Robertson McQuilkin, an author and missions leader who was noted for resigning the presidency of Columbia International University (CIU) in 1990 to care for his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife, died June 2. He was 88.
McQuilkin was president of CIU, an independent Christian college in Columbia, S.C., for 22 years, helping to double enrollment and founding two radio stations before he announced unexpectedly that he was stepping down to care for his first wife Muriel, who was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, according to a CIU news release. She died in 2003.
During his presidency, the school was known as Columbia Bible College and then Columbia Bible College and Seminary, taking the name CIU in 1994.
McQuilkin also was remembered as a zealous proponent of worldwide evangelism and the patriarch of a family that helped pioneer the concepts of researching and reaching unreached people groups.
His sacrificial commitment to Muriel, however, was among McQuilkin’s greatest legacies. Perhaps the most well-known of his 19 books was “A Promise Kept,” the story of how he cared for her through Alzheimer’s.
In announcing his resignation from CIU, McQuilkin told faculty and students according to an audio recording posted online by Christianity Today, “I promised ‘in sickness and in health, til death do us part,’ and I’m a man of my word.”
He added that relinquishing the university’s presidency to care for Muriel was “the only fair thing.”
“She sacrificed for me for 40 years to make my life possible,” McQuilkin said, choking up. “… It’s not that I have to. It’s that I get to care for her.
Upon learning of McQuilkin’s death, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore said in a series of tweets, “In a culture of buffoonish ‘masculinity,’ boasting in sexual exploitation of women, ridicule of the ‘weak,’ Robertson McQuilkin was a man.”
Moore continued, “Robertson McQuilkin wrote a lot, preached a lot. His legacy, though, wasn’t there but in the Alzheimer’s hospital with his wife. Eph 5:28.”
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Daniel Akin tweeted that McQuilkin “was a hero indeed. I always require a couple to read A Promise Kept when doing premarital counseling.”
Before assuming the presidency of CIU in 1968, McQuilkin served 12 years as a missionary in Japan. His father Robert C. McQuilkin was the school’s first president and also possessed a noted missionary zeal. The elder McQuilkin decided not to go to Africa as a missionary only after the ship scheduled to carry him and his wife across the Atlantic burned and sunk the day before its scheduled departure.
Chip McDaniel, an Old Testament professor at Southeastern who formerly taught at CIU and knew McQuilkin, told Baptist Press, “In multi-denominational, broadly evangelical missions circles on the east coast, people would look to the McQuilkin family as kind of the gold standard of the missionary thrust.”
Robertson McQuilkin pressed all believers to “obey the command of Christ and follow that toward worldwide impact unless God draws you back,” McDaniel said.
Former International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin, who has taught at CIU and served on the university’s board of trustees, called McQuilkin a “spiritual mentor” in a tweet. Rankin added, “Celebration in heaven to welcome Robertson McQuilkin into God’s glory.” Rankin could not be reached for comment prior to BP’s publication deadline.
McQuilkin’s pastor, Wendell Estep of First Baptist Church in Columbia, told BP McQuilkin “was very committed to missions,” including the IMB.
Estep also called McQuilkin a friend of pastors.
“There were very few people who were more encouraging to the pastor,” Estep said. “He had a winsome smile and a wonderful wit – a little mischievous. I enjoyed him a great deal. He was always positive. He was always encouraging, and he was a delight to have as a member of the church.”
McDaniel, of Southeastern Seminary, said McQuilkin “really was as good as people are going to tell you that he was. … It was an honor to know him.”
McQuilkin is survived by his second wife Deborah Jones, five children, 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. His son Robert died in 1988. Funeral services are scheduled for June 4 on the CIU campus.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.)