R.C. Sproul was a thirty-one-year-old associate pastor when an unexpected opportunity knocked. A widow named Mrs. Dora Hillman presented him with a life-changing offer.
Mrs. Dora had been married to the industrial tycoon John Hartwell Hillman Jr. “Hart” had built upon his father’s business success in coal mining and expanded into new markets like barge building, towboats, chemical plants, fuel production, and real estate. In 1951 he established the Hillman Foundation for his charitable giving.
When he passed away eight years later, Mrs. Dora was left in charge of significant resources, much like Lady Huntingdon in the eighteenth century.
It was February of 1970 when she traveled three hundred miles from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati to visit R.C. Sproul and his wife Vesta. Mrs. Dora had a vision to reach Pittsburgh for Christ. Her strategy was to open a conference center to train Christian leaders from the Pittsburgh area in theology. She would provide a fifty-two-acre property if R.C. would leave his position in Cincinnati to become the center’s teaching theologian.
R.C. agreed. A year later the Sprouls and their friends the Thompsons moved together to Stahlstown, Pennsylvania to start the Ligonier Valley Study Center. It was a very humble beginning. Students lived and ate in staff homes. They modeled it after Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri in Switzerland. Soon leaders and church groups from around the Pittsburgh region came for weekend seminars and teachings.
While R.C. taught God’s word, his ministry partner Jim Thompson tape-recorded his messages. These tapes quickly expanded the influence of their ministry beyond Ligonier Valley, Pennsylvania. Churches, schools, and Bible studies were requesting R.C.’s messages. A few years later, R.C.’s lectures were videotaped, garnering national attention for his teaching.
God was building great momentum at the training center and thousands of Christians were impacted. Mrs. Dora was known to often slip into the back row to hear R.C. teach. At other times she would host large groups of students in her nearby farmhouse. Although Mrs. Dora was in her seventies, she was at the training center almost every day, dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans, driving her four-wheel-drive Jeep Cherokee, and ready to serve. Mrs. Dora felt like this was her calling from God.
As R.C.’s ministry continued to boom Mrs. Dora was a part of completing a state-of-the-art video and production studio to further spread his lectures. What began as a big vision to reach Pittsburgh for Christ went on to reach around the world.
Through R.C.’s influence, Ligonier Ministries grew beyond a conference center and ended up starting a magazine called Tabletalk that had a readership of 250,000 people across 50 countries. Then, they launched a daily radio program called Renewing Your Mind that reached millions of listeners. Later, R.C. founded Reformation Bible College and also took up pastoral ministry at Saint Andrew’s Chapel.
R.C. Sproul was a man who sought to live his whole life “in the presence of God, under the authority of God, to the glory of God.” The hallmark of his teaching was the holiness of God. And God used him to anchor a generation to strong and clear theological rocks.
As we honor the life and legacy of R.C. Sproul, we celebrate his godly influence among us, but we also remember the woman who may appear as a quiet footnote in his biography, but who truly stood as a humble, generous, and visionary Gospel Patron. Without Mrs. Dora Hillman millions may never have known the name R.C. Sproul or the beautiful vision of a holy God that he carried.