South Carolinians considered Billy Graham one of their own, a Carolinas farm boy who emerged out of a familiar evangelical Protestant tradition with the powerful, mesmerizing gift of speaking what was in his – and their – hearts.
And so, with Graham’s passing Wednesday morning at his North Carolina home, they grieve for him.
Some grieve at the silencing of that masterful voice, the voice that called them forward out of their chairs and stadium seats, asking them to repent of their sins and claim Jesus Christ as their lord and savior, as salvation of the world.
Others grieve because they believe they knew him. Billy Graham had roots in South Carolina — his paternal grandfather was born near Fort Mill — and in the mountains of North Carolina, where only a line on a map divides those with allegiance to the graceful mountains and foothills of both states.
Many had seen Graham in person in huge stadium venues and answered his altar call, assuring a lifelong allegiance to the man who seemed to understand the travails of this world and the hope of the next.
Others listened to weekly radio broadcasts of Graham’s “The Hour of Decision” or read “My Answer” in their local papers.
“He was electrifying; he was powerful,” J. Robertson McQuilken, president emeritus of Columbia International University, told The State in an interview several years ago. McQuilken died in 2016.
McQuilken, who was a young boy when he first met Graham, recalled Graham’s unmistakeable magnetism at a time when evangelicals were largely unknown and misunderstood.
“I think he galvanized and united and defined the evangelical movement in the last half of the 20th century,” McQuilken said.
CIU is a Bible college with deep connections to the Graham family.
Graham brought his extended crusades to South Carolina twice, once in 1950 and again in 1987. He also preached at a one-day rally in 1958, disturbing the state’s entrenched segregation system by insisting that whites and blacks worship together at the crusade.
Graham found fertile ground in a state that boasted a spectrum of religious beliefs and affiliations.
“I always thought of South Carolina as one of the most religious states in America,” Graham told The State in April 1987, shortly before his eight-day crusade at Williams-Brice Stadium that drew thousands. “South Carolina has a character it must not lose. It has a moral strength.”
Filling a spiritual vacuum
Nearly 40 years earlier, when he was just 31 and a rising evangelistic star, he was less sanguine about South Carolina’s spirituality as he prepared for his first South Carolina crusade at the Township Auditorium in early 1950.
Graham was fresh off of the “mammoth tent crusade” in Los Angeles in 1949, a crusade that drew 350,000 people over eight weeks to hear the man billed as “America’s sensational young evangelist.” In that “canvas cathedral with the steeple of light” Graham forged his national and international credentials.
But Graham was worried about the reception he would get in the Palmetto State. He shared his concern with longtime friend, Robert C. McQuilkin, the late father of J. Robertson McQuilkin and the first president of what was then known as Columbia Bible College.
“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,” he wrote in a Dec. 29, 1949, letter to the elder McQuilkin.
“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.”
In a letter to “Brother Billy,” Robert C. McQuilkin tried to reassure Graham, noting that the upcoming revival had already healed some old theological wounds.
“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,” McQuilkin wrote. “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.”
Graham, who told McQuilkin he would practice “love and tolerance toward all groups,” was stunned by the warm reception he received.
Beginning on Feb. 19, 1950, Graham attracted 140,000 people and converted 7,500, according to front-page news accounts. Crowds thrilled to his powerful preaching and the stirring music of George Beverly Shea and Cliff Barrows. Graham ended the three-week crusade with a grand finale March 12, 1950, in USC’s Carolina Stadium (later Williams-Brice) that drew 40,000. The state Highway Patrol had to turn away another 10,000 who had driven to Columbia to hear the fiery evangelist.
“Revival fires are burning in Columbia such as have not been seen in a generation,” The State reported in its Feb. 25 edition.
At his opening day at the Township, Graham told reporters he saw Columbia as strategic. “If revival breaks out in Columbia it will encourage thousands of Southern communities to believe that it can happen to them too,” he said.
The state’s leading political figures, including then-Gov. Strom Thurmond and U.S. Supreme Court Justice James F. Byrnes, were among the thousands who heard the thunderous Graham paint a vivid picture of heaven and hell.
Financier and presidential adviser Bernard Baruch, who was living on the South Carolina coast, read Graham’s sermons printed in The State daily during the crusade. He called Henry Luce, publisher of Life and Time magazines, urging him to come and meet the evangelist.
Luce came to South Carolina and set in motion a long friendship and a national media connection that would make Graham a household name.
Eight years later, on the tail end of a Charlotte crusade, Graham traveled south for a one-day rally that was moved from the State House to Fort Jackson at the insistence of then-Gov. George Bell Timmerman. The South was in turmoil over race and integration, and Graham, to the vexation of Timmerman, had come down on the side of a color-blind God.
When he arrived in Columbia, Graham told reporters, “Some have been so unbalanced on the whole issue that segregation or integration has become their one Gospel. God pity us if we let our differences about this prevent us from presenting Christ to a lost world.”
By 1987, Graham was arguably the most recognizable religious figure on the planet when thousands flocked to Williams-Brice to hear him preach. More than 33,000 came on April 25, the first night of the crusade, despite chilly temperatures.
Columbia’s Harry Dent, a Republican strategist who had worked in the Nixon administration, was the chairman of the 1987 crusade. But planning for some sort of Midlands revival began as early as 1983.
The broad coalition of South Carolina churches interested in a revival persuaded the preacher to come, Dent, who died in 2007, told the newspaper in 1987.
“Billy Graham got prayed into a corner. He didn’t have a choice.”
Born again in a darkened examining room
Dr. John Wells, a Columbia ophthalmologist, said he didn’t have much choice either when he rose from his stadium seat on April 25, 1987. The strains of Graham’s signature closing hymn, “Just as I Am,” played as he and hundreds of others came forward at Graham’s invitation to commit their lives to Christ.
Wells had turned 50 two days earlier and accompanied his wife, Ann, a born-again Christian to a dinner with organizers in advance of the crusade. Ann Wells had attended the 1957 crusade as a teen and accepted Christ.
Wells attended the dinner reluctantly, he now recalls, but became engrossed in conversation with Graham in a back corridor as he went to make a phone call.
Graham asked Wells if he could check one of his eyes, which had troubled him since he had preached in a Florida crusade under the glare of a setting sun.
The following day, Wells examined the evangelist in the darkened examining room. The doctor conversed with Graham about the message of the Bible. They prayed about Wells’ father, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease.
“It was quite an experience,” Wells recalled late last year. “He had a distinct aura about him that you cannot describe.”
Wells, a lifelong Lutheran, said he had viewed faith through an intellectual lens but the born-again experience was profound.
“It was life-changing to me,” Wells said. “It was interesting – my wife was saved at the 1950s crusade and I was saved at the 1987 crusade.”
The Rev. Dick Lincoln, former pastor of Shandon Baptist Church, served on the administrative team for the 1987 crusade and still marvels at Graham’s dynamic personality and style.
“He was clearly Billy Graham and everybody wanted to see him, but you never got the feeling, "Hey, look at me,’” Lincoln said.
“He was a swashbuckling figure, preaching from no notes,” as a young man and traveling around in a Cadillac with a trailer and tent hitched behind, Lincoln recalled. “And then he became a world figure and managed to throttle and control that intense personality.”
There was plenty of criticism through the years, including Graham’s closeness to President Richard Nixon, who was disgraced by the Watergate scandal and forced to resign from office.
But J. Robertson McQuilkin, the CIU president emeritus, said no one ever assailed Graham’s essential character.
“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.”
In September 1996, Graham held his final Carolinas Crusade just across the state line in Charlotte. Once more, he drew South Carolinians by the thousands.
“We probably will never see anything like this again in the history of Charlotte,” he told the faithful then. “You have a moment before God that may never come again.”
Carolyn Click is a former staff writer for The State.