“Walking the Sawdust Trail” – The Burden of the 1950 Billy Graham Crusade in Columbia, S.C. – by Clifford Davids

Billy and Ruth Graham holding hands during the 1950 Columbia Crusade

As 1949 drew to a close, the Reverend Billy Graham was a man seven-times-blessed. He was 31 years old with a beautiful wife and a growing family. The preaching he had done at the Youth for Christ gatherings had reached thousands of young people. In 1947 he was elected President of Northwestern Schools located in Minneapolis, MN, and he had just recently published a book entitled Calling Youth for Christ, which was finding a rapt audience all over the world.

But his driving passion wasn’t a career in academia – it was to deliver 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 serving up his fervent gospel sermons, Graham had just “flown in the midst of heaven.” His recently completed Los Angeles crusade in the winter of 1949 had catapulted him to lofty acclaim. By the end of that eight week ride, thousands of souls had confessed their newly found faith inside the legendary “Canvas Cathedral.” He surely felt the wind at his back and the sea before him.

And so in December of 1949, Graham knew that there was no time for relaxation. Already, there was talk about starting a weekly radio program that would allow him to reach a larger audience. He knew that he needed to establish a formal association to coordinate his activities and travel schedule. In addition, he was contemplating the possibility of holding desegregated crusades throughout the South, a bold and ambitious undertaking to even consider in mid-20th century America.

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Billy Graham and Song Leader Cliff Barrows (with trombone) during the 1946 Tour of Great Britain

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Columbia Crusade

In January he was supposed to fly to Boston for another campaign; one that he felt would rival, or even surpass, his overwhelming success in Los Angeles. And when that was finished, after only a few days’ respite, he would head to Atlanta, GA, to address the state legislature – his cup truly runneth over. But he had a more immediate concern.

In February 1950 he was scheduled to preach at a crusade in Columbia, S.C. Although he had grown up on a small dairy farm outside of Charlotte, N.C., he had never spent any significant time preaching in the Deep South. Early on he had enrolled at the Bob Jones College, but he found their discipline and theology restrictive. He stayed there briefly, and then withdrew to attend the Florida Bible Institute in Temple Terrace, Florida.

Regardless, he was still uncertain how his message would be received in the Palmetto State. But he knew he had a loyal friend there in Dr. Robert C. McQuilkin – founder of the Ben Lippen Conference Center in Asheville, N.C., and president of Columbia Bible College in Columbia, S.C. As the Columbia crusade approached, he penned the following letter:

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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,

Billy Graham

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Dr. McQuilkin responded to Rev. Graham’s letter by putting his upcoming visit to South Carolina in perspective – he assured him that Columbia would be ready:

“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.”

–Robert McQuilkin

That Olde Towne Religion

As anticipated, the Boston campaign proved to be an overwhelming success, with his message of revival radiating out from “The Hub” and spreading all over New England. On Monday, January 16th, the newspapers described a tremendous spiritual outpouring during the final rally at the Boston Garden. Over 10,000 people were turned away, and over 1,500 decisions for Christ made during the after meeting.

Billy Graham on the Boston Common in April of 1950

Although Rev. Graham had been plagued by doubt about the upcoming Columbia rally, his concerns proved unfounded. Neighborhood prayer meetings had been held all over the city during the weeks leading up to his historic crusade. By the end of the third week of prayer, total attendance was estimated at over 11,000 people. The entire city was rising in anticipation of his arrival.

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 were filled every night – over 5,000 people made their decisions for Christ. But the climax of the crusade occurred on Sunday, March 12, when more then 40,000 people filled the Carolina Football Stadium to hear him preach, making it the largest religious meeting in the history of the state of South Carolina. He spoke about the ever increasing threat of nuclear annihilation, and warned that revival alone would save America from its own destruction. The Columbia revival was an unqualified triumph.

Two weeks later, Graham wrote the following letter to McQuilkin from Houlton, Maine:

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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.

Gratefully Yours,

Billy Graham

“Heaven, Hell, and the Judgment Day”

Graham had his detractors. On March 20, 1950, TIME magazine ran a derisive news article in its Religion Section, calling him “the hawk-nosed, handsome Evangelist,” and further stated that, “Graham and his entourage looked disturbingly like something out of Hollywood…with his sharply cut double-breasted suits and high decibel ties.”

Graham infuriated President Truman when he posed on the White House lawn after their meeting in July 1950

It cast aspersions on his multiple honorary doctorate degrees, called his alma mater Wheaton College “straight laced,” and proclaimed that even though Billy Graham was an ordained Southern Baptist Minister, his upbringing and education were pure Calvinist. The article confided that Reverend Graham had finally 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 the 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. He felt that the article warranted an immediate rebuttal. He solicited advice on the initial draft of the response from his assistant Don Hoke, executed a few minor changes, and then quickly decided it was ready to go. He promptly fired it off directly to the TIME editorial staff, stating in part:

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“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.”

–Robert McQuilkin

Back and Forth

An editorial assistant responded to him directly, defending the Billy Graham article and attempting to explain the magazine’s position on religion in the 20th century:

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“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

TIME’s explanation only served to exasperate him further. Rev. McQuilkin’s response was succinct and to the point:

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“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!”

–Robert McQuilkin

A Continuing Legacy

Robert McQuilkin with his wife Marguerite and two others outside Asheville, N.C.

Robert McQuilkin with his wife Marguerite and two others outside Asheville, N.C. (Photograph courtesy of M. McQuilkin Cartee)

Through the last few years of his life, Dr. Robert McQuilkin continued to proffer counsel to Billy Graham. In early 1951, he wrote a letter advising him on his new radio program “The Hour of Decision,” urging him to let song leader 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 Reverend Graham to be cautious on committing himself to the apocalyptic Ezekiel 38-39, advising him to study his Bible carefully. He stated, “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 66 years old, having served almost 30 years as the president of Columbia Bible College, now known as Columbia International University. A good friend and wise mentor to all, he left a legacy of daily devotion and compassion that continues to inspire the organization he invigorated and helped to build.

Billy Graham went on to have a singular career himself, preaching to untold millions of people in over 185 countries during the course of his 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,” widely considered the most popular and influential evangelist of his generation.

 – Documents used for this posting can be found in the Billy Graham file at CIU –

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7 Responses to “Walking the Sawdust Trail” – The Burden of the 1950 Billy Graham Crusade in Columbia, S.C. – by Clifford Davids

  1. maye45@att.net says:

    Well Cliff, you did it again. Thank you for writing this article. I just loved it. I have always loved Billy Graham. He has been a great inspiration in my life–he is also from my home state of North Carolina. Thank you again. Please keep writing, I sure do enjoy the stories.

    Sincerely, your friend Maye Wiggins.

  2. Amelie von Fluegge says:

    By providing the private correspondence between two thoughtful and powerful men, you’ve succeeded in personalizing both of them for your readers. You have also helped me to understand and care about their beliefs. I really enjoyed this piece.

  3. Jana Williams says:

    Cliff, I never knew anything about this correspondence between McQuilkin and Graham or the Time Magazine critique of Graham. This was extremely interesting and well written. I was also cheered by the fact that Rev. Graham wanted to desegregate his audience so early on–I hadn’t known that either. I rejoice that our introducing you to Elmer Gantry didn’t create a subjective take on my denomination’s premier evangelist. By the way, I don’t know any Baptists who consider themselves Calvinists today or yesterday.

  4. Robin Richardson Gilbert says:

    Cliff, I have never given much thought to Billy Graham or religious campaigns, but your article shows a very committed man. His progressive decision regarding the desegregation of his crusades shows some remarkable foresight. His early travel, concerns, collaborations and commitment form a solid basis for his later popularity.

  5. Lowell Bailey says:

    The link between Mr. Graham and CBC continued to be warm after that first Columbia crusade. It was during the 1951-52 school year, when I was the student-body president, that he held his first crusade in Washington, D.C. Columbia Bible College students signed up to pray at specific times, covering the full 24 hours of every day, during that entire crusade. Some other student leaders and I went to Washington to inform Mr. Graham personally of this prayer backing. He recorded a grateful message to Dr. McQuilkin, Don Hoke and the student body and asked us to sit on the platform with him that night.

    Someone had published the opinion that having the choir sing “Just As I Am” during the invitation time was a trick to make people feel that they ought to come to the front. That night, instead of having Cliff Barrows and the choir sing “Just As I Am,” Mr. Graham simply stood with bowed head and prayed during the invitation time. The only sound we heard was that of the shoes of so many people as they came forward to commit their lives to Christ.

  6. Dave Huston says:

    Very informative article. I was at CBC when Billy Graham came back to Columbia in the late 80’s. I brought a bunch of youth from the S.C. Corrections. A large storm was coming on fast and I did not see any hope for these youth to accept Jesus, as Billy had to rush his message. BUT when he said that word, bathe in Prayer, “Come.” Some of those youth went down and gave their lives to Christ.

    Dave Hustin
    CBC Class of 1988

  7. Mary James says:

    Thanks, Cliff, for another well-written and enlightening article! I know very little about the life of Billy Graham, yet have always pictured the evangelist as filled with confidence from the start. So, it was with great interest to learn about his insecurities as he headed to Columbia for the first time. I’ve also never run across “Churchianity” before—the term he used to describe churchgoers in Columbia who supposedly lacked “real spirituality and spiritual discernment.”

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