In December of 1936, a depressed and dejected 18-year-old named Billy Graham sat chewing his fingernails in the office of his 56-year-old college president, Bob Jones Sr. The patriarch of fundamentalism had learned that Billy and a fellow classmate were planning to transfer from Bob Jones College (in Cleveland, Tennessee) to Florida Bible Institute (just outside of Tampa).

Billy’s first semester had been marked by sickness, bad grades, and a “stack of demerits” for falling short of the school’s strict standards. After learning about the planned transfer, Dr. Jones gave Billy a warning and a prediction:

Billy, if you leave and throw your life away at a little country Bible school, the chances are you’ll never be heard of.

At best, all you can amount to would be a poor country Baptist preacher somewhere out in the sticks.

Given the network of fundamentalism, it was not an unreasonable prediction. But of course it turned out to be quite wrong.

The relationship between the two men was repaired before it ruptured again. Twelve years after this meeting (1948), Bob Jones University would confer on Billy Graham—then the president of Northwestern Baptist Bible College in Minneapolis—an honorary doctorate. In March of 1950 Graham held an evangelistic rally on the campus of BJU (now located in Greenville, SC). (The mayor ordered the stores in town to close and the schools were dismissed early for the event.)

Billy had formed a friendship with Bob Jones Sr. and Jr., with Billy inviting criticism and guidance from “Dr. Bob.”

The elder Jones took him upon on the offer. The following excerpts are from a letter to Billy that contains some helpful advice (May 22, 1952):

I would advise you to take a few campaigns in small towns and pull your budget way down. It will do your soul good to get away from the cities and into small communities where Americans live and where there is not so much glamour. . . .

Make it clear that you are not in the business to get church members, but to get church members converted.

Then Jones raised the issue of politics, a source of perennial fascination and power and temptation:

Now, politics has been my weakness. It is going to be a weakness with you. Watch about your association with politicians. If you are not careful, you will be used sometime when you are not conscious of being used. . . .

Graham would go on to know and pray with and counsel eleven different U.S. Presidents, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. (See The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House.)

Recently—nearly 60 years after receiving this letter from Bob Jones Sr.—Billy Graham was asked about his regrets and what he would have done differently. In addition to spending more time with his family, he mentioned his association with politicians:

I also would have steered clear of politics.

I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to.

But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.

In the mid-50’s Bob Jones Sr. and Billy Graham increasingly moved farther apart over issues of separation from and cooperation with modernists. The “bridge too far” was Graham’s major six-month crusade at Madison Square Garden in 1957. The two men became exemplars of fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism and went in different directions.

I have the sense that younger evangelicals today are often ignorant of the modernist-fundamentalism divide in the early twentieth century, followed by the fundamentalist-evangelical divide in the mid-twentieth century. But there are great lessons for all of us to learn from studying these important events, including the virtues and flaws of our forefathers in the faith.

(A good historical introduction is George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism.)