Little Hollywood on the Prairie

Was Wheaton, IL once a headquarters for cinema in the Midwest? Well, perhaps not quite. But it is true that in the middle decades of the 20th century, Wheaton was the center for the regular production of dozens of films, pioneered by the Scriptures Visualized Institute, also know as the C. O. Baptista Film Mission and C. O. Baptista Films, among other names.

Embracing their central slogan, “The Old Gospel in Modern Technique,” C.O. Baptista films represented one effort among many by Christians in the 20th century to use the possibilities of ever advancing new technologies – from recorded sound on wax cylinders to instantaneous communication via the internet – as new channels for the gospel.

The records of the Baptista Film Mission, including selections of its film catalog, are available and open for research at the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives.

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Finding “A Clear Voice”: 65 Years of Christianity Today

On October 15, 1956, 65 years ago today, Christianity Today published their first issue. Explaining the place of the new magazine in an editorial titled “Why Christianity Today?“, the editors stated simply, “evangelical Christianity needs a clear voice, to speak with conviction, and love, and to state its true position and its relevance to the world crisis.” Employing that clear voice to wide effect, this first printing was sent to more than 250,000 pastors, seminary students, and evangelical Christian leaders across the world.

An autographed copy of this first issue, as well as correspondence, board meeting minutes, financial reports, memos, photographs, audio tapes, and other material mostly relating to the founding of the magazine and a wide range of religious, social, and political issues can be found in Collection 8: Records of Christianity Today, held here at the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives.  

A copy of the first issue autographed by four of the magazine’s original five editors (CN8, Folder 14-1)
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What’s To Do in the Archives?: The Annual Archival Research Lecture

Some may look to October for the start of crisp fall weather, trips to apple orchards, and pumpkin carving, but here at the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives we celebrate October as American Archives Month. Joining archives, historical societies, and special collections around the country, we take this time to highlight the place of archives in preserving and making accessible the important records of our past and present communities.

David Kirkpatrick

While much of the work of archives takes place behind the scenes, both with archivists in stacks and researchers in reading rooms, this month we invite the wider community into the Archives through the 2021 Archival Research Lecture, A Gospel for the Poor: René Padilla and the Reshaping of Global Evangelicalism, presented by Dr. David Kirkpatrick at Wheaton College on Thursday, October 7th.

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The Form & the Message: Letterheads in the Archives

History is all about context. Usually this means the wider circumstances, including what lead up to the events we study and the mental word of the people we seek to understand. But it has a physical aspect too – the material objects that surround people, shaped by and shaping the culture of which they are a part.

Take, for example, the letterhead – the pre-printed part of a piece of stationary that gives the sender’s name, address and other information. Any archivist or scholar who goes through hundreds or thousands of letters will find amazing variety in this simple device.

Some state their data with clipped simplicity, some overflow with the sender’s beliefs, principles, mottos, and images to such a degree that they easily dominate whatever sentences can be squeezed into the remaining white space of the page.

The ability of the physical page to communicate as well as the words upon it is illustrated by the correspondence of J. Edwin Orr (1912-1987). In 2020, the Archives opened Collection 355, the papers of Orr, an influential evangelist and scholar who exchanged thousands of letters worldwide with people over half a century of ministry. What he and his correspondents wrote to each other is fascinating, insightful, and instructive. But what they wrote upon, the stationary itself, can also be charming, illustrative, and sometimes weird, quietly (or not so quietly) conveying its own message and tone.

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Mapping History: Tracing 125 Years of Africa Inland Mission

Maps are a common feature of archival collections, and the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives is no exception. The Archives’ oversize storage cases contain a wide variety of maps—thematic, navigational, topographical, and even blueprints—used for diverse range of research topics and as a popular tool in archival instruction sessions. As primary sources, maps require a specific set of skills to “read” and interpret. Like all items held in the Archives, maps are social documents, reflecting both the intentions and abilities of their creators (cartographers) as well as the needs and expectations of their anticipated users. Maps tell stories. While a single map can capture a landscape, metropolitan grid, or continent frozen in time, a series of maps can document gradual or abrupt change, like shifting national or regional boundaries, erosion of natural landmarks, or rapid urbanization. No map, however extensive or detailed, can be entirely authoritative. They are not neutral documents—maps reveal the political and cultural perspectives and biases of their creators. They can erase as well as document borders, languages, people groups, or landmarks. Finally, maps are frequently described in purely functional terms, providing information and direction to users, but in many cases they are also highly ornamental, utilizing artistic techniques to feature specific geographical or topographical features.

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Valentines in July

Valentines in July? It is as good a month as February, actually. Although the feast day of Valentine is celebrated in the Western tradition on February 14, there is an equally strong tradition in the Eastern Orthodox Church for commemorating St. Valentine on July 6th. So this is indeed a month for valentines

Why are there valentines in the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives? As mentioned in previous blogs, archives and manuscript repositories always include many unexpected odds and ends. A collection of personal papers can include a myriad of different objects and artifacts documenting the creator’s mundane daily activities as well the events, ideas, and milestones the creator is best known for. A good example of this is Elisabeth Elliot’s Memory Book. Elliot (1926-1915), a Bible translator and missionary to Ecuador, is perhaps best known as the author of several bestselling books narrating the death of her husband Jim, killed by members of the Waorani tribe in Ecuador in 1956, and her own later experiences living with the Waorani after that tragic event.

Elliot became an influential evangelical writer, speaker, and teacher in the second half of the 20th century. But her Memory Book in the Archives precedes her famous ministry, when she was just Elisabeth Howard, known to her friend and family as Betty or Bets. The scrapbook reflects the interests of a young girl in her pre-teen and teen years. Its contents includes letters, photos, postcards, hair curls, paper dresses, maps, early writings, and much more, covering the period of approximately to 1938 to 1943 as well as comments Elliot later wrote in the book as an adult . A map of the 1939 New York World’s Fair contained in the Memory Book was featured in a previous blog post. And among all this wonderful memorabilia are Valentine cards Elliot received at school on February 14, 1940, when she was 13 years old.

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Remembering the Other Elliots

The above photograph was taken in Yurimaguas, a port town in the Amazonian rainforests of northern Peru where Bert and Colleen Elliot ministered for over thirty years. The river depicted is either the Río Huallaga or Río Paranapura. Undated

Earlier this year, the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives marked the 65th anniversary of the death of Wheaton alumnus Jim Elliot and four other American missionaries in Ecuador at the hands of Waorani tribe members in January 1956. The shocking event became an instant media sensation among evangelicals and the general public in the United States. The five missionaries—particularly Jim Elliot—were praised as examples of heroic dedication to Christian evangelism following their deaths, due in large part to the literary efforts of Jim’s widow, Elisabeth Elliot, who chronicled the now-famous story in Through Gates of Splendor (1957) and secured her husband’s place in post-war missionary mythology through the publication of his journals, Shadow of the Almighty, in 1958. The Archives’ digital exhibit To Carry the Light Further explores this fascinating narrative of missionary martyrdom through photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, and diary entries held in the Archives’ collections.

The death of the five men remains a perpetually fascinating story in American evangelical circles today, and the Elliot papers are among the most popular collections in the Archives’ holdings. Archival materials relating to the other Ecuador martyrs have also found their way to the Archives over the years, adding new dimensions to the story of the Waorani. Those collections include the papers of Peter Fleming’s brother Kenneth, and widow Olive, as well as Ed and Marilou McCully. Just this year, the Archives opened Collection 721, a recent donation of papers containing significant correspondence from Jim Elliot to his parents, Fred and Clara, and their own response in the wake of his shocking death.

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The Language of Flowers: Clippings from Lives of Shared Ministry

Intricately detailed front cover of Louise Pierson’s Photo Album in Collection 720: Papers of Louise H. Pierson.

Across the wide distances of global missions, a key relationship for many missionaries remained that of their connection to their homeland, supporting churches, and missionary societies. Even as missionaries forged new ties on the mission field they also reached back to the old, to share successes and failures, the wonders and terrors of new lands, and key to their work, elicit financial and spiritual support for their mission. Many materials in the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives document these important ties between the mission field and the homeland, from prayer letters, to missionary cards, to photographs and films.

This month we celebrate the dynamic interplay between missionaries and their supporters at home by featuring a new collection added to the Archives this spring, Collection 720: The Papers of Louise H. Pierson, composed of a single scrapbook with flower pressings, pictures, newsletters, and other mission memorabilia from the world and work of Louise Pierson and other women missionaries in South and East Asia during the late nineteenth century.

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The Rainbow in the Storm: The Final Voyage of the Zamzam

Cartoon by E. J. Pace celebrating the survivors of the Zamzam sinking. This image appeared on the front page of The Sunday School Times on August 16, 1941. From Collection 624, OS9.

For a brief moment in 1941, the attention of the Western world was transfixed by the unknown fate of the Zamzam, an aging cargo and passenger ship en route from the United States to Cape Town, South Africa. Built in 1909 as a British luxury liner and christened Leicestershire, the vessel was requisitioned to carry British troops during World War I. In peacetime, the steamer was purchased by an Egyptian company and renamed in honor of the Zamzam Well in Mecca, a holy site for Muslim pilgrims. Over the next decade, the Zamzam served primarily as a passenger ship ferrying pilgrims to the holy city of Mecca, but by 1940, its owners broadened services to transatlantic travelers and cargo. On March 20, 1941, the Zamzam sailed from Hoboken, New Jersey for Alexandria, Egypt, with planned stops at Baltimore, Trinidad, Recife, Cape Town, and Mombasa. Between passengers and crew, the Zamzam featured a truly international cast of characters—the Scottish captain and chief engineer, Greek stewards, Egyptian and Sudanese crew, and passengers from around the globe. The Zamzam’s passenger list featured 202 names, including twenty-four members of the British-American Ambulance Corps, traveling to North Africa to serve as noncombatants with the Allied forces. But the largest passenger contingent by far was American and British missionaries bound for Africa. Over 140 Christian workers, including 17 Roman Catholics and members of twenty-one Protestant denominational and independent faith missions, boarded the Zamzam, eager to begin Christian service across the African continent. But the aging steamer never reached its home port in Alexandria. In the early hours of April 17, 1941, the unarmed civilian vessel was shelled and sunk by the German surface raider, Atlantis, off the coast of southwestern Africa. This April, the Archives highlights the voices of missionaries who survived the final voyage of the Zamzam, a straightforward transatlantic crossing turned international event, eighty years ago this month.  

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Letters from Lisuland: The Ministry of Isobel Kuhn

In celebration of Women’s History Month, the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives commemorates the many women whose unique voices and stories are preserved in our collections and who labored—in the public eye or in obscurity—in faithful Christian services as missionaries, writers, doctors, preachers, musicians, evangelists, and more. This March, the Archives highlights the ministry of Isobel Miller Kuhn, author and long-term missionary with her husband John to the Lisu people of southwest China and Thailand from 1928-1954 under the auspices of China Inland Mission. The Kuhns’ nearly three decade service with China Inland Mission is documented in the organization’s records, including the couple’s voluminous newsletters, a CIM-published biography of Isobel, and John’s report on missionary evacuations from China in 1951, following the Chinese Communist Revolution. Isobel Kuhn’s personal papers, including prayer letters, photographs, correspondence, and articles, are described in Collection 435: Ephemera of Isobel Miller Kuhn, and provide a glimpse into the daily struggles and joys of missionary service—the loneliness and isolation of rural evangelism and church planting, the breathtaking beauty of remote Yunnan Province, Lisu culture and customs, and her own deep Christian faith.

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