Etched on a granite memorial in Point State Park in Pittsburgh are the words “A Place of International Consequence.” This place, Three Rivers, played a pivotal role in the Colonial era. In the 1750s, however, few likely realized the full significance of the events transpiring in that place. But the ramifications were huge, and the impact would last for centuries. This place of international consequence was directly ten miles to the northwest of the childhood homes of R.C. Sproul and Vesta (Voorhis) Sproul.
before august 1971: the foundation
R.C. had fond memories of his beloved Pittsburgh. This place shaped him; you could hear it in his accent decades after he had left. Pittsburgh was not only the Steel City; it was also the Presbyterian City. But by the 1950s and ’60s, it was a Presbyterianism void of its confessional commitments. R.C. went to a Presbyterian church, a Presbyterian college, and a Presbyterian seminary—all of which were patently liberal. This provided R.C. with two fundamental building blocks. First, when he finally did hear the truth of the gospel, he had an overwhelming gratitude for the grace and kindness of God and a consuming desire and passion to know, serve, and worship the triune God of the gospel. That gratitude and passion marked his entire life; it drove him and the ministry he founded. Second, being surrounded by error honed his apologetic skills. R.C. was a communicator; he was also an apologist. He spoke often of Ligonier’s mission not only to teach and proclaim the truth but also to defend and contend for the truth. R.C. knew firsthand the ravaging effects of false teaching.
R.C.’s love and passion for truth, goodness, and beauty—and his desire to fight for them—served as part of the foundation for Ligonier Ministries. Another part concerned the message. From the first time R.C. read the Bible as a Christian, he had the transformative realization that “God is a God who plays for keeps.” While so many in culture and in the church were taken by a shallow view of who God is, R.C. was brought to his knees, like Isaiah the prophet, before the refulgent splendor of the holiness of God. The holiness of God, in all its fullness, was not only the foundation for Ligonier; it permeates everything the ministry has done over the last fifty years, and it remains the North Star.
With a mission and a message in place, the foundation needs one more piece, and that is the audience. By the time he turned thirty years old, R.C. was a seminary professor at the top of his profession, and he was bored. Meanwhile, he was teaching a Sunday school class. There he discovered laity who were hungry not for crumbs but for the meat of God’s Word and of doctrine. Teacher and audience played off each other. The hungrier they were, the more excited R.C. was to teach them, which only caused them to come back for more.
With the foundation laid, God brought two forces together to start building the structure. One was R.C., Vesta, and the Sproul family. It is important to remember that from the beginning it was R.C. and Vesta. The other force was Dora Hillman, the widow of a Pittsburgh industrialist. She lived in the Ligonier Valley, in western Pennsylvania. Near her home, a fifty-two-acre property went up for sale. She bought it and built a house on it for the Sprouls that served as their family home, lecture hall, dining commons for students, and the offices for the Ligonier Valley Study Center. R.C. prepared and gave lectures and hosted the legendary “Gabfests,” Q&A sessions on Monday nights. Books were written. Teaching series were recorded on audiocassette. Then, in 1975, a teaching series was recorded, for the first time, by video. Wearing his aviator sunglasses and a distinctly 1970s outfit, R.C. recorded The Holiness of God. There was nothing like it at the time. He had a chalkboard, a lectern, a passion, a message, and an audience. Those early years at the LVSC were a pioneering moment in adult Christian education.
At the time, however, R.C. and Vesta were not thinking of it that way. They were simply being faithful and being obedient to what God called them to do. As they were faithful, God blessed the study center with fruitfulness. Bob Ingram, who later served as Ligonier’s president and editor of Tabletalk (1988–1992), recalls going out to the study center, always with a carload from his singles group. He said succinctly, “The study center trained my generation.” From 1971 through 1984, tens of thousands would make their way up and down the back roads snaking through the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains to get to the study center in Stahlstown. They came with questions, and R.C. and the other teachers at the study center gave them answers from God’s Word. Far more would learn from R.C. through the teaching that was sent out on audio- and videocassettes. Many first heard and saw R.C. as they sat in a Sunday school class in a church basement watching a TV set.
It soon became clear to the board that Ligonier could be more effective without a large campus to upkeep. In 1984, Ligonier moved to Orlando, Fla. Orlando provided both a place where people could come for teaching and a place from where teaching could go out. In 1988, Ligonier hosted its first National Conference under the title Loving a Holy God. The National Conference continues to be the annual family reunion for Ligonier students and also serves as a focal point for Ligonier to release new books and teaching series.
The move to Orlando also coincided with a significant development regarding the publication Tabletalk. Started in 1977, Tabletalk was redesigned and reformatted in 1989. Offering articles around a theme and daily devotionals, Tabletalk has continually grown in circulation, now with more than one hundred thousand copies distributed monthly. It encapsulates R.C.’s vision for encouraging God’s people not only to read God’s Word but also to study God’s Word. During this time, R.C. published two classic books: The Holiness of God in 1985, followed by Chosen by God in 1986. All the while, the teaching series continued to be produced, recorded, and distributed.
R.C.’s first radio program, The R.C. Sproul Study Hour, aired in 1982. In 1986, Ask R.C. aired on six radio stations. These were building up to the launch of Renewing Your Mind in 1994. Of course, the first episodes would be his series on the holiness of God. Christian radio consisted mostly of sermons. RYM aired teaching episodes. You could hear the chalk as R.C. dotted i’s and crossed t’s. He made you feel like you were sitting in his class, that he was talking directly to you. There was nothing else like it on the air, and it soon became a staple for commuters. It continues to be.
More books were written. Conferences continued to be held in Orlando, across the country, and, eventually, around the world. Ligonier also started hosting study tours in the Holy Land and in the fabled cities of the Reformers. As technology developed, Ligonier expanded the means to communicate and promulgate the teaching. The website remains a significant and efficient tool to distribute teaching. Additionally, there is RefNet, a host of podcasts, Ligonier Connect, and Ask Ligonier. All these initiatives, and new ones under development, leverage technology to proclaim the holiness of God to as many people as possible.
While Ligonier continued to expand its reach, in 2011 it returned to its roots by opening the doors of Reformation Bible College in central Florida. The college has around 140 students on campus, with an additional one hundred students taking courses online. Ligonier also expanded the teaching base in 2010 to include the teaching fellows. Alongside the vast array of teaching materials from R.C., Ligonier provides a platform for the writing and speaking of the teaching fellows and other trusted teachers. Since 1971, Ligonier has served to bring teachers to students.
Ligonier also expanded beyond the English language and currently operates websites in seven different languages, including Spanish, Arabic, Farsi, and Chinese. New content is added daily to each of these sites. In March 2018, Ligonier first aired Renovando tu Mente, the daily Spanish language version of Renewing Your Mind. These efforts also include translating many books by R.C. and others, as well as producing translations of the Reformation Study Bible. Ligonier Ministries, like the point at Three Rivers, has become a place of international consequence.
Whenever a significant initiative was launched or a milestone reached, R.C. would take a moment to celebrate. Then he would turn to those around him and ask, “What’s next?” We continue to ask that question. The answer on the one hand is that we don’t know. We do know that God has been faithful to us from the very beginning and through challenging years. And as we mourned the passing of R.C. in the final days of 2017, God blessed Ligonier. In these past three years, we have seen the most expansive outreach in the history of Ligonier. For these past fifty years, we are grateful. But may we never be presumptuous. Ligonier serves the church, and we serve by the divine prerogative of our holy God. Looking to God, we ask: What might the next fifty years bring? As we look back to celebrate our fiftieth anniversary together with you, please know that we are looking ahead, renewed in our commitment to proclaim the holiness of God in all its fullness to as many people as possible. We have set a course for faithfulness, not knowing what comes next, but eagerly anticipating what God will do.