Forty years ago this week, one of the most iconic and most frequently used buildings on campus was dedicated after two and a half years of construction. The Founder’s Memorial Amphitorium, BJU’s main preaching center, is the site of daily chapel services and annual Bible Conferences and has also been host to countless speakers, world-famous performers and U.S. presidential candidates.
The FMA’s sheer enormity, Dr. Bob Jones III said, is its own testimony. The primary purpose of the FMA is, of course, Bible-based, Christ-exalting, God-honoring preaching, and it is one of the largest structures dedicated to that purpose anywhere in the world. At the time of its construction, the FMA was thought to be the nation’s largest structure used strictly for auditorium purposes.
The 290-by-290-foot building covers more than an acre of land and was the first acoustically electronic, fixed-seat auditorium of its size in America. Patterned after the style of Greek amphitheaters, the arrangement of the 7,000-plus seats was designed to allow the audience the greatest possible proximity to the speaker. Dr. Bob Jones Jr. thus called the building an “amphitorium,” combining the words “amphitheater” and “auditorium.”
The building’s foundation and superstructure consist of 16 million pounds of concrete reinforced with 800,000 pounds of steel. An additional one million pounds of steel form the steel box-trusses that support the 230-foot clear-span roof system. Altogether, the building offers almost three acres of floor space in its various levels.
The FMA’s sound system was also unique for its day, controlling the acoustics electronically rather than mechanically or physically. In fact, the organ’s pipe-organ tones are produced by five electronic digital computers and a sophisticated amplification system. The platform is large enough to hold a 100-piece orchestra, but the acoustics are ideal for speakers and soloists.
Construction on the mammoth structure lasted two-and-a-half years, but the result was stunning. In fact, the FMA was named a winner of the prestigious National Design Award of Merit from Armco Steel Corporation of Middletown, Ohio.
The vision of the founder, Dr. Bob Jones Sr., had always been for the entire university family to meet together under one roof for daily chapel services. But by the early 1970s, enrollment at BJU had exceeded the capacity of Rodeheaver Auditorium where chapel services had previously been held. Students were scattered throughout as many as five different buildings, where chapel services were transmitted either by closed-circuit television or audio amplifier. Something had to be done.
In May 1971 ground broke for a new preaching center, and the FMA was dedicated in a special ceremony on Sunday, Nov. 18, 1973. The program began with a procession of faculty members in full regalia and a brass choir fanfare composed for the occasion by Dr. Dwight Gustafson, then the dean of the School of Fine Arts.
Dr. Ian Paisley, long-time friend of Dr. Bob Jr., member of the British Parliament and leader of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, preached the dedicatory sermon on the words “Behold, Elijah is here” from I Kings 18. He pointed out that throughout human history God has always provided an Elijah to carry on His work, comparing Dr. Bob Jones Sr. to John Calvin and John Knox as the Elijahs of their day.
“In an age of apostasy, Dr. Jones, like Elijah, was sent to the world to preach of the works of the Bible and raise up the cross,” Paisley said. “This building was the plan and the work of God, and when you get your marching orders from God, neither man, woman, nor devil can stand in your way. Neither did they stand in the way of Dr. Jones.”
Following the sermon, Dr. Bob III, who was then president of the University, led in a prayer of thanks and dedication. The congregation was then led in a hymn of dedication, written for the occasion by Dr. Bob Jr. The ceremony concluded with a recessional and final benediction.
The new FMA was indeed something to be thankful for, and festivities celebrating its opening continued throughout Thanksgiving week. The day after the dedication, the oratorio society, combined choirs and orchestra presented Handel’s Messiah, as the first concert to be held in the new building.
That Wednesday night, a special program was presented in the FMA on the life of Dr. Bob Sr., and the traditional praise service was held Thursday morning. Following the service were two Thanksgiving dinners, in which four-and-a-half tons of turkey were consumed, along with the traditional rice, gravy and cranberry sauce.
In the afternoon, the Basilean Eagles and the Phi Beta Bulldogs faced each other in the annual men’s intramural soccer championship, the Turkey Bowl, and Phi Beta came away with the victory. Concluding the day’s festivities, Dr. Bob III performed in Rodeheaver Auditorium as Jon Hus in Prologue: A Drama of Jon Hus, a play written by Dr. Bob Jr. on the life and death of great reformer Jon Hus, while a film showing simultaneously took place in the FMA.
Dr. Bob III describes his first time preaching in the FMA as “never to be forgotten.”
“There was so much excitement. It was a dream come true,” he said. And the FMA has since become indispensable to the University’s mission. Without it, Dr. Bob believes that the University could not have maintained its spiritual fervency.
Throughout the years, this immense building has served the University well, and it continues to stand as a testimony to the amazing goodness of God.