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.

From the first Archival Research Lecture in 2008, the series has offered an opportunity for the Archives to celebrate the scholarship of the many researchers who come to use our collections, as well as explore how archival research shapes and informs their work.

With studies of individuals like Kathryn Kuhlman, Billy Graham, and Elisabeth Elliot or organizations such as Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies, Youth for Christ, and China Inland Mission, the Archival Research Lectures have represented the breadth of evangelical mission history available in the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archive collections, as well as the rich scholarship of our researchers.

For the 2021 Archival Research Lecture, Dr. David Kirkpatrick, an Assistant Professor of Religion at James Madison University, tells the story of how a Cold War generation of Latin American evangelicals, including Wheaton graduate René Padilla, developed, named, and exported their version of social Christianity to an evolving coalition of global evangelicals. These global negotiations reshaped politics, widened theologies, and provoked an explosion of mission and relief organizations such as Compassion International and World Vision. His first book on this topic, A Gospel for the Poor: Global Social Christianity and the Latin American Evangelical Left, drew upon bilingual interviews and archival materials from three continents.

Past lecture exhibits

But what is the archival work behind such books really like?

For many, their first contact with archives and the primary source record comes not with direct interaction but mediated through the text of someone else’s writing. In these contexts, documents are often contextualized, arranged, and explained to illustrate a specific narrative.

However, as any archivist facing a carton of records that have been haphazardly filed over a lifetime or a researcher confronted with hundreds of boxes knows all too well, documents do not naturally exist in such tidy narrative bundles.

Reflecting on her experience researching Elizabeth Elliot, the Waorani, and Wycliffe Bible Translators in the 2017 lecture, Dr. Kathryn Long mused, “the process of using archival materials to shape a historical narrative, to tell a story, seems a lot like putting together a large and complicated jigsaw puzzle—the contents of a letter might represent one piece of the puzzle. The response to that letter from someone else might be another piece. A memo from other people could be yet another.”

The process of using archival material to shape a historical narrative, to tell a story, seems a lot like putting together a large and complicated jigsaw puzzle.

Dr. Kathryn Long, 2017 Archival Research Lecture

For many researchers, like Dr. Long, this puzzle often includes not only different documents but also different collections and even different archives, as one piece of the puzzle invites investigation of another.

Highlighting the position of the Archive as a space for this important work of correlation, contextualization, and narrative building, we ask our all our lectures to consider – What is it like to do historical research in the Archives? How do researchers use scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, oral history interviews, and other materials to construct an historical narrative? What are the benefits of using these physical fragments to understand the past?

Exploring documents from the Archives after the 2017 Archival Research Lecture
Exhibit of documents from the Archives after the 2017 Archival Research Lecture

Whether through stories of watching 472 recordings of Kathryn Kuhlman’s television show, I Believe in Miracles, or listening to hours upon hours of oral history interviews with former China Inland Mission missionaries, past lecturers have provided fascinating glimpses into the reality of archival research, illustrating the alternatively exciting, frustrating, and, at times, wearying work of mediating the document and the narrative.

Conversations with Dr. Joel Carpenter after his 2008 lecture

But more than the realities of working with archival documents, the Archival Research Lecture also offers an opportunity to hear and engage with the finished puzzle – the fascinating stories and ideas that researchers have constructed of these scattered pieces.

When Robert Shuster, long time archivist for the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, introduced the first Archival Research Lecture in 2008, he explained, “We on the staff have the privilege of meeting a wide range of scholars, Christian workers, and the general public engaged in many different types of research, from preparing a one-woman show, to filming a documentary, to fashioning a website, to researching books, articles, and dissertations on a wide range of topics in Christian and secular history…The purpose of the research lectures is to give the Wheaton campus and community a chance to share in the adventure of learning about these exciting research trips and discoveries…We hope this can be one way that the Archives can contribute to Wheaton’s rich mix of knowledge, experiences and, above all, people.”

As we celebrate American Archives Month together, we hope that you can join us to hear the work of Dr. David Kirkpatrick and explore some archival documents for yourself. If not, we encourage all to engage with the insights and scholarship of past lectures through the recordings and transcripts available on our website.  

To see more details on the 2021 lecture, please visit the lecture event page or contact us at bgc.archives@wheaton.edu.

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