As 1949 drew to a close, the Reverend Billy Graham could look back on the past year and consider himself a man seven times blessed. He had just turned thirty-one years old, and after six years of marriage still rejoiced every time he looked at his beautiful wife and growing family. The ministering he had done at the Youth for Christ rallies had reached thousands of young people. In 1947 he had been named the President of Northwestern Schools in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and he had recently published a book entitled Calling Youth for Christ, which was finding an avid readership all over the country.
But his real calling was not as an academic technician–it was to bring his own vivid and electric style of heaven-sent revival to a global audience. And now, after years of toiling for the Lord, after a full decade of hard traveling around the world delivering his fervent gospel sermons, Graham had just been lifted up and flown in the midst of heaven. His recently completed Los Angeles crusade had catapulted him to lofty acclaim–by the end of that eight-week ride, thousands of souls had confessed their faith inside the now legendary “Canvas Cathedral.” Graham knew intuitively that it was a defining moment for both his ministry and his life; as the new decade approached, he must have felt the wind at his back and the sea before him.
So when he sat down at his writing desk on that cold December night, there was no time for rest or reflection. Already, there was talk about starting a weekly radio program that would allow him to reach an even greater audience. He knew that he had to establish a formal association to coordinate his activities and travel schedule. In addition, there was a need to account for the big money that was starting to flow into his coffers. He was also contemplating the initial steps necessary to begin holding desegregated crusades in the South, a difficult and dangerous undertaking to even consider at that time.
The following week he was supposed to fly to Boston for another campaign, one that he felt would rival or even surpass his recently completed success in Los Angeles. And when that was done, after only a few days’ respite, he would head to Atlanta to address the state legislature–his cup truly runneth over. His real concern, though, was the fast-approaching campaign that would follow that trip to Georgia.
In February 1950 he was scheduled for a potentially historic crusade in Columbia, South Carolina, a city that vexed him with its religious mores and attitudes. Although he had grown up on a dairy farm outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, he had not yet spent any significant time preaching in the Deep South. In 1936, he had enrolled briefly at the conservative Bob Jones College in Cleveland, Tennessee, but found the discipline and theology restrictive, and stayed only a short time before withdrawing to attend the Florida Bible Institute in Temple Terrace, Florida.
And so despite his recent successes, he was still somewhat unsure if his message would be kindly received in the Palmetto State. But he knew he had a stalwart friend and colleague there in Dr. Robert C. McQuilkin–prolific author, founder of the Ben Lippen Conference Center in Asheville, N.C., and president of the prestigious Columbia Bible College. As the crusade loomed before him, he reached out to his comrade-in-arms:
December 29, 1949
Dear Dr. McQuilkin:
“I have been meaning to write you for a long time, but somehow have neglected to do so. As perhaps you know, we are planning to come to Columbia beginning February 19th. This meeting is heavily upon my heart. I do not think I have ever been so burdened for an evangelistic effort as I am considering this contemplated mission in your city.”
“I would appreciate what I have to say now if you would keep it strictly confidential between us. My observation of Columbia is this—there is probably more churchianity there than any city of the South, and yet I find less real spirituality and spiritual discernment among the people that I have met than any place I have ever gone. There seems to be a tremendous spiritual vacuum. I am led to believe that it is perhaps one of the most difficult cities anywhere in America.”
“This presents tremendous problems but at the same time a glorious challenge, to prove the promises of God. My attitude is going to be one of love and tolerance towards all groups. However, you may rest assured I shall not compromise my message in the slightest; yet I am absolutely convinced that the preachers that are backing our campaign in the beginning are not going to like the type of preaching they are going to get. I am afraid that the Cross is going to be a tremendous dividing point in Columbia. I believe the Gospel is going to act as a sword, but at the same time I believe in one sense this campaign will be a tremendous vindication of your long stand and ministry in Columbia. The people are going to hear the type of preaching, the same doctrine and the same emphasis that you have given for so long in the city.”
“During the early days of the campaign, as I mentioned to Don Hoke, I shall mention the Columbia Bible College only sparingly, but by the end of the campaign everybody in town will know my position, my love and my feelings toward the College and the things for which it stands. I want to be as ‘wise as a serpent’ and yet ‘as harmless as a dove.’ We are going to have a great deal of spiritual tact and diplomacy, but at the same time absolute and utter dependence upon the Holy Spirit. I have never felt so helpless in the face of any situation as I feel at this moment as we face Columbia.”
“Now here is the point of my letter. Due to the fact that there are so few real spiritual, praying people in Columbia, the burden and responsibility of praying this campaign through to a mighty and overwhelming victory is going to be almost entirely upon the shoulders of the Columbia Bible College. I shall deeply appreciate it if every student and faculty member will feel tremendously the burden for a spiritual awakening and revival in Columbia. I shall deeply appreciate it if the Columbia students and faculty are there night after night as a mighty spiritual nucleus. You have no idea how this will strengthen my hand and encourage my soul. Out of this campaign I am praying that many new friends will be raised up for the Columbia Bible College and for the cause of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“Rest assured that you have my love, respect, and appreciation for your comradeship in this venture. We begin our campaign this week in Park Street Congregational Church in Boston.”
Most Cordially Yours,
Dr. McQuilkin responded quickly to Graham’s letter by putting his upcoming visit to South Carolina into historical perspective–assuring him that he had never seen the city of Columbia as united as it was for both his visit and the campaign.
“Dear Brother Billy–There has been no attempt to have a city-wide revival since Billy Sunday was here in 1923. That campaign resulted in breaking up the Ministers’ Association for several years, so great was the opposition of some to it. The fact that all the Baptist churches voted cooperation, and the fact that the Lutherans have voted to have each individual church make its own choice, is something that has never happened here before.”
“We do appreciate your fellowship with the C.B.C. and you may be sure that we want to be ‘our utmost for His highest’ purpose in this coming campaign.”
That Olde Towne Religion
As anticipated, the Boston campaign was a wild victory, surely even greater then Los Angeles, with revival fires radiating out from The Hub and spreading all over New England. There was a tremendous outpouring of the Holy Spirit at the final rally on Monday night January 16 in the Boston Garden, with 10,000 people being turned away and no less than 1,500 decisions made during the powerful after-meeting.
Still, Billy Graham was plagued by doubt about Columbia–but his concerns turned out to be unfounded. In fact, over 200 neighborhood prayer meetings were being held each day, all over Columbia, during the four weeks leading up to his crusade. The attendance in these meetings was estimated to be almost 11,000 by the third week of prayer. The entire city was gearing up in anticipation of his arrival.
And once again, Billy Graham exceeded all expectations, including his own. His three-week evangelistic crusade in Columbia was heard by over 100,000 people. From the opening service, the 3,500 seat Township Auditorium had been filled every night–over 5,000 “ordinary” people made their decisions for Christ. But the climax of the crusade occurred on Sunday afternoon, March 12, when more then 40,000 people filled the Carolina Football Stadium to hear him speak, making it the largest religious meeting to date in the history of South Carolina.
He spoke with striking power about the increasing threat of nuclear annihilation, and warned that only revival would save America from its own destruction. Afterwards, an additional 2,000 people came forward and knelt on the grass-covered playing field to accept Christ. The Columbia revival turned out to be an unqualified triumph.
Graham wrote the following thank you letter to McQuilkin two weeks later from Houlton, Maine. He had just returned to New England to embark on yet another record breaking crusade throughout the chilly northeast.
March 31, 1950
Dr. Robert C. McQuilkin:
Just a note of appreciation for all you did to make the campaign a success in Columbia. I deeply appreciated your counsel and advice the day that we talked; also your humble and sweet attitude was a blessing to us all.
I trust the spiritual impact on the city will be felt for many days to come. I am certain that there were many things that could have been done better, and many mistakes were made. However, I believe the entire meeting was of God and that the Lord overruled many things.
We would appreciate your prayers as we continue in New England that the Lord might send a great awakening to that needy place. Our hearts are so desperately burdened.
I suggested to Don Hoke that it would be a good thing if you could take time out to write an article for SUNDAY SCHOOL TIMES, giving your evaluation of the meetings in Columbia. I think your analysis of that meeting would be a great thing for either the SUNDAY SCHOOL TIMES or MOODY MONTHLY.
“Heaven, Hell, and Judgment Day”
On March 20, 1950, directly following the Columbia crusade, TIME magazine ran a somewhat less than flattering article about Reverend Graham in its Religion Section. The article referred to him as the “hawk-nosed, handsome Evangelist. Graham and his entourage looked disturbingly like something out of Hollywood…with his sharply cut double-breasted suits and high decibel ties.”
It cast aspersions on his multiple honorary doctorate degrees, called his alma mater Wheaton College “straight laced,” and proclaimed that even though Graham was an ordained Southern Baptist Minister, his upbringing and education were pure Calvinist. The article confided that the Reverend Graham had revealed his true colors during the recent Columbia campaign when he “…treated his predominantly middle-aged audience to first-hand glimpses of Heaven, Hell, and Judgment Day. His detailed picture of Heaven brought 145 listeners to their feet to pledge themselves to Christ—but 350 signed up on the night he described Hell.”
Dr. McQuilkin, a former associate editor at the influential Sunday School Times, was not amused and felt the article warranted an immediate reply. First, he solicited advice on the initial draft response from his right-hand man, the able Don Hoke; then he executed a few swift edits, struck out the paragraph defending Graham’s salary and expenses, and quickly decided he was satisfied–it was ready. He fired off his letter to the TIME editorial staff that same day, stating in part:
“Dear Editors–There is a nasty implication in your remark about Graham’s reason for becoming a Baptist. In any case, why contrast that with his Calvinist education and upbringing? Baptists are Calvinists.”
“TIME has leading experts in the fields of art and music and literature and politics. You do not get a preacher to describe a prize-fight. You do not get a dressmaker to explain a football game. Why get a cynical secularist to give a true picture of an evangelistic campaign?”
“One other gripe I have with TIME is that it is so interesting that it consumes a lot more of my time than ought to be given to any magazine. I have read TIME for many years, but this is my first letter to the editors. So please give attention to it.”
Back and Forth
TIME’s response almost two months later only served to exasperate him further. An editorial assistant defended the Billy Graham article point by point, carefully explaining their modern interpretation of religion to the President of Columbia Bible College:
“Dear Mr. McQuilkin–In this story we made the distinction between Baptists and Calvinists since some, but not all, Baptists stem from Calvinism. The contrast was however not based on the origins of these religions but on their contemporary aspects, just as we always distinguish between Methodists and Episcopalians. Wesleyan was a member of the Church of England, and never intended to leave it, and never wanted to start a new sect.
But today there is a difference between the one that did start under him and the Church of England. We think it logical to distinguish between Methodists and Episcopalians for the same reason that the characteristics associated with Calvinists today differ from those associated with Baptists.”
–Mary Lynn Carter for the Editors
McQuilkin shot back with his final missive, telling the TIME editorial board and their assistant that they had missed his point entirely. He closed the discussion by stating:
“Dear Miss Carter–Apart from these individual statements which you seek to justify, the tone of the whole article was in a slurring vein…You need not trouble to answer this letter. Some friend gives me TIME for a Christmas present, so I will keep reading it. Occasionally the writers in the religious section know what they are talking about!”
A Continuing Legacy
Through the last few years of his life, Robert McQuilkin continued to proffer counsel to Billy Graham, and in early 1951 he offered some advice about his new radio program called The Hour of Decision, urging him to let Cliff Barrows have the last word on the show so that “…the final climax of Billy Graham’s message would be the plea to take Christ as Savior. If necessary, you could plead for support earlier in the broadcast.”
He also warned Graham to go slow on committing himself to the apocalyptic Ezekiel 38-39, advising him to study his bible more carefully: “Many sensational articles and radio messages are going out about this passage and Russia which have no sure basis in Scripture. Daniel 7 (in connection with Rev. 17:12-14) seems to me to give the most definite picture of the end of times.”
Robert C. McQuilkin passed away in 1952 at sixty-six years old, having served almost 30 years as the first President of what is now Columbia International University. A good friend and wise mentor to all who knew him, he left a legacy of daily devotion and compassion, all the while relying on God’s strength and wisdom. That philosophy, seasoned with his wry sense of humor, continues to inspire the organization that he invigorated and helped to build.
Billy Graham, who officially retired from public life in 2005, went on to have a singular career himself, preaching to untold millions of people in over 185 countries during the course of his still amazing career. Unsurprisingly, Graham would also prevail over the editorial staff at TIME–in due course they would come to refer to him as “The Pope of Protestant America,” the most popular and influential evangelist of his generation.
(All documents used for this posting can be found in the Graham file at CIU.)