As a major research center dedicated to evangelism and global missions, the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center 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.
This August, the 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).
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 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.”