Stories from the Archives: An Interview with Dr. Aaron Griffith

At the end of September, Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections hosted historian Dr. Aaron Griffith for the 2022 Archival Research Lecture, “American Evangelicals and the Making of Modern Prison Ministry.” For those who were unable to attend the lecture, this month we feature an interview with Dr. Griffith about the many visits he made to the Archives during his research on prison ministry and evangelical attitudes to criminal justice.

When and how were you first introduced to Archives & Special Collections?

Believe it or not, when I was a Wheaton undergraduate student (and a philosophy major, not history), I had very little idea of the Archives’ existence or purpose (though I remember a friend telling me that the third floor of the Billy Graham Center was a nice, quiet place to hang out). It wasn’t until much later, as I started getting interested in American religious history during my M.Div. program, that I realized that the Archives was an absolute goldmine for the study of evangelicalism. My first research trip to the Archives was when I accompanied Grant Wacker there for a day, to assist him with some research for his book on Billy Graham. We were both in Wheaton for a conference, and he asked me to help him read through some letters to Billy Graham and categorize them. I remember feeling energized by this work, and I think it was this experience that really sealed the deal for me in terms of getting me excited about historical research and showing me how important the Archives is for understanding American evangelicalism.

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

My doctoral dissertation was on the history of modern American evangelical engagement with the criminal justice system. It later became my book God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America (Harvard University Press, 2020). I initially started research with collections related to Prison Fellowship, an important evangelical prison ministry, and Charles Colson, a former Nixon operative who became a major prison ministry leader after his own incarceration (and who founded Prison Fellowship). But I soon saw how a number of collections in the Archives had materials relevant to my topics of interest, both prison ministry more specifically and evangelical thinking on crime and punishment more generally.

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

I explored a number of the Archives’ collections for my research and writing on prison ministry. I started with Colson’s papers and the Prison Fellowship collection; the Archives’ collections here are outstanding. I found the Colson papers particularly important for my dissertation/book’s chapter on evangelical criminal justice reform (researchers – don’t miss the Colson prison journals! They are really something). But upon looking through the wide array of other archival collections I soon came to see that, though Colson and Prison Fellowship get a lot of attention, there was much more to the American evangelical prison ministry story. For example, Bill Glass was a former football star who started an important athletics-themed prison ministry, and I learned about how his ministry emerged and influenced others through the Bill Glass/Champions for Life collection. Through the International Prison Ministries collection, I saw how evangelical prison ministers like Chaplain Ray Hoekstra built media outreach to incarcerated people and evangelical communities alike. The William Simmer oral history collection was helpful for me as I tried to understand the ways evangelicals contested state clinical chaplaincy models in the 1960s-70s. And the Consuella York collection offered insights into how women engaged in prison ministry work and how independent, small prison ministries (which do not get a lot of press) functioned.

I also benefitted from the Christianity Today records and the National Association of Evangelicals records, which I consulted as I tried to understand the ways evangelicals formed their cultural approaches and political stances on law-and-order issues in the postwar era. Additionally, I learned a lot digging into collections that offered a sense of how evangelicals understood and responded to juvenile delinquency concerns, such as the fascinating Jim Vaus papers.

What can be intimidating about archival research?

A lot! The sheer volume of archived material was often a challenge. And though it’s such exhilarating work, I also find it very intimidating when I remember that the documents in the archives are not simply letters on a page, but words that connect to and convey the stories of people. When one remembers that archives give us personal connections to the past, I think it ups the stakes for telling the stories of our fellow human beings well. 

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

I love the Colson and Prison Fellowship materials, in part because I felt like I really got to know Colson in a new way through reading his correspondence and papers. He was a good writer, and could be downright funny or cuttingly critical in his letters. His writing from when he was incarcerated (handwritten on legal pads) was also really important for me. It showed the early stages of his thinking on the problems of American prisons, borne out of his own personal frustrations while incarcerated. The records of his encounters with John Wayne Gacy, which I discuss some in my book in the final chapter, are also striking and important for understanding shifts in his thinking on the issue of capital punishment.

Snapshot of exhibit from the 2022 Archival Research Lecture, including Colson’s notes from prison in the upper right corner.

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

There is nothing quite like coming across a document that changes the game for your research, either by finally confirming what you long suspected; contradicting your earlier expectation; or simply pushing you in new, unexpected directions. I don’t know if other historians and researchers can relate to this, but I also love the conclusion of a good day at the archives – the contented exhaustion one feels as they head back to their hotel room or friend’s basement couch after a day of churning through documents at an intense pace. That’s the best feeling (I can already sense the eyes rolling from some of my colleagues as I say this, and possibly those of my wife as well). But it’s true.

What project are you currently working on?

I’m currently in the very early stages of a couple of very different projects. I’m planning to do some initial archival work in the next year that (I hope) will give me a sense if one or the other is the right fit. I also have been doing some more popular writing that is borne out of my earlier academic pursuits, such as a piece on Christianity and policing for Religion & Politics and op-eds for Christianity Today. Lastly, I’m excited to be devoting more time to my teaching, including a historical methods class this coming spring where I’ll get to show undergraduates how fun and interesting archival research can be, and how archives matter so much for helping us understand human beings of the past and the worlds they lived in and made.


Dr. Aaron Griffith is assistant professor of modern American history at Whitworth University, where he specializes in the history of evangelicalism, African American religions, social activism, and American politics. His book, God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America (Harvard University Press, 2020), was awarded Christianity Today’s Best Book Award for History & Biography in 2022.

Listen to the audio recording for the 2022 Archival Research lecture here or explore more of Dr. Griffith‘s work and recent research at https://aaronlgriffith.com/

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