PALATKA (FBW)—A little over 200 years after the First Great Awakening swept the American colonies, an unknown Bible student by the name of Billy Graham stepped into the pulpit of the tiny Bostwick Baptist Church in Palatka to preach his first sermon.
It was Easter Sunday night, March 28, 1937, and Graham, with shaking knees and sweaty hands, went through all four of the sermons he prepared in advance—in eight minutes.
The beloved evangelist, who has since spoken in person to roughly 210 million individuals, got his start as an 18-year-old, preaching to a humble congregation of about 40, including ranchers and cowboys in denim overalls and women in cotton dresses.
Florrie Wilkinson Hoeltzel was nine that day and remembers it well. Now 82, Hoeltzel said it was “big doing’s in those days” that they had a visitor out in their country church.
Hoetzel joined Bostwick Baptist Church’s Pastor David Eddins, Don Bailey, a retired member of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and about 100 others April 9 for a ceremony by the Florida Baptist Historical Society to dedicate a historical marker honoring Graham outside the renovated wooden church building.
“This was a little, tiny church and I remember Bro. Cecil Underwood brought Bro. Billy Graham. He was a little skinny, a tall man,” Hoeltzel told Florida Baptist Witness.
Hoeltzel recalls not having “too much to dress up with in 1937,” despite it being Easter, but the modest room was made warm by the pot-bellied stove at the front of the room. As a youngster she remembers thinking it was a big day because there were “people coming we’d never had come before and that just sort of made an impression on me.”
“I never at that time, regardless of what age I would have been, would I have ever thought that I heard the first sermon that a world-wide evangelist preached,” Hotezel said, choking back tears. “Just the memories of seeing him and now knowing what he became in God’s Kingdom and God’s work—I’ve prayed for him all these years.”
Hoeltzel said she learned about Graham’s rising influence through Underwood, a local pastor, since she stayed in the area growing up. She moved her membership to River Road Baptist Church in Hilliard after she married.
“I always remembered he was the same one who preached here that day,” she said, lowering her voice to ask, “How’s his health?”
Graham, now 92, is in “generally good health,” according to Bailey, 81, who is now retired, but served with the Graham organization since 1954 when he helped to develop the Hour of Decision radio broadcast.
Speaking from the steps of the old church building [converted into Sunday School classrooms in the 1970’s when the congregation had long-since outgrown the structure], Bailey shared stories of working closely with the Graham family for nearly five decades.
“He would really like to be here,” Bailey said of Graham. “I’ve heard him say this many times before, that he is highly honored by this presentation you are making in his honor, for the work that God has led him [to do] through all these years.”
Recalling Graham’s dedication to the ministry, Bailey said the evangelist consistently presented the Gospel—and has received many accolades—but has remained steadfastly humble.
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