Southwestern PhD student first to research in new Billy Graham archives

Ashley Allen
| Nov 29, 2022

When the Archive and Research Center at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina, opened to researchers on Nov. 8, Anatoliy Orgunov, a Doctor of Philosophy student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, was the first person to have access to the historical artifacts and papers of the late, world-renowned evangelist.

“[The] reception was fantastic,” said Orgunov, who spent several days in the archives researching for his doctoral dissertation. “I would expect a lot of materials about Billy Graham and this is what I saw. But I've seen much more than I expected” noting the vast amount of material and the “help from the staff,” including David Bruce, executive vice president of the Archive and Research Center, and his staff. Orgunov added the staff “pre-screened” material for him making his research “much easier and faster.”

Orgunov (left) began contacting David Bruce, executive vice president of the Archive and Research Center at the Billy Graham Library, 14 months ago to obtain permission to research in the new archives (courtesy photo).
Orgunov (left) began contacting David Bruce, executive vice president of the Archive and Research Center at the Billy Graham Library, 14 months ago to obtain permission to research in the new archives (courtesy photo).

The Archive and Research Center, which was opened the day after what would have been the North Carolina native’s 104th birthday, broke ground in Nov. 2020 on the same location as the Billy Graham Library and boyhood home. The land is also the final earthly resting place of Graham and his wife, Ruth. Orgunov began reaching out to Bruce, who also served as Graham’s executive assistant, 14 months ago to ask for the opportunity to research in the archives. Orgunov noted Bruce was helpful in “steering my thoughts in the right direction.”

“When you research in an archive you find a lot of things that are irrelevant, but still pretty cool,” Orgunov observed, adding that he learned “a few interesting things about Billy Graham” that are unrelated to his dissertation. However, he said he also found documents that were helping him “form” his arguments as he was reading them, noting that “those arguments are more obvious than speculative.” 

When Orgunov began studying in Southwestern’s doctoral program in 2018, his research focus was Graham and his ministry in the former Soviet Union. However, his research has since narrowed in scope to examine Graham’s attitude toward communism behind the Iron Curtain. Orgunov’s interest in Graham did not begin in his native Ukraine, once part of the former Soviet Union, but was sparked indirectly during his own preaching mission in South Dakota.

As a student at Southwestern working on his Master of Divinity, Orgunov participated in the school’s Revive the Nation evangelism emphasis. The program allows male students the opportunity to preach revival services across the nation during Spring Break. Orgunov said he was assigned to an Indian reservation in South Dakota. Describing it as a “turning point” for him, Orgunov recalled, “I realized that as much as I tried to do well, … I didn't know what I was doing.” He said, “it was probably good preaching, but it was not revivalist preaching” and the experience helped him see the “void in my knowledge.” Consequently, his concentration for his doctoral work is church revitalization with a minor in preaching. 

Orgunov, who graduated with his master’s degree in 2018, said he selected the concentration because revivals are part of the curriculum and he wanted to write on a “revivalistic preacher,” noting Graham was second on his list. However, after a professor mentioned he had just completed a biography on Graham and observed “not much was written on his ministry outside of the United States,” Orgunov remembered, the professor encouraged him to look at Graham’s ministry in his home country of Ukraine because it was part of the former Soviet Union. He said “it was kind of close” to him. Graham’s Moscow crusade in 1992 also played a factor in his decision to research the evangelist, he said.

Ukraine is where Orgunov heard Graham preach during his Moscow crusade. Orgunov, who was born and raised in Kyiv, Ukraine, came to faith in Christ in April 1992. In June of the same year, he was drafted into the Ukrainian Army for mandatory military service. Following boot camp, he recalled he became ill and needed surgery. The post-surgical recovery period allowed him two weeks at home to recuperate, which fell at the same time as Graham’s crusade in Moscow. Orgunov said youth from a church in Kyiv took him to a large sports arena so he could watch the broadcast of the evangelist preaching from Moscow on a big screen.

Orgunov and his family moved to the United States in 2001, two weeks following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. He served in a Slavic ministry at First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida, for 13 years while simultaneously earning his bachelor’s degree in biblical studies from the Baptist College of Florida in Graceville, Florida. He and his family relocated to the North Texas area in 2014 so he could begin his studies at Southwestern.

As he continues researching, Orgunov concluded his knowledge of Graham is “expansive” which has provided him “nuggets to work with that I later put all together, organize, and maybe something good comes out of it.”

Orgunov’s research has included time in the Texas Baptist Historical Collection in Waco, Texas, and the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas. He also has requested materials from the archives at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California. 

Orgunov hopes to graduate in 2024.

*Unless otherwise noted, photos provided by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.