When Billy Graham visited Manatee County in 1961, a crowd the size of nearly one-fourth of the population of Manatee County turned out to hear him speak.
The Rev. Graham’s service at Manatee High School’s Hawkins Stadium on Feb. 4, 1961, drew at least 15,000 people. The population of the county in the 1960 census was 69,168.
The service at the stadium, sponsored by the Manatee County Ministerial Association, represented a tremendous community effort — almost 50 local churches participated and provided a massed choir of some 1,000 voices.
Making note of the large number of retired people living here at the time, Graham chastised those who had not been saved, saying, “You’ve had time for shuffleboard, television and fishing, but not for God.”
More than 300 people from the throng at Hawkins Stadium came forward that night to publicly dedicate themselves to God. Four teenagers led the group, and soon were joined by others of all ages.
“You’ve had time for shuffleboard, television and fishing, but not for God.”
Billy Graham, during his 1961 crusade in Manatee County
The mayor of Bradenton at the time, Sterling Hall, called the crowd the greatest congregation of people brought together at any one time in his 30 years of living in Manatee County.
Graham made note of all the people from surrounding areas who had come to the service. When he called on folks from Sarasota to raise their hands, he referred to Sarasota as “a little village south of here.”
The afternoon after the service at Hawkins Stadium, Graham moved on to Tampa’s Phillips Field, which was near the University of Tampa downtown.
His 1961 Florida tour came to an end a month later in Miami.
This story was originally published Oct. 23, 1998.