The Rev. Billy Graham and the CIU Connection

February 21, 2018

By Bob Holmes

As the world mourns the passing of The Rev. Billy Graham, a historic relationship between the famous evangelist and Columbia International University is being recalled.

In February 1950, Graham was at the height of his ministry. America’s eyes were focused on the young, fiery preacher as he traveled coast to coast preaching the gospel at packed out auditoriums and sports facilities. One of his stops that year was Columbia, South Carolina, home of Columbia Bible College, now Columbia International University. But as Graham laid the groundwork for his Columbia crusade that February, he called on a good friend and associate to help him make the event a success: CIU’s first president Robert “R.C.” McQuilkin.

Graham was concerned about the reception he would get in South Carolina, so he began an exchange of letters with McQuilkin, a longtime friend.

Graham described Columbia as having “a tremendous spiritual vacuum,” adding, “I am led to believe that it is perhaps one of the most difficult cities anywhere in America.”

In a return letter, McQuilkin reassured Graham that many Christian leaders in Columbia were supporting the crusade.

“The fact that all 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 before,” McQuilkin wrote.

Graham was stunned by the warm reception he received.

Ben Lippen Connection

There is also a connection to Ben Lippen School, CIU’s Pre-K to 12th grade Christian school, originally located at the Ben Lippen Conference Center in Asheville, North Carolina.

At a 1945 youth meeting held at the conference center, the scheduled song leader was not available. That’s when R.C. McQuilkin encouraged a visitor to lead the music. That visitor happened to be a man on his honeymoon in Asheville. His name was Cliff Barrows. The featured speaker for the meeting was a young preacher named Billy Graham. Barrows would be Graham’s longtime song leader at his crusades.

1987 Columbia Crusade

A 1987 Columbia crusade was organized by CIU alumnus Harry Dent who had worked in the administration of President Richard Nixon. More than 33,000 people braved chilly weather at the first night’s meeting held at the University of South Carolina football stadium. Dent told The State newspaper of Columba that the planning for a revival in Columbia began as early as 1983 with a broad coalition of churches persuading Graham to come.

Robertson McQuilkin and Graham

Robertson McQuilkin also maintained a friendship with Billy Graham over the years. Robertson, the son of R.C. McQuilkin, was CIU’s third president. He passed away in 2016. As Graham aged, local reporters would often seek out Robertson McQuilkin for his memories of Graham.

During an interview in his home with a reporter from The State newspaper in the early 2000s, McQuilkin was asked why Graham was so highly respected.

“Why was he that great? The simple answer is God’s anointing,” McQuilkin said. “He was good-looking. He was a powerful communicator, but he was a very humble man.”

Read the letters exchanged between Billy Graham and R.C. McQuilkin in “Walking the Sawdust Trail” – The Burden of the 1950 Billy Graham Crusade in Columbia, S.C” by Clifford Davids.

Read more about how Billy Graham met Cliff Barrows in the article “Remembering Cliff Barrows” on the Ben Lippen website.

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