Chariot Racing in the Archives

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.