The Rev. Billy Graham got his start preaching in Florida

- The Rev. Billy Graham reached millions throughout his life of preaching and activism, but it was the Tampa area where he finally made his decision to devote his life to the word of God.

After graduating high school in 1936, Graham briefly attended Bob Jones College in Tennessee and was almost expelled, but his father urged him to continue to allow God to use his voice. 

Graham transferred to what was then the Florida Bible Institute in Temple Terrace. He practiced sermonizing in a swamp, preaching to birds and alligators and participating in street corner meetings, before trying out with small churches. 

Graham's first formal church sermon was at a Baptist church in Palatka to about 40 people.

"My repertoire consisted of about four borrowed sermons. My knees shook and perspiration glistened on my hands. Eight minutes—that was all it took to preach all four of my sermons," Graham had said of the experience. 

But it was in the summer of 1938, on the 18th green of the campus golf course, where the 19-year-old Graham heeded the call from God to preach.

"I finally gave in while pacing at midnight on the 18th hole," he said. '"All right, Lord,' I said, 'If you want me, you've got me."'

Trinity was called Florida Bible Institute and located in Temple Terrace years ago. Billy Graham was president of the class of 1940.

"Billy Graham loved Tampa Bay," says Steve Hunter, assistant to the president at Trinity College of Florida in Pasco County. "He accepted the Lord here in Tampa Bay. 

Hunter said his peers and school officials knew that Graham was special.

"So special that W.T. Watson, our founder, said tomorrow morning you're going to preach. His early traveling ministry was based in Tampa.

A historical marker at N. Franklin St. and Fortune St. in Downtown Tampa says he preached here to "derelicts, drunks, and skid-row bums."

Graham returned to Tampa to preach over the decades. In 1998, Karmen Pitts attended a stadium show here with her mother.

"Billy Graham delivered a message that was simple, so simple, but so powerful that you knew God had used him to touch people."

Eventually, the Reverend Billy Graham Memorial Park was established on the Hillsborough River east of the 18th green, across from where Graham would paddle his canoe and practice his sermons to the birds and alligators. 

Graham was ordained by Southern Baptist clergymen in Palatka in 1939 and traveled throughout the state of Florida to preach regularly at camps, cities, and revival meetings. 

He graduated from the Bible Institute in 1940 and went on to Wheaton College in Illinois, but continued to get invitations to preach at churches in Chicago, Indiana, and even in Florida.

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