Six years after the departure of the esteemed Christian evangelist, Billy Graham, his enduring spiritual and cultural legacy persists - right here in Venice.
In late 1937 or early 1938, while a student at Florida Bible Institute, Graham received an invitation to preach at the First Baptist Church of Venice, then a young congregation without a permanent pastor.
During the sermon, Graham urged parishioners to step forward as a symbol of accepting Jesus Christ, with 11 individuals responding. This was his first "alter call," and it was a precursor to the thousands who would later do the same in his global ministry.
Pastor Tom Hodge, referencing church archives, highlighted the warm reception from the First Baptist Church community as the catalyst for Graham's journey as an evangelist. The church archives contain letters and testaments from that time, and a personal note from Graham, emphasizing the lasting impact of that historic event.
Though witnesses from Graham's early days in Venice have passed on, their legacy is preserved in these archives. For example, Janice Stephens, a former church historian, recalled the pride felt by older members as they witnessed a young man's calling evolve into a worldwide phenomenon.
As the First Baptist Church of Venice continues to honor Graham's legacy during Sunday services, the connection between the revered evangelist and the town remains an integral part of local history, forever etched in the heart of the church and its members.