. He went on to say that in order to develop virtue one must have a religious order that builds virtue. But, in order for one to have a religious order they must have a system that provides freedom. Some have taken Rush's letter and developed a sort of engine they call the triangle of freedom, where freedom, virtue, and religion must all be developed in successive fashion if the mass of people are going to live in a free society.
Stender outlined how Hillcrest's focus in building faith in Jesus Christ, addressing all faith systems in hopes of educating students that the most comprehensive faith system that brings about the best human flourishing is the Christian perspective. Stender went on to say that Hillcrest's faith-building program is gaining notoriety, as students build faith in dormitory life, classroom instruction, and extra-curricular activities.
From these school functions, Stender explained that students develop intellect, studying the natural revelation of God through the systems and orders of the universe.
As students build their understanding of the world, noting that God has intricately designed it to function according to his character through order and design, students begin to internalize these truths. These truths then form and strengthen character that aligns to the nature of God because every academic discipline at Hillcrest uses the Bible as a primary text.
As Stender closed he noted the incredible international community that has come to Hillcrest, highlighting how this impacts the local community. Because the approach to education focuses primarily on students being made in the image of God, all students feel they have a place to belong at Hillcrest, as the school works to build faith, develop intellect, and strengthen character that is grounded in Jesus Christ.