Billy Graham Center
Collection 74 - John Elsen . T65 Transcript
Click here to listen to an audio file of of the unrestricted portion this interview (20 minutes)
This is a complete and accurate transcript of the tape of the oral history interview of John Elsen (CN 74, T65) in the Archives of the Billy Graham Center. No spoken words have been omitted, except for any non-English phrases which could not be understood by the transcribers. Foreign terms are not commonly understood appear in italics. In very few cases words were too unclear to be distinguished. If the transcriber was not completely sure of having gotten what the speaker said, "[?]" was inserted after the word or phrase in question. If the speech was inaudible or indistinguishable, "[unclear]" was inserted. Grunts and verbal hesitations such as "ah" or "um" were usually omitted. The transcribers have not attempted to phonetically replicate English dialects but have instead entered the standard English word the speaker was expressing. Readers should remember that this is a transcript of spoken English, which follows a different rhythm and rule than written English. Foreign terms or phrases which may be unfamiliar appear in italics.
... Three dots indicate an interruption or break in the train of thought within the sentence on the part of the speaker.
.... Four dots indicate what the transcriber believes to be the end of an incomplete sentence.
( ) Words in parentheses are asides made by the speaker.
[ ] Words in brackets are comments by the transcriber.
This transcription was made by Bob Shuster, Katherine Grabner, and Paul Bartow was completed in March 2014.
Collection 74, T65. Interview of Dr. John Elsen by Robert Shuster on July 22, 2010.
ELSEN: Good morning.
SHUSTER: Uh, good morning. Dr. Dresser?
ELSEN: This is Dr. Elsen.
SHUSTER: Oh, Dr. Elsen, yes, this is Bob Shuster from the Billy Graham Center Archives. I am recording our interview this morning, is that okay?
ELSEN: Yeah, let me get another phone here.
SHUSTER: Okay. [Long pause].
SHUSTER: Yes, hello, Dr. Elsen.
ELSEN: Yeah. I’m here now.
SHUSTER: I’m recording our interview, is that okay?
SHUSTER: Okay, let me just give a brief introduction and then we can proceed with the interview and the questions I sent you. This is Bob Shuster taping an interview with Dr. John Elsen for the Archives of the Billy Graham Center. The interview took place over the telephone on July 22nd, 2010 at 10:30 AM Eastern...Central Standard Time. Dr. Elsen, when and where were you born?
ELSEN: In Chicago, 1922.
SHUSTER: And what years were you at Wheaton College as a student?
ELSEN: ‘38 through ‘42.
SHUSTER: And why did you choose to attend Wheaton?
ELSEN: Well, my parents attended there, and they were insistent that I attend the same college.
SHUSTER: When and where did you first meet Billy Graham?
ELSEN: Actually it was after he came there...I don’t remember if he was after the freshman year. And I didn’t meet him personally, although I saw him several times on the campus.
SHUSTER: Well, do you recall when you first saw him or what the circumstances were?
ELSEN: No, I don’t remember, but I remember hearing about...how he had...come to Wheaton. I understood he was...graduated from a Bible institute in Florida and apparently he was working as a caddy and had caddied for Dr. Edman along with some other men. And that was where Dr. Edman first met him and arranged for...eventually, although he never set out specifically, arranged for him to come to Wheaton. And I assume he had a very significant role in getting Billy Graham to Wheaton.
SHUSTER: Who did you hear that from?
ELSEN: I don’t know, it was just a general campus buzz.
SHUSTER: So while he was still a student, that’s what people were saying about...?
SHUSTER: What did he look like? What was his appearance at that time?
ELSEN: No different than it has ever since then.
SHUSTER: So how would you describe it?
ELSEN: He was a good-looking, young American. And energetic. That’s about...the extent of the description because he hasn’t changed any in all these years.
SHUSTER: Was his southern accent particularly noticeable?
ELSEN: Yes. But we had people from all over the country so different accents were nothing unusual.
SHUSTER: Or anything else about him that was unusual or noticeable at the time?
ELSEN: He was rather...should we say he had a rather commanding appearance. He looked like a distinguished person or somebody you would remember because of his looks. And I remember he and another member of the college...student body by the name of John Shearer was [coughs] I think a couple years ahead of him. I think he was in the class of ‘40. And they were both quite tall and both became prominent on the campus. And they were both in the theology department.
SHUSTER: So when you say “he had a commanding appearance” you mean he was tall?
ELSEN: Tall, good looking, all the rest.
SHUSTER: Did you have any classes together?
SHUSTER: Did you...were you involved at all with the United Gospel Tabernacle in downtown Wheaton?
ELSEN: Yes, we went there. In fact, I went there all the time I was...as soon as I heard about it, I went to the Tabernacle. I had previously gone to the Wheaton Bible Church which was located just west of the college at that time.
ELSEN: But Billy Graham had a very...large audience. I would say probably a third of the college campus students probably attended his services.
SHUSTER: So how many would that be? About 300?
ELSEN: Between 250 and 300. Because not everybody at the College went to Sunday school or to church [laughs] for that matter.
SHUSTER: And...go ahead.
ELSEN: And the thing that was most interesting to me about the church was that it was...it was sponsored actually by a group of, I think it was either five or six families in the...in the Wheaton area. One was a carpenter. Another was a mail carrier. The one I knew was Dr...
SHUSTER: Dr. Tenney?
ELSEN: No, no. From the Chemistry Department. [Albert S.] O’Brien. Dr. O’Brien was one of the teachers in the chemistry department, and I was a chemistry major. And these five or six families really were responsible for the Tabernacle. They weren’t a church or anything that I know of, but they were a group of people who just felt that that was their mission.
SHUSTER: And so you mentioned that there was a carpenter and others, and these were people from the town?
ELSEN: From the town. Yes. Families.
SHUSTER: So were there people from the town in the congregation?
ELSEN: I don’t remember any. But there may have well been. But there were so many people there, that I don’t remember any of the families. Except that that was what I was told.
SHUSTER: Sure. And you said it was a group of families who had gathered together to start the Tabernacle. What was their purpose?
ELSEN: Yes, that’s right. They supported. They paid the bills, I guess.
SHUSTER: But what was their purpose in starting the Tabernacle when...since there were so many churches in Wheaton already?
ELSEN: Well, this was not unusual to have small groups on the campus who were meeting for various religious reasons. For example, there was a man who was a dedicated Calvinist and he met with a group of students on a Sunday afternoon. And he eventually had as many as 100 students. And my roommate used to go to hear him also.
SHUSTER: Who was that, do you...?
ELSEN: That was John, oh what was his name? Paul...it’ll come to me.
SHUSTER: But the Tabernacle group as you say was college people and non-college people starting it. So...
ELSEN: The families that started it started it as a ministry to the college students.
SHUSTER: I see. So it was intended for the college students.
ELSEN: Because it met in the afternoon or in the evening and of course the other churches all met in the morning.
SHUSTER: Uh-huh. And you attended and you said that there were several...a couple hundred at least college students who were there.
ELSEN: Oh yeah.
SHUSTER: What was the physical layout like? Where did the Tabernacle meet?
ELSEN: Well, they rented the Masonic Temple downtown because that was the only place that was big enough. And they had an auditorium plus a balcony as I remember. That was...fully packed [laughs] every meeting.
SHUSTER: Were these folding chairs or did they have...?
ELSEN: No, it was a regular like...I don’t even remember that detail of it. Except I do remember the big stage and the big Masonic symbol in the front.
SHUSTER: And you say the services were...?
ELSEN: The important thing was Billy Graham [laughs].
SHUSTER: [Laughs] Right. And you say there was.... So what was the service like at the Tabernacle? What happened at the service?
ELSEN: Well, there was singing and testimonies. A lot of testimonies. And then Billy would preach. And his preaching then was no different than it was the last time he preached. In other words, it simply has not changed. I’ve been following him for all those years by his magazine and his other appearances and other meetings. And it’s been exactly the same, and I think that’s the reason for his success. Because he...you must be born again.
SHUSTER: So the content of his message was the same?
ELSEN: Basically the same, yes. All the time, and nobody ever got tired of it either.
SHUSTER: What was his style? Has his style changed, his method of preaching?
ELSEN: Much more dynamic then than now, but that was because he was younger.
SHUSTER: When you say dynamic, what do you mean?
ELSEN: Well, he believed what he was preaching and he wanted others to believe it too. So like a salesman, he was very persuasive. And every pastor should be the same.
SHUSTER: Did he give an altar call?
ELSEN: Oh yes.
SHUSTER: And did people come forward?
ELSEN: Oh yeah. He had a real...impression upon the campus.
SHUSTER: Do you recall any particular sermons or any stories or anecdotes from his...?
ELSEN: No, no. That’s been sixty some years ago [laughs].
SHUSTER: Sure, sure. No, I...and we appreciate your recording these memories for the archives. And I think I mentioned the questions I sent to you, V. Raymond Edman, Gordon Clark also preached at the Tabernacle at times. Did you recall hearing them as speakers?
ELSEN: Dr. Clark was a very respected man. He was a psychologist as I remember. And he was really quite well respected because psychiatrists and psychologists didn’t always have the best reputation among students. But he was very logical and very objective, and you couldn’t argue with him because he didn’t leave any open points.
SHUSTER: [Laughs] Did you hear him preach at the Tabernacle?
ELSEN: I don’t remember him particularly.
SHUSTER: We also had a note from one place that J.W. Taylor was the Sunday school superintendent. Do you recall anything...?
ELSEN: Taylor was...I think he had the Club Aluminum Company. And he was a well known Christian at that time. You see, this was a time when the...Youth for Christ movement was beginning. And that became very popular in Chicago. They had meetings at...Saturday night because they didn’t have any musical programs at the orchestra hall. So they packed out the place.
SHUSTER: And that was in downtown Chicago?
ELSEN: Downtown Chicago, yeah.
SHUSTER: Yeah, I think that was Herbert J. Taylor was the...
ELSEN: Herbert, that’s right.
SHUSTER: But we had a note that a J.W. Taylor was the Sunday school superintendent at the Tabernacle in Wheaton. Do you know anything about him?
ELSEN: I don’t remember that.
SHUSTER: Okay. Also, Billy Graham sometimes spoke in chapel at the college. Do you recall that?
ELSEN: I don’t recall any specific times.
SHUSTER: Uh-huh. Let’s see, in his memoirs, Billy wrote that it was at Wheaton, it was the first time that he had African Americans as classmates. Did...do you recall any black students at college at the time that you were a student?
ELSEN: I’m trying to remember. There may have been one or two. But we never had any problem with southerners or anybody from overseas at all that I remember.
SHUSTER: Okay. How was...how was Graham regarded by other students? How was he looked upon on campus?
ELSEN: How was what?
SHUSTER: How was he looked upon? How did other students regard him?
ELSEN: Oh, he had a great deal of respect.
SHUSTER: Why was that?
ELSEN: Just because of his background and the fact that he was a committed Christian and everybody knew it and there was no question about it. Not that a lot of other people weren’t also, but he was very outspoken about it.
SHUSTER: Was [sic] Billy Graham and Ruth Bell a couple during your time at the college?
ELSEN: Oh yes. Ruth and her sister Rosa were both students there.
SHUSTER: How would you describe them?
ELSEN: Well, they were almost two opposites. Ruth was very outgoing and Rosa was...as I remember she was sickly. And I don’t remember, I think she had to leave school for a year or something or other. I don’t remember too much about it. I do remember that one of the fellows in the house where I lived dated both of them but he was particularly sympathetic to Rosa because of her... you know, she wasn’t a vigorous person like her sister.
SHUSTER: Sure. Who was that?
ELSEN: Her sister was Ruth, the one who....
SHUSTER: No, I mean who was the friend at your house who dated both of them.
ELSEN: Oh, that was Paul Kliewer. He was a missionary’s son. Home Missionaries out in Wyoming.
SHUSTER: So how would you describe Ruth?
SHUSTER: Ruth Bell. Ruth Bell Graham.
ELSEN: Yeah, I didn’t really know her very well at all. All I knew is that they were good kids and very respected of them [sic]. I don’t really remember much else about them specifically.
SHUSTER: Were Billy and Ruth already a couple while you were still a student there?
ELSEN: I don’t know just when that occurred, but we all as I remember, it was all, should we say, student approval.
SHUSTER: [Laughs] They were a popular couple?
SHUSTER: I know that they both taught at the Mooseheart Sunday School up in Batavia I think it was.
SHUSTER: Did you have any involvement there?
ELSEN: No, I didn’t, but my wife, the girl that I married, did teach up there for a year or two, but I don’t remember whether she was there when Ruth was there or not.
SHUSTER: Graham also led evangelistic meetings in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin while he was still a student. Did you attend any of those or have any...?
ELSEN: No, I didn’t attend any of them but that was not unusual because a number of the students, theological students in particular, would often have interim pastors or student pastors at smaller churches that couldn’t afford a regular pastor. That was a pretty regular thing with people in the.... I don’t know about Billy, the only one that I know specifically about was Bill Dunn. Dunn, who was...it wasn’t Bill, I have forgotten what his first name was. He was...pastor of First Pres[byterian] in Peoria for many years. Bruce. Bruce Dunn.
SHUSTER: Yeah, and a couple of his fellows...alumni too who we interviewed were student pastors.
ELSEN: Yeah. And people like Henry...
SHUSTER: Carl Henry?
ELSEN: Carl Henry, yeah. He was very prominent on the campus because of his theological beliefs. And Phil Foxwell was also. He was a magician and eventually was a missionary into...into China.
ELSEN: Japan, yeah, right.
SHUSTER: We have an interview with him in the archives.
ELSEN: Oh good, good.
SHUSTER: Is there anything else that you wanted to add about Graham’s time in Wheaton and your memories of him?
ELSEN: Only to say that there was never anything that I remember that was negative.
SHUSTER: So he made a very positive impression?
ELSEN: Yeah, and I think that was true for a lot of people.
SHUSTER: And what was your own career after graduating from Wheaton?
ELSEN: Well, I went to medical school and it was during the war, so I had a reserve commission. And I went to medical school. And then after I finished all my training...well, I hadn’t finished all my training but a...they sent me a letter that they didn’t need me anymore, to resign my commission. So I didn’t get into World War II. But then when the Korean War occurred, then I got a summons and re-instated my commission, and I served for two years during the Korean War.
SHUSTER: And after you...after you were discharged from the service, where did you practice?
ELSEN: In Evanston, Illinois.
SHUSTER: As a general practitioner?
ELSEN: I had in otolaryngology.
SHUSTER: Well, Dr. Dresser [sic], I’m very grateful for your...being willing to be interviewed today. Is there anything else that you’d like to add or say?
ELSEN: I remember that I did meet Billy personally. This was several years afterwards. This was during the middle 70s I think or late 70s, early 80s. I was on the board of trustees at Moody Bible Institute for quite a long time. And during one of our celebrations, we met with Billy because he was on the program. That’s when we had one of our meetings...anniversary meetings....
SHUSTER: Founder’s Week?
ELSEN: Not at Wheaton, at...on northwest Chicago. The Rose...what’s the name of the pavilion out there?
SHUSTER: At the Rosemont Horizon?
ELSEN: Rosemont. That’s it.
SHUSTER: And this was the Moody Founder’s Week meeting or...?
ELSEN: I think it was the Founder’s Week. One of the meetings.
SHUSTER: And you were on the committee that arranged for him to speak?
ELSEN: I didn’t have anything to do with the arrangements. I was a member of the trustees.
SHUSTER: And so you met then?
ELSEN: Yeah, we were all together praying before the service and on the platform during the service. That was the only other time that I was.... We did go to his place in South Carolina. Or North Carolina...
SHUSTER: North Carolina.
ELSEN: ...for some meetings.
SHUSTER: Oh you mean the Cove?
ELSEN: But...it was shortly after they established their center down there.
SHUSTER: The Cove in...outside of Asheville, North Carolina.
ELSEN: That was...that was just a few years after it started.
SHUSTER: Well, again, thank you very much for the interview. And I appreciate being able to record this with you and preserve it for future historians and students. Thank you.
END OF TAPE
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