“Stam Baby Safe”: Remembering John and Betty Stam

The telegram contained only a single sentence: “Cablegram from mission headquarters Shanghai reports Stam baby safe Wuhu.”

Viewed today, the fragile, yellowing Western Union message is unremarkable, but to Peter Stam, its original recipient in Paterson, New Jersey, the telegram furnished yet another detail in a still-unfolding tragedy on the other side of the world. But this time it was good news. Signed by Robert Glover, longtime North America Home Director for China Inland Mission, the telegram announced to desperate, waiting relatives that their  granddaughter was alive and safe at Wuhu General Hospital in Anhui Province, China, the same institution where she had been born three months earlier. Only now, she was an orphan.

Telegram

Telegram sent by Robert Glover, China Inland Mission Home Director for North America from 1929-1943. The original telegram is found in Collection 449: Ephemera of the Stam Family.

The deaths of John and Betty Stam at the hands of communist soldiers and the “miraculous” survival of their daughter, Helen Priscilla, have been documented in multiple books, articles, blogs, and testimonies over the decades, becoming something of twentieth-century American evangelical missionary lore. Much like Jim Elliot and the “Auca Incident” twenty years later, the Stams’ deaths shocked American Fundamentalists, heightening anxiety over the spread of global communism and inspiring a new generation of missions efforts.

This December, the Billy Graham Center Archives remembers the lives and spiritual legacies of John and Betty Stam, killed by communist soldiers in Anhui Province, China eighty-five years ago this month and showcases a few items from the Stam Family Papers and China Inland Mission Records (now Overseas Missionary Fellowship).

From Moody to the Mission Field
Stam Portrait

Undated portrait of John Stam (1907-1934) and Elisabeth Scott Stam (1906-1934).

The oldest child of Presbyterian missionaries, Elisabeth Scott was born in Albion, Michigan but raised on the mission field in China. From a young age, Betty felt called to a life of spiritual sacrifice and missionary service (see Collection 449 for examples of her poetry) and after graduating from Wilson College in Pennsylvania with a stellar academic record, she enrolled at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago for further training in missions work. A major hub of missionary training in the 1930s, Moody Bible Institute also drew John Stam, another young missionary candidate intended for the mission field in China.

John Stam

Portrait of John Stam, taken on the rooftop of Moody Bible Institute a week before his graduation. April 14, 1932.

While at Moody, John and Betty’s friendship developed into love, but the couple postponed the possibility of marriage as John was convinced his first years in China would be spent in rural regions too dangerous to for a family.

A year ahead of John in the program, Betty graduated from Moody Bible Institute in 1931 and sailed for China under the auspices of China Inland Mission, where she completed six months of language school.

China Inland Mission officially accepted John Stam’s missionary application in July 1932, and he sailed for the mission field three months later. After landing in China, John unexpectedly met Betty again in Shanghai where she was receiving medical treatment for tonsillitis, and the pair became formally engaged.

John Stam and Betty Scott were married by American evangelist R. A. Torrey on October 25, 1933 in the Scott’s garden in Jinan, China.

Stam Wedding

John and Betty Stams’ wedding portrait. The ceremony was performed by R.A. Torrey (fourth from left) at the home of Betty’s parents (second and third from right) in Jinan, China. October 25, 1933.

The Stams spent the year following their wedding completing further language school and preparing to join the CIM mission work in Jingde. The fledgling mission station at Jingde was only five years old when the Stams replaced the Warrens, a missionary couple due for furlough. In 1934, the region surrounding Jingde was reeling from more than eight years of civil war, plagued by bandits and outbreaks of violence between Chinese Nationalist and Communist forces. After a brief stay in Wuhu, where Helen Priscilla was born in Wuhu Hospital in September, the Stams returned to Jingde in mid-November after the district magistrate personally guaranteed the their safety from communist attack.

“Things Happened So Quickly This A.M.”

Two weeks later, on December 6, Jingde fell to a sudden attack by the communist forces. Moving from house to house, communist soldiers plundered the city. The Stams, along with household staff, were in their home when soldiers appeared, demanding money and valuables. After surrendering their possessions, the Stams were marched to the local jail, where their captors discussed killing Helen Priscilla and forced John to write a ransom note to China Inland Mission headquarters in Shanghai demanding 20,000 dollars for their release (see transcription below). The Stams spent the night in prison, and the ransom note was never delivered. The next day, the foreign hostages were forced to walk twelve miles to neighboring Miaosheo, where they spent the night in an abandoned house. On the morning of December 8, John and Betty were paraded through the city to their execution. When a local Chinese merchant, Chang Hsiu-sheng, pleaded with authorities to spare the couple, soldiers searched his home. Finding a bible and hymnbook among his possessions, they arrested Chang Hsiu-sheng and killed him the next day. The Stams were forced up a hill outside Miaosheo, where they were executed by decapitation at the summit. Their bodies were left behind by the evacuating soldiers.

The “Miracle Baby”
Helen Priscilla

Three-month old Helen Priscilla Stam, where she was found in an abandoned farmhouse two days after her parents’ deaths.

As the Red Army moved out of Miaosheo, a local Christian evangelist, Lo Ke-chou and his family, cautiously returned to their plundered city, where they were told about the deaths of two foreigners. Having met John Stam only weeks before, Pastor Lo recovered the Stams’ bodies and began a frantic hunt for their missing daughter. Retracing the Stams final steps led Pastor Lo and other local Christians to the abandoned home where John and Betty spent their final night. Inside they heard faint crying and found Helen Priscilla hidden in her mother’s sleeping bag with several clean diapers and two five dollar bills.

Pastor Lo and Helen

Helen Priscilla balanced in a rice basket with her rescuers, Pastor Lo (left) and his wife (third from right). December 1934.

Pastor Lo hastily arranged a funeral for the murdered missionaries and arranged to carry Helen Priscilla to safety. Traveling northward, Pastor Lo and his family carried Helen Priscilla and their four year old son in rice baskets through the mountainous regions surrounding Jingde, using the ten dollars Betty concealed with Helen Priscilla to buy powdered milk for her. On December 14, nearly a week after the Stams’ murder, the Lo family trudged into Xuancheng, in southeastern Anhui Province and delivered the baby to George Birch at the local CIM mission station. Within hours, the Stam family in Paterson, New Jersey received Robert Glover’s telegram: “Stam Baby Safe.” Transferred to Wuhu Hospital where she had been born three months earlier Helen Priscilla was examined by doctors and declared a “miracle baby.” Shortly afterward, the baby was sent to her maternal grandparents in Jinan, where she lived until the age of five.

Becoming Missionary Mythology
Helen with Chinese Girls

Baby Helen Priscilla with Chinese schoolgirls in Jinan, China in early 1935, where her maternal grandparents lived.

The Stams’ death sent shock waves throughout China Inland Mission and American Fundamentalist circles, as authorities scrambled to uncover how the missionary couple were allowed to return to Jingde despite the Red Army’s presence in the region, and details slowly emerged about the Stams capture and final days. A full month after the couple’s death, Robert Glover sent the following letter to the Stam Family in New Jersey, still piecing together the timeline of events and providing a copy of John Stam’s final written words.

Letter to Cornelius Stam

From CN 499, Box 1, Folder 5. Letter from CIM North America Home Director to the Stam Family in Paterson, New Jersey a month after the Stams’ death.

In January 1935, the bodies of John and Betty Stam were reinterred in the foreigners’ cemetery outside Wuhu, Anhui Province at the request of the governor.

Stam Coffins

The coffins of John and Betty Stam, as they arrived under military escort at Wuhu General Hospital for reburial in January 1934.

 

Headstone

Headstone for John and Betty Stam in Wuhu, Wuhu, Anhui Province, China.

Today, the Stams are honored as China Inland Mission martyrs, and for years afterwards the compelling narrative of their tragic deaths and the rescue of the “miracle baby” has become part of twentieth-century missionary mythology. The Stams’ sacrificial deaths are often cited as galvanizing a new generation of missionary candidates, including 700 young people at Moody Bible Institute, the Stams alma mater, and 200 at nearby Wheaton College, all pledging to follow the Stams example of selfless Christian service and echoing John Stam’s final message to his missionary colleagues: “The Lord bless and guide you—and as for us—may God be glorified whether by life or by death.”

The BGC Archives’ fullest account of the Stams’ brief ministry and final days in China are recorded in a packet of letters from missionaries serving in Anhui Province to the Stam family in New Jersey in the weeks following John and Betty’s death. Included below is the extended letter from George Birch, who delivered Helen Priscilla safely to Wuhu Hospital in December 1934. For more of these letters, see Collection 449, Box 1, Folder 5.

Page 1

Page 2

Page 3

Page 4

Page 5

Page 6

The items featured in this post and many others documenting the life and ministry of the Stams are found in BGC Archives Collection 449: Ephemera of the Stam Family. More information about the Stams’ deaths and China Inland Mission’s response to the crisis is found in Collection 215: Records of Overseas Missionary Fellowship.

Still “Geared to the Times, Anchored to the Rock”: Celebrating 75 Years of Youth for Christ

“‘What are you doing? Can’t we do it here? How do you get started?” And we did everything we possibly could to help everybody we possibly could. And they came here, and we sent people out there, and we were busy” (CN 285, Tape 3).

Johnson headshot

Torrey Johnson, founding member and first president of Youth for Christ.

“Busy” is how Torrey Maynard Johnson describes the explosion of interest in youth evangelism stemming from the runaway success of Youth for Christ evangelistic rallies in Chicago in 1944. In a 1984 oral history interview with BGC Archives staff, Johnson recalls the rapid emergence of Youth for Christ during World War II, a movement that innovated evangelism practices—specifically targeting young people—launched the career of a young Billy Graham, and became an international phenomenon still ministering to young adults today.

This November, the Billy Graham Center Archives celebrates seventy-five years of Youth for Christ, and explores the origins and early rallies of Youth for Christ in Chicago prior to its formal establishment in November 1944.

Shea at Pulpit

Soloist George Beverly Shea performing at a Youth for Christ rally, 1944.

While the movement’s headquarters, first president, and star evangelist were all firmly rooted in Chicago, Youth for Christ’s origins can be traced to New York City, where colorful evangelist Jack Wyrtzen and his Word of Life Fellowship were already revolutionizing approaches to evangelism by experimenting with youth rallies and religious radio programming.

As Wyrtzen recalls in a 1991 oral history interview, the link between Wyrtzen’s ministry in New York City and Torrey Johnson in Chicago was the golden voice of George Beverley Shea. A talented soloist and radio announcer, Shea worked closely with Jack Wyrtzen lending his voice to the Word of Life Hour radio program and Wyrtzen’s youth rallies. As Wyrtzen recalls, the youth evangelism team in New York City recommended Shea to Moody Bible Institute’s fledgling radio station, WMBI , where the rising radio star recognized a desperate need for evangelism aimed at young people (CN 446, Tape 3). Torrey Johnson recalls:

The immediate emphasis for it [Youth for Christ] was developed by two people: Beverly Shea who was an announcer on the radio station of Moody Bible Institute and Lacy Hall, who was a student at the Moody Bible Institute but working in the radio department as a student. I knew them both well. They called me time after time after time suggesting that I ought to do something for the young people of Chicago similar to what Jack Wyrtzen was doing in New York. . . . When [Shea] came to Chicago there was a vacuum in himself because there were no youth rallies. In Chicago at that time, we had hundreds of thousands of servicemen walking the streets of the downtown Chicago because it was the railroad center from which they went to the West coast or the Orient or the East coast and Europe for the war. This is 1944. Besides that, the young people in Chicago had nowhere to go because gasoline was rationed, so you couldn’t drive anywhere, and they were downtown. These two men persisted, and then I finally said to them, sort of to get them off of my back, “Well, I’ll see what I can do, but I’m busy.” But they…they agitated, and the Holy Spirit used that agitation until finally I said, “Well, if God will give us an auditorium, we’ll do it.” So we prayed, did a great deal of praying. And I turned to one friend of mine who was a member of the congregation of the Midwest Bible Church, and I said to him, “Christianson, go downtown and see what kind of auditorium there is. If there’s some auditorium downtown, we’ll take it.” 

Christianson’s search led him to Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, a stately brown brick building on Michigan Avenue and home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Serendipitously, the orchestra’s season was nearing its end, and Orchestra Hall would remain vacant over the summer season. In Johnson’s memory, Christianson reported, “’You can have that hall from I think the last Saturday of May for twenty-one weeks before the orchestral season begins, and you can have it for five thousand dollars.’” I knew God wanted me to do it. I said, “’We’ll sign up.’”

May 27, Memorial Day weekend 1944, was chosen as the date for Chicagoland’s inaugural Youth for Christ Rally, and Johnson and looked to Jack Wyrtzen’s recent “Victory Rally” in Madison Square Garden for inspiration. Throughout April 1944, Johnson and Wyrtzen exchanged a flurry of letters, discussing the overwhelming success of the Victory Rally and brainstorming publicity for the upcoming Memorial Day event in Chicago. Following Wyrtzen’s lead, Johnson pondered approaching Gil Dodds, the recent world record-breaking track star, to give his testimony. “Gil Dodds certainly has a real and ringing testimony for the Lord” Wyrtzen assured Johnson in a letter dated April 11, 1944, “and the Lord used his testimony at the Garden” (CN 285, Folder 29-6).

Despite weeks of frenzied preparation and publicity, Johnson and his team of evangelists and musicians had little idea how Youth for Christ Chicagoland’s ambitious debut event would be received. Johnson recalls:

“We started on that first Saturday night, which I think was the last Saturday of May 1944. I had Merrill Dunlop of the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle to play the piano. I had my minister of music, Doug Fisher, to play the organ. I had Bob Cook, who was my associate pastor assistant, my song leader. And I invited Billy Graham to be the first preacher because he had been my friend, and I saw he had lots of potential. And he preached that night on Belshazzar’s Feast: “Thou art weighed in the balances and found wanting” [Daniel 5:27]. We had no idea how many people would come. There was no yardstick by which to measure…. and we looked into the auditorium behind the curtains, almost afraid to look. And the auditorium was about full with three thousand people. And I think there were about forty-five that responded that night to the invitation, both men in uniform and others. And that was a tremendous encouragement, not only to us but to the whole community. And we were on our way” (CN 285, Tape 3).

The Youth for Christ Memorial Day Rally was a runaway success, and YFC rallies continued filling Orchestra Hall for the next twelve weeks, bolstered by broadcast time on Chicago’s WCFL.  Riding on their success, Johnson and Bob Cook speedily co-authored Reaching Youth for Christ, a ministry manual detailing the road to fruitful youth evangelism. A second edition was published within the year.

“After that and the following twenty-one weeks there were times when we had two meetings in the same night. One perhaps from 7:00 to 8:30 and another one from 9:00 to 10:30, something like that. The young people were thrilled to go to the Loop of Chicago—lots of excitement, stores, window shopping, places to eat, Michigan Boulevard, all the excitement of a downtown district. So for them it was a lot of different things. There was the adventure of coming from fifty or a hundred miles away maybe. And for the servicemen we had people out on the street inviting the servicemen in, and they would come in. And we had novel programs, arrangement for some of them to call home from the platform, and those kind of things” (CN 285, Tape 3).

The “Victory Rally”

Victory Rally Cover

Youth for Christ Victory Rally Program

While Chicagoland’s young adults and serviceman flocked to hear Billy Graham and George Beverley Shea each weekend, Johnson and his team pondered their looming eviction from Orchestra Hall in October. The solution they settled on was Moody Bible Church on Chicago’s north side, and for the next several years, Youth for Christ Chicagoland’s, weekend rallies alternated between Orchestra Hall in the during the summer season and Moody Church the rest of the year.  But to mark the transition from Michigan Avenue to Moody Church, Johnson and his team hatched plans for a massive YFC rally held in Chicago Stadium, one of the world’s largest sports arenas at the time. Borrowing from Jack Wyrtzen’s success in Madison Square Garden, the YFC Chicagoland event was titled a “Victory Rally” and scheduled for October 21, 1944.

Servicemen

Servicemen featured at the “Victory Rally.”

Packing over 28,000 people into Chicago Stadium, YFC’s “Victory Rally” was a runaway success. The evening’s program featured an impressive line-up of personalities—gospel musician Rose Arzoomanian, track star Gil Dodds, and the Salvation Army Territorial Band, alongside stalwarts Johnson, Shea, and Bob Cook, and a bevy of Moody Church musicians. In keeping with the “victory” theme, the rally had overtly patriotic tones, featuring both William Conley, a chaplain with the U.S. Army  Paratroopers, and Lieutenant Colonel Stoll, introduced as serving in the “first invasion wave at New Guinea” (CN 48, Folder 14-32).

Johnson at Pulpit

Torrey Johnson speaking at the Victory Rally in Chicago Stadium, October 21, 1944

The Victory Rally’s program not only celebrated the surprising work of God in Orchestra Hall over the past months but also promised a brilliant future for YFC Chicagoland: “Is this miracle-ministry to be terminated now? We met during the twenty-one weeks just passed, in the most famous downtown auditorium in Chicago. Now for another twenty-one weeks we shall be located in the most famous church building in America—the Moody Church, of which D.L. Moody was the founder” (CN 48, Folder 14-32).

In a whirlwind six months, Youth for Christ Chicagoland had had grown from the fledgling aspirations of George Beverly Shea and a reluctant Torrey Johnson to this unimagined apex—a packed Chicago Stadium eagerly drinking in the latest innovations in gospel music, celebrity Christian testimonies, inspirational preaching, all wrapped in a fervent display of wartime patriotism.

Stadium crowd

Chicago Stadium packed with a capacity crowd at the YFC Victory Rally, October 21, 1944

With the success of the Victory Rally behind them, YFC could now address the pressing issues of organization and consolidation resulting from its rapid and unexpected growth. A few weeks later, a group of regional Youth for Christ leaders met in Detroit on November 15-17 and created Youth for Christ International, electing Johnson the chairman of the temporary executive committee. In July 1945, representatives from the fledgling YFC chapters in cities across the United States met again to create a permanent structure for the organization and confirm Torrey Johnson’s leadership as president.

Recruiting Billy Graham

Johnson and Graham

Johnson and Graham during their YFC days.

While Billy Graham’s preaching had featured heavily during YFC Chicagoland’s early days in Orchestra Hall, he was not officially employed by the organization until January 1945. Then serving as pastor of The Village Church in Western Springs, IL, Graham was more and more turning his sights on ministry in youth evangelism rather than the pastorate. In a letter to Johnson dated December 29, 1944, Graham affirms his commitment to the work of Youth for Christ and admiration of Johnson’s leadership, but outlines some conditions of his full-time employment—”I am anxious for all concerned to know that I am not under any board or group. That at present I am, as it were, my own boss” (CN 285, Folder 27-2).Graham letter

graham letter 2

Excerpt of Billy Graham’s letter to Torrey Johnson, December 29, 1944 (CN 285, Folder 27-2).

Keeping “Youth for Christ”?

Weeks prior to founding Youth for Christ International in November 1944, leaders of YFC rallies in US cities were debating the long-term viability of the movement’s name. In his oral history interview, Jack Wyrtzen describes the evolution of “Young Men for Christ to “Youth for Christ” in the New York City chapter:

We started Young Men for Christ, Chi Beta Alpha fraternity, Christians born again. And it was Young Men for Christ. I’ll take you up for dinner at the dining room today and  I’ll show you a picture, and it says, “Young Men for Christ: Winning young people,” something like that. Well, then when the girls came along. We were very anti-women.  We had to be all men we thought…. When the girls came along, it was clear that we had to get a better name, so we called it Youth for Christ, and that’s how the name Youth for Christ started (CN 446, Tape 3).

In October 1944, fresh off the success of the Victory Rally at Chicago Stadium, Johnson and Wyrtzen exchanged letters discussing Wyrtzen’s growing hesitation to use the title “Youth for Christ” for his youth evangelism in New York City.

Jack letter

Jack Wyrtzen’s letter to Torrey Johnson, October 24, 1944 (CN 285, Folder 29-6).

Torrey letter

Torrey Johnson’s response to Jack Wyrtzen, October 28, 1944 (CN 285, Folder 29-6).

Johnson was less convinced by Wyrtzen’s fears of bureaucratization and defended the title in his letter of October 28th. Three weeks later, Youth for Christ International was formed in Detroit, and by early January the fledgling president of YFC began sporting a new slogan and logo on his official stationery: “Geared to the Times, Anchored to the Rock.” The now-familiar cogwheel, anchor, and Bible logo began featuring heavily in YFC Chicagoland advertising, particularly as the chapter began planning for its famous 1945 Memorial Day Rally in Soldier Field, celebrating the one year anniversary of Youth for Christ activity in Chicago (see also the BGC Archives’ online exhibit “The Greatest Youth Gathering in History”)

In addition to the papers of Torrey Johnson and records of Youth for Christ, the BGC Archives holds the papers of many individuals who served with Youth for Christ in the United States and around the world over the past 75 years, including the Palermo Brothers, Samuel Wolgemuth, Herbert J. Taylor, James E. Wright, Earl Schultz, and Jim Vaus, among others.

Chariot Racing in the Archives

CoversA

On any given Saturday, thousands of Americans are giving garage sales and tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands are looking over these dubious treasures as they lay on card tables set up on the driveway and the lawn.  One thought that must strike anyone who has glanced over these accumulations is that one person, one family in a lifetime sure collects a lot of stuff.  Some of it is obvious – old TV guides, second best dinner settings.  Others are inexplicable – a 1300-year-old coin, a vintage Monopoly board game.  Archivists too, often have the same revelation.  When we get the papers of an individual, it is because they contain substantial information on the topic which is the archives’ main area of interest.  But there will be other things as well that reflect all the unexpected corners one encounters when intruding in the remains of another person’s life.

Page 2a

Take, for example, Grace Liddell Cox.  Grace was born in 1906 and went to China as a missionary with China Inland Mission in 1934 until she came back to the United States in 1944, having been a witness to the Gospel through war and revolution. Shortly after her return she died, in 1946.  The BGC Archives collects documents about the history of evangelism and missions and Grace’s papers, donated to the Archives by her daughter, contain much that illuminates the part played by women in the 20th century church, the patterns of American missionary efforts, the development of Christianity in China and many other relevant topics.  The accession also documents plenty of other topics, not exactly irrelevant, but different.  Her letters and diaries and scrapbooks and memorabilia shed light on the life of Western Union College, which she attended; the thoughts and actions of an American woman, wife, and mother in the 1930s and ‘40s; and even the nature of cinematic extravaganza of the 1920s as typified by the movie Ben Hur.

Page 11a

As a young woman of 19 Grace may have attended the film or anyway someone had been impressed enough by the film to pay the whopping 25 cent price for the program sold at the movie theater.  She kept it with her scrapbooks.  Ben Hur, subtitled A Tale of the Christ, was written by an American Civil War general, became an instant best seller, and has been produced as a play and movie many times.  There is usually more emphasis on the spectacular as opposed to the historical or the theological, but it is undoubtedly a rattling good tale.  The 18-page program described in loving detail the production of the 1925 silent film, using a cast of thousands, as the phrase goes, on two continents.  The program contains as well as dozens of images from the film (a few of which are on this page), plot summaries, a history of the book and more.

Page 14a

And Judah Ben-Hur, as he races Messala one more time across our blog, serves as a reminder that a person’s life is made up of many parts.  In the Archives, when we get a person’s papers, we get a few remaining fragments which allow us to glimpse, perhaps, through the documentation of a life’s major actions and minor interests, all the variety and mystery in every God-created human soul.

More details about Grace Liddell Cox’s life and ministry are found in Someone to Be with Roxie: The Life Story of Grace Reed Liddell Cox Missionary in China 1934-1944 (Miriam G. Moran), a biography written by Cox’s daughter.

Getting Lost in the Archives: A Conversation with Dr. Amber Thomas Reynolds

Thomas HeadshotThis September, we sat down with Dr. Amber Thomas Reynolds—Wheaton College Grad School alumna and archives enthusiast—and plied her with questions about the challenges, joys, and adventures of archival research. A longtime patron of the BGC Archives, Dr. Reynolds relied heavily on our resources for both her MA thesis at Wheaton College and PhD dissertation at the University of Edinburgh. Currently serving as a guest assistant professor at Wheaton College, Dr. Reynolds can be found in the history department, where she is teaching World History Since 1500 and US Pop Culture Since 1900 this semester.

When and how were you first introduced to the BGC Archives?

I believe it was [Wheaton Professor Emerita] Edith Blumhofer’s Modern World Christianity course during my Wheaton MA that provided my first research experience, way back in 2008!  Our class came to the archives, Bob Shuster led the introduction and showed us documents, and then we were assigned to select a collection pertinent to missions/world Christianity. I can’t recall exactly which collection I chose but it included letters from missionaries stationed in 1970s Uganda, as the political situation worsened prior to Idi Amin [Collection 81: Records of Africa Inland Mission]. The material’s vividness and real-world relevance really surprised me.

What kinds of research projects have led you to the BGC Archives’ collections?

My Wheaton master’s thesis on former Christianity Today editor Harold Lindsell and the evangelical controversy over biblical inerrancy was my first major research project. There was sooo much correspondence! Since then, I’ve completed many proxy research jobs for non-resident scholars, covering a variety of collections such as the China Inland Mission and the Fellowship Foundation.

My Edinburgh PhD thesis research explored ideas popularized in major parachurch youth ministries organized after World War II, including Youth for Christ, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and Campus Crusade for Christ. The BGCA houses the main collections for the first two organizations and a smaller collection on the latter.

01-11 Reading Room.04

Wheaton College students using a 1920s photo album during an instruction session.

I’ve also just finished a chapter for an edited volume on the Charismatic Renewal. My contribution argues that key neo-evangelicals, still very committed to the Keswick perspective on the spirit-filled life, supported belief in miracles, especially physical healing, and were more open to belief in the gift of tongues than has been acknowledged in the literature. For this chapter I’ve used archival material on V. Raymond Edman, President of Wheaton College (1941-65), and Robert Walker, Founder-Editor of Christian Life magazine (1948-86).

In my teaching for Wheaton’s history department, I have brought my students in a course I developed on twentieth-century US pop culture to the BGCA, as well. In addition to the major evangelical magazines (CT, Christian Life) available in Special Collections, Buswell Library, I assign issues of the Wheaton College student newspaper (The Record) from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80, which are housed in the BGCA Reading Room. Students are fascinated by the ways evangelicals readily imbibed some pop-culture trends—consumerism, e.g.—while continuing to renounce others, like dancing.  In addition, they are able to put current socio-political debates into historical context: Change a few names and details, and many of the editorials from the ‘70s could be reprinted today.

What kinds of collections have you used most heavily and how were they applicable to your topic?

For my dissertation, the records of Youth for Christ; InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and new material from the Urbana Missions Conference; the papers of Herbert J. Taylor; the Fellowship Foundation; some material from the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association; and the Billy Graham pamphlet sermons.

Youth for Christ Poster

Poster advertising YFC’s 1946 International European Farewell Rally in Detroit, featuring the preaching talents of a young Billy Graham.

Youth for Christ and IVCF were particularly useful, as their highschool-and university-age constituencies were prime audiences for messages on discerning God’s plan for their education, work, spouses, and missionary service. Within these collections you will find conference addresses, promotional literature, organizational procedures, administrative correspondence, etc., awash with assumptions about God’s guidance. In addition, the philanthropist Herbert J. Taylor’s papers showcase the early beginnings of these organizations in the 1940s.

The Fellowship Foundation papers include copies of the monthly newsletter and material on Richard Halverson, who helped lead the prayer breakfast movement for political and business leaders in the 1950s—decades before he became Chaplain of the U.S Senate. Stressing God’s specific plan for the individual was prominent in Halverson’s ministry (influenced by Henrietta Mears) and his many publications.

As I revise the dissertation, I will be using more material from the Evangelical Foreign Mission Association’s records, as they will help clarify the state of missionary recruitment in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

What can be intimidating about archival research?

Many things! The sheer amount of materials contained in one collection—one box, even. The desire to go down rabbit trails and completely forget your main objectives. The choice of specific documents to cite out of 60,000 others.

Do you have a favorite collection or one that has yielded unexpected treasures?

Urbana Poster

1946 poster advertising the first Urbana Student Missions Conference, sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Toronto.

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, especially the new material on the triennial missions conferences held at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign starting in 1948. This material captures postwar American evangelicalism’s growing intellectual respectability and engagement with mainstream culture and global Christianity. The administrative correspondence and conference-planning records from the 1960s and 1970s are especially fascinating, as they testify to evangelical university students’ contributions to the era’s protest movements (Civil Rights, Vietnam), theological crises, and backlash against American-led foreign missions to the non-Western world. It’s definitely one of the BGCA’s “hippest” collections!

In your experience, what is the best part of archival research?

Research

Getting lost in history on a Friday afternoon at the start of a research project. Feeling like a detective when you unearth a document which really supports your argument! Or reading material that has nothing to do with your project but reveals an unexpectedly humorous side to a serious historical figure. More seriously, for the BGCA, I enjoy peering into the lives of missionaries and parachurch administrators who worked tirelessly for the Kingdom. Many of these, of course, are women who received none of the earthly glory of their male counterparts. They are an inspiration!

What project are you currently working on?

I am preparing a book manuscript based on my dissertation, which explored how the evangelical teaching on discerning God’s plan or will for one’s life changed after World War II, reflecting broader shifts in American culture.

Tibet Through Victor Plymire’s Camera

As a major research center dedicated to evangelism and global missions, the BGC Archives houses a wide swath of materials from around the world – missionaries’ prayer letters from Peru, family correspondence from Iran, radio broadcasts from Monaco, church records in Swahili, travel reports from Russia, evangelistic tracts from China, maps of Tanzania, blueprints from Japan, and much more.

All missionaries, to some extent, document the culture where they serve—its people, customs, food, music, languages, landscape, and history. For many missionaries and Christian aid workers, this documentation is merely a small part of their work. It appears in throwaway line in a prayer letter to supporters at home, a handful of bullet points in the annual report for the mission headquarters, or a detailed paragraph in a personal diary entry. Together, these fragments can offer researchers today a glimpse into the experiences of past Christian workers as they encountered the new, unexpected, and often bewildering realities of missionary service around the globe.

Plymire, Victor

Victor Plymire in Tibet. Undated.

This August, the BGC Archives showcases one such item—a stunning photograph album created by Assemblies of God missionary Victor Plymire between 1926 and 1930. For nearly four decades, Victor Plymire (1881-1956) lived, toured, evangelized, and planted churches throughout Tibet. For much of his ministry, Plymire traveled with the Tibetan trade caravans that crisscrossed the country. Each stop along the trade route—cities, lamaseries, temples, and remote outposts—presented an opportunity to both preach the Christian gospel and document the local culture. A gifted amateur photographer, Plymire’s photographs reveal not only his exceptional eye for detail, but also his deep fascination with the Tibetan people and landscape. His photos and silent, black and white film footage capture the bustle and vibrancy of Tibetan cities, temples, and festivals, alongside breathtaking images of lonely mountain ranges and sprawling plains.

Sgc403119053011140 (002)

Plymire’s caption: “A Tibetan Christian receiving a Gospel Poster. 1930.”

Plymire’s photography, however, also served a practical purpose. Once captured, the images were developed, printed, and pasted into sturdy, black photograph albums, which Plymire used to describe his ministry to friends and supporters back home in the United States. A common practice for furloughing missionaries, Plymire relied on his own films and photos to acquaint his supporting churches with basic details about Tibetan life and culture in the 1920s and ‘30s.

Unlike many personal scrapbooks held in the BGC Archives, Plymire’s photo albums are a model of careful arrangement and description. Each image is carefully positioned, dated, and labeled in white ink with Plymire’s tidy cursive handwriting.

IMG_1018

An example of Plymire’s meticulous record keeping. His captions read: (Left) “The main street of our city looking East. 1929.” (Right) Mr. Meng, One of our colporteurs. 1930.”

While this photo album contains images ranging from 1926-1930, it especially documents Plymire’s evangelistic expedition of 1927-1928. After sailing for Tibet in 1922, Plymire founded an Assemblies of God mission station at Tangar (now Huangyuan) in the northeast, and it was two years before the mission had its first convert to Christianity.

Sgc403119053011190

“A native of central Tibet, 1927-1928.”

Despite the slow growth of the church in Tangar and the tragic loss of his wife and son to smallpox in 1927, Plymire was undeterred in his evangelistic efforts and began planning an ambitious expedition to bring the gospel to the remotest regions of Tibet—a journey that snaked south from Tangar across Tibet, though Nepal, and into India. The expedition set out on May 18, 1927 and reached Calcutta nearly a year later. Along the way, Plymire trained his camera lens on all levels of Tibetan society, capturing high holy holidays in Buddhist temples, isolated herders, and everything in between. The photograph on the right is just one of many nameless Tibetan men and women who captured Plymire’s imagination. The images below offer only a brief sampling of Tibet through Victor Plymire’s camera lens.

The scenes below find Plymire and his caravan in somewhere in Ladakh along the Indus River. The Buddhist Hemis Monastery is still located in modern Kashmir, India. 

IMG_1022

Plymire’ captions: (Above) “We slept under the shelter of this rock one cold winter night. ‘Wild Yak- Wild Ass.’ In Ladak along the Indus R. 1927-1928.” (Below): “At Hemis monastery in Ladak a Religious dance.”

Plymire especially documented the details of Tibetan religious life—filming religious festivals, visiting monasteries, and noting spiritual practices. In the album pages below, he showcased scenes from Kumbum Monastery, built in 1583 by the third Dalai Lama.

IMG_1024

Plymire’s caption for the bottom right image: “Prayer wheel at Kum Bum being turned by pilgrims and priests – 1928.”

In several pages of this album, Plymire captures the vibrant spiritual life and practices at Kumbum, including images of the sacred Tree of Great Merit, religious dances, offerings, pilgrims, and prayers.

Sgc403119053011170

A detailed look at bottom left image from the page above. Plymire’s caption: “Religious dance by masked priests at Kum Bum.” Film footage of this festival is found in Collection 341 under the title “Film 4.”

Sgc403119053011200

A stunning shot of Potala Palace, residence of the Dalai Lama, dating back to the 7th century.  Plymire’s caravan would have passed this site during their 1927-1928 expedition.

Sgc403119053011201 (1)

Plymire’s caption: “A Nepal woman carrying the child.” Undated.

During its descent from Tibet to Calcutta in 1928, Plymire’s caravan passed through Nepal, where he likely captured this striking image of a Nepalese woman and child.

Plymire’s missionary explorations led him through some of the most remote and  rugged landscapes in the world, and he often paused to capture these scenes of haunting beauty. In particular, multiple pages of Plymire’s photo album are dedicated to the frigid Zoji La, a mountain pass his caravan descended in March 1928. In one margin, Plymire writes, “Making the Zoji La (Pass) in deep snow. We descended from this pass by stepping off just ahead of the men, then slid down several hundred feet in the deep snow. Sometimes men completely disappeared under the snow, coming out farther down. See the same pass in summer on next page” (image below).

Sgc403119053011240

Plymire’s caption: “The Zoji La (Pass) when we descended we saw no rocks — completely filled with snow.  Sind Valley.” Undated.

Tibetan Priest (1)

Plymire’s caption: “Our Tibetan Teacher. 1929-1930.”

For many of Plymire’s friends and supporters in the United States, the images and descriptions in his photo albums opened a window into a world they knew little about and allowed Plymire to describe the challenges of Christian evangelism far removed from the sawdust trails of Billy Sunday or big tent meetings of other revival preachers of the 1920s. Here, Victor Plymire faced the hurdles of language, culture, class, climate, and later, Communism.

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Plymires, along with many Western missionaries, fled their mission station in Tangar and sailed for the United States. Despite his best intentions, Victor Plymire never returned to Tibet, though he never abandoned his passion for the gospel or Tibet. The Plymires settled in Springfield, MO, where Victor worked for the Assemblies of God missions board until his death in 1956.

To learn more about the BGC Archives’ holdings on the life and ministry of Victor Plymire, visit Collection 341: Papers of Victor Plymire. The photograph album featured in this post is described under the title “Plymire, Victor G. IV.”

Billy Graham and the Presidential Election of 1944

Biographers of Billy Graham and scholars of American evangelicalism have long been interested in Graham’s involvement in U.S. politics, particularly his relationship with every U.S. president dating back to Harry S. Truman. While whole books have been dedicated to examining these connections, Graham’s earliest foray into presidential politics has, to date, escaped notice. This July, the BGC Archives highlights Billy Graham’s brief, but fascinating, correspondence with presidential candidate Thomas Dewey during his 1944 election campaign against incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In August of 1944, the twenty-four year old Billy Graham was serving in his first and only pastorate, a small congregation in the Chicago suburbs. After graduating from Wheaton College the year before, Graham and his new wife Ruth accepted a call to Western Springs Baptist Church, where they ministered for the next two years. During his pastorate, Graham became increasingly involved with Youth for Christ, touring the upper Midwest and eventually coast to coast, preaching at youth rallies with Torrey Johnson and other rising YFC evangelists.

BG_Western Springs_1943.02

A rare image of Billy Graham as a young pastor, speaking at Western Springs Baptist Church in 1944.

Graham brought an evangelistic fervor to his pastorate at Western Springs, immediately establishing a vigorous outreach program, which included a Chicago-wide men’s fellowship group and a fund-raising drive to complete the church building. Most ambitiously, he launched a radio ministry, Songs in the Night, out of the church basement. The Sunday night program featured an evangelistic message from Graham and live music by soloist George Beverly Shea and the Carollers for Christ, a women’s quartet from Wheaton College. To promote the radio ministry and church programming, Graham started the church newsletter, also called Songs in Night, which featured original writing, sermon extracts, and news items.

Songs in the Night_1944

The August 1944 issue of the Songs in the Night newsletter, published a month after Billy Graham wrote to Thomas Dewey. Note that the issue commemorates the one year anniversary of Billy Graham’s pastorate.

A year into his pastorate at Western Springs, Billy Graham made his first recorded foray into presidential politics after reading a profile of Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey in the August 1944 issue of Reader’s Digest, one of the most popular general circulation magazines in the country. Whatever the exact contents of Stanley Walker’s article, “Snapshot of Tom Dewey,” his discussion of Dewey’s religious convictions caught Graham’s attention, and he mailed the following letter to Dewey’s New York residence, declaring his personal support and offering to galvanize evangelical votes by promoting Dewey’s campaign in Songs in the Night.

Graham to Dewey

A grainy photocopy of Billy Graham’s letter to presidential candidate Thomas Dewey.  While the original letter is found in the Western Springs Baptist Church Archives, a copy is held in BGC Archives Collection 74: Ephemera of Billy Graham, box 11, folder 2, along with original copies of the Songs in the Night newsletter.

In future presidential elections, many candidates would have given a great deal more than a brief personal statement in return for Billy Graham’s public support. However, Thomas Dewey likely never read Graham’s letter, and no endorsement of Dewey or even a reference to the election appeared in later issues of the church newsletter. Graham did receive a reply from Dewey’s office, dated August 24, 1944. Signed by Reuben B. Crispell, Acting Secretary, the letter did not provide the requested personal statement of faith or favorite Scripture passage Graham requested. Crispell did confirm that the Dewey children always observed nightly prayers at the governor’s mansion and underscored Dewey’s longstanding membership in the Episcopalian church, where he served on the vestry. Crispell even highlighted Dewey’s association with the Freemasons, listing his membership in at Kane Lodge Number 454, F. & A. M., NY; Aurora Grata Scottish Rite Consistory, Valley of Brooklyn; and Kismet Temple, Brooklyn, NY. The Crispell letter is located in recently-transferred Collection 580: Records of the Montreat Office, now held at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association headquarters in Charlotte, NC.

Graham’s hopes for a Dewey administration were disappointed in November, when Franklin Roosevelt was reelected to a fourth term. This brief letter, however, provides a glimpse into the young evangelist’s burgeoning interest in presidential politics, his concern for the spiritual convictions of political candidates and the religious climate of the nation, and his lifelong emphasis on family values. Most significantly, Graham’s letter reveals a shift in his own political allegiances, a transformation he credits, in part, to Thomas Dewey.

Campus Ministry and Bird Watching: John Stott’s 1962 Africa Tour

Stott

NAIROBI, KENYA. Stott with the GCU President at Nairobi.

In the spring of 1962, John Stott (1921-2011) returned to the African continent for a second series of campus missions at colleges and universities at the invitation of the Pan-African Fellowship of Evangelical Students (PAFES) that was made up of English-speaking movements of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). This model of campus missions was repeated again and again in the 1960s when Stott also traveled to North America, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, and across Europe. Subsequent decades through the 1990s were marked by more travel and ministry. Known across the span of his life as an Anglican minister, Evangelical theologian, evangelist, and author, John Stott is described by his biographer, Timothy Dudley-Smith in the second volume of his two-part work, John Stott: A Global Ministry. “The start of the 1960s found John Stott an international figure in the field of student evangelism” (p. 105). During his Africa sojourn, Stott’s visits stretched from Sierra Leone to Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, and down to Rhodesia. Dudley-Smith captured glimpses of these stops (pp. 106-110). Stott’s first trip to the African continent in 1959 focused primarily on meetings in various cities of South Africa, but also added ministry and bird watching stops in Ruanda-Urundi, Uganda, and Kenya.)

Stott in Africa.01

NAIROBI, KENYA. John Stott greets students at the Royal College in Nairobi, Kenya. Paula Holmes is standing at the right beyond Stott. Bob Howarth, who hosted Stott in Nairbobi, may be the man speaking to the bespectacled woman (left).

During this time, Stott was already the rector of All Souls, an Anglican church in London (see him in his clerical collar in one of the images below), Chaplain to the Queen, and vice president IFES. On the stage of independence movements sweeping the globe, Stott’s visit was timely for equipping and inspiring Evangelical students for witness, church involvement, and vocations in countries that were rapidly undergoing decolonization: Sierra Leone (1961), Ghana (1957), Nigeria (1960), Kenya (1963), Uganda (1962), and Zimbabwe (1979). The impact of these students on the growth of the church in the Global South has to be the subject of much further study.

Stott in Africa.03

ACCRA, GHANA. “Rev. John Stott speaking to the members of the Accra Christian Fellowship at Mr. John Agama’s on 29th April, 1962 at 4:30 PM. Sermon: 1 Peter 2:1-11”

Several moments of Stott’s journey were captured by photographers, and the BGC Archives adds to this story through a series of five recently-discovered photographs, found in the Records of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (Collection 640). Although the photographer(s) is not identified, the images depict Stott on campuses in Ghana and Kenya. Among these, we see him addressing a group, meeting students and student leaders of University Christian Fellowship Legon in Accra, Ghana, and with Kenyan student leaders and several IFES staff.

Stott in Africa.02

NAIROBI, KENYA. Stott (left) with unidentified man (possibly Bob Howarth), John and Paula Holmes, and unidentified man, most likely in Nairobi, Kenya. Note Stott’s pair of binoculars around his neck.

Other individuals identified in the photographs are Frank Horton and his wife Paula (center above), and (below) Ghanaian student leaders of UCF Legon, K.A. Ofosuhene (president) and G.K. Gyekye (secretary).

The images for the most part depict what would be expected: Stott speaking, Stott interacting with students. What adds interest to the images and makes them especially germane to understanding John Stott is the battered binocular case hanging from his neck in two of the images, underlining Stott’s lifelong love of nature. An avid and experienced bird watcher, Stott carted his binoculars throughout his Africa tour, always prepared to stop and admire the native avian population.

Stott again

ACCRA, GHANA. Stott with K.A. Ofosuhene (left, UCF Legon Pres.) and G.K. Gyekye (right, UCF Legon Sec.) of the University of Ghana. This image offers a closer look at Stott’s binocular case.

The BGC Archives holds a collection of Stott’s papers relating to his involvement in the Lausanne Movement (originals held at Lambeth Palace Library). Materials created by or about Stott appear in other BGC Archives collections as well, especially those that intersect with the Lausanne Movement records, records of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (USA) and its Urbana Student Missionary Conventions, and recollections of him in oral history interviews—Lisa Espineli Chinn in her unprocessed interview, for example, recalls Stott’s visits to meet with staff and students of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship of the Philippines (an IFES member movement). The BGC Archives’ collection of IFES records, which holds these photographs, is currently being processed by Archives staff.