Alumni Recall Impactful Trip to Bill Graham Revival on Day of Preacher's Passing
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.