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.

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