Chariot Racing in the Archives


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.

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.

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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.

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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?

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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?


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.

Tibet Through Victor Plymire’s Camera

As a major research center dedicated to evangelism and global missions, the BGC 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.

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Victor Plymire in Tibet. Undated.

This August, the BGC 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.

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Plymire’s caption: “A Tibetan Christian receiving a Gospel Poster. 1930.”

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 BGC 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.


An example of Plymire’s meticulous record keeping. His captions read: (Left) “The main street of our city looking East. 1929.” (Right) Mr. Meng, One of our colporteurs. 1930.”

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.


“A native of central Tibet, 1927-1928.”

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’ captions: (Above) “We slept under the shelter of this rock one cold winter night. ‘Wild Yak- Wild Ass.’ In Ladak along the Indus R. 1927-1928.” (Below): “At Hemis monastery in Ladak a Religious dance.”

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.


Plymire’s caption for the bottom right image: “Prayer wheel at Kum Bum being turned by pilgrims and priests – 1928.”

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.”


A stunning shot of Potala Palace, residence of the Dalai Lama, dating back to the 7th century.  Plymire’s caravan would have passed this site during their 1927-1928 expedition.

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Plymire’s caption: “A Nepal woman carrying the child.” Undated.

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).


Plymire’s caption: “The Zoji La (Pass) when we descended we saw no rocks — completely filled with snow.  Sind Valley.” Undated.

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Plymire’s caption: “Our Tibetan Teacher. 1929-1930.”

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 BGC 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.”

Billy Graham and the Presidential Election of 1944

Biographers of Billy Graham and scholars of American evangelicalism have long been interested in Graham’s involvement in U.S. politics, particularly his relationship with every U.S. president dating back to Harry S. Truman. While whole books have been dedicated to examining these connections, Graham’s earliest foray into presidential politics has, to date, escaped notice. This July, the BGC Archives highlights Billy Graham’s brief, but fascinating, correspondence with presidential candidate Thomas Dewey during his 1944 election campaign against incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In August of 1944, the twenty-four year old Billy Graham was serving in his first and only pastorate, a small congregation in the Chicago suburbs. After graduating from Wheaton College the year before, Graham and his new wife Ruth accepted a call to Western Springs Baptist Church, where they ministered for the next two years. During his pastorate, Graham became increasingly involved with Youth for Christ, touring the upper Midwest and eventually coast to coast, preaching at youth rallies with Torrey Johnson and other rising YFC evangelists.

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A rare image of Billy Graham as a young pastor, speaking at Western Springs Baptist Church in 1944.

Graham brought an evangelistic fervor to his pastorate at Western Springs, immediately establishing a vigorous outreach program, which included a Chicago-wide men’s fellowship group and a fund-raising drive to complete the church building. Most ambitiously, he launched a radio ministry, Songs in the Night, out of the church basement. The Sunday night program featured an evangelistic message from Graham and live music by soloist George Beverly Shea and the Carollers for Christ, a women’s quartet from Wheaton College. To promote the radio ministry and church programming, Graham started the church newsletter, also called Songs in Night, which featured original writing, sermon extracts, and news items.

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The August 1944 issue of the Songs in the Night newsletter, published a month after Billy Graham wrote to Thomas Dewey. Note that the issue commemorates the one year anniversary of Billy Graham’s pastorate.

A year into his pastorate at Western Springs, Billy Graham made his first recorded foray into presidential politics after reading a profile of Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey in the August 1944 issue of Reader’s Digest, one of the most popular general circulation magazines in the country. Whatever the exact contents of Stanley Walker’s article, “Snapshot of Tom Dewey,” his discussion of Dewey’s religious convictions caught Graham’s attention, and he mailed the following letter to Dewey’s New York residence, declaring his personal support and offering to galvanize evangelical votes by promoting Dewey’s campaign in Songs in the Night.

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A grainy photocopy of Billy Graham’s letter to presidential candidate Thomas Dewey.  While the original letter is found in the Western Springs Baptist Church Archives, a copy is held in BGC Archives Collection 74: Ephemera of Billy Graham, box 11, folder 2, along with original copies of the Songs in the Night newsletter.

In future presidential elections, many candidates would have given a great deal more than a brief personal statement in return for Billy Graham’s public support. However, Thomas Dewey likely never read Graham’s letter, and no endorsement of Dewey or even a reference to the election appeared in later issues of the church newsletter. Graham did receive a reply from Dewey’s office, dated August 24, 1944. Signed by Reuben B. Crispell, Acting Secretary, the letter did not provide the requested personal statement of faith or favorite Scripture passage Graham requested. Crispell did confirm that the Dewey children always observed nightly prayers at the governor’s mansion and underscored Dewey’s longstanding membership in the Episcopalian church, where he served on the vestry. Crispell even highlighted Dewey’s association with the Freemasons, listing his membership in at Kane Lodge Number 454, F. & A. M., NY; Aurora Grata Scottish Rite Consistory, Valley of Brooklyn; and Kismet Temple, Brooklyn, NY. The Crispell letter is located in recently-transferred Collection 580: Records of the Montreat Office, now held at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association headquarters in Charlotte, NC.

Graham’s hopes for a Dewey administration were disappointed in November, when Franklin Roosevelt was reelected to a fourth term. This brief letter, however, provides a glimpse into the young evangelist’s burgeoning interest in presidential politics, his concern for the spiritual convictions of political candidates and the religious climate of the nation, and his lifelong emphasis on family values. Most significantly, Graham’s letter reveals a shift in his own political allegiances, a transformation he credits, in part, to Thomas Dewey.

Campus Ministry and Bird Watching: John Stott’s 1962 Africa Tour


NAIROBI, KENYA. Stott with the GCU President at Nairobi.

In the spring of 1962, John Stott (1921-2011) returned to the African continent for a second series of campus missions at colleges and universities at the invitation of the Pan-African Fellowship of Evangelical Students (PAFES) that was made up of English-speaking movements of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). This model of campus missions was repeated again and again in the 1960s when Stott also traveled to North America, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, and across Europe. Subsequent decades through the 1990s were marked by more travel and ministry. Known across the span of his life as an Anglican minister, Evangelical theologian, evangelist, and author, John Stott is described by his biographer, Timothy Dudley-Smith in the second volume of his two-part work, John Stott: A Global Ministry. “The start of the 1960s found John Stott an international figure in the field of student evangelism” (p. 105). During his Africa sojourn, Stott’s visits stretched from Sierra Leone to Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, and down to Rhodesia. Dudley-Smith captured glimpses of these stops (pp. 106-110). Stott’s first trip to the African continent in 1959 focused primarily on meetings in various cities of South Africa, but also added ministry and bird watching stops in Ruanda-Urundi, Uganda, and Kenya.)

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NAIROBI, KENYA. John Stott greets students at the Royal College in Nairobi, Kenya. Paula Holmes is standing at the right beyond Stott. Bob Howarth, who hosted Stott in Nairbobi, may be the man speaking to the bespectacled woman (left).

During this time, Stott was already the rector of All Souls, an Anglican church in London (see him in his clerical collar in one of the images below), Chaplain to the Queen, and vice president IFES. On the stage of independence movements sweeping the globe, Stott’s visit was timely for equipping and inspiring Evangelical students for witness, church involvement, and vocations in countries that were rapidly undergoing decolonization: Sierra Leone (1961), Ghana (1957), Nigeria (1960), Kenya (1963), Uganda (1962), and Zimbabwe (1979). The impact of these students on the growth of the church in the Global South has to be the subject of much further study.

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ACCRA, GHANA. “Rev. John Stott speaking to the members of the Accra Christian Fellowship at Mr. John Agama’s on 29th April, 1962 at 4:30 PM. Sermon: 1 Peter 2:1-11”

Several moments of Stott’s journey were captured by photographers, and the BGC Archives adds to this story through a series of five recently-discovered photographs, found in the Records of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (Collection 640). Although the photographer(s) is not identified, the images depict Stott on campuses in Ghana and Kenya. Among these, we see him addressing a group, meeting students and student leaders of University Christian Fellowship Legon in Accra, Ghana, and with Kenyan student leaders and several IFES staff.

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NAIROBI, KENYA. Stott (left) with unidentified man (possibly Bob Howarth), John and Paula Holmes, and unidentified man, most likely in Nairobi, Kenya. Note Stott’s pair of binoculars around his neck.

Other individuals identified in the photographs are Frank Horton and his wife Paula (center above), and (below) Ghanaian student leaders of UCF Legon, K.A. Ofosuhene (president) and G.K. Gyekye (secretary).

The images for the most part depict what would be expected: Stott speaking, Stott interacting with students. What adds interest to the images and makes them especially germane to understanding John Stott is the battered binocular case hanging from his neck in two of the images, underlining Stott’s lifelong love of nature. An avid and experienced bird watcher, Stott carted his binoculars throughout his Africa tour, always prepared to stop and admire the native avian population.

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ACCRA, GHANA. Stott with K.A. Ofosuhene (left, UCF Legon Pres.) and G.K. Gyekye (right, UCF Legon Sec.) of the University of Ghana. This image offers a closer look at Stott’s binocular case.

The BGC Archives holds a collection of Stott’s papers relating to his involvement in the Lausanne Movement (originals held at Lambeth Palace Library). Materials created by or about Stott appear in other BGC Archives collections as well, especially those that intersect with the Lausanne Movement records, records of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (USA) and its Urbana Student Missionary Conventions, and recollections of him in oral history interviews—Lisa Espineli Chinn in her unprocessed interview, for example, recalls Stott’s visits to meet with staff and students of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship of the Philippines (an IFES member movement). The BGC Archives’ collection of IFES records, which holds these photographs, is currently being processed by Archives staff.

Getting Acquainted with the Archives: A Student Worker’s Perspective

Hannah head shotAbout the author: Hannah Ting is a Wheaton College junior, majoring in anthropology and media communication. She has worked at the Billy Graham Center Archives since August 2017.

Two years ago, I didn’t know exactly what I was signing up for. As a freshman at Wheaton College, I stumbled upon the unique opportunity to become a student worker at the Billy Graham Center Archives. Naively conjuring ambiguous, exaggerated notions of what an archives was and what archivists did, I ventured into the following school year, eager to begin my adventure in the mysterious place on the fourth floor of the Billy Graham Center.

Lo and behold, I was greeted by a wonderful team of staff who showed me the ropes and introduced me to the space. Upon entering the secured storage room which houses most of the Archives’ materials, the scent of old papers and books welcomed my presence. I could sense the plethora of rich history lying in anticipation, waiting to be discovered by the researcher visiting from afar or the curious, locally-based student.

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Hannah refiles an unusually large amount of boxes in the Archives storage area.

Since then, thanks to such patrons who request access to archival materials, I have been kept busy with frequent paging and refiling! In my task of organizing various folders and boxes of documents, I have had the chance to see what topics people are researching about, which is fun especially when I am asked to fetch items for peers whom I recognize!

Gradually, I myself have been able to grow familiar with several collections through projects assigned to me. Throughout my time working at the Archives, I have enjoyed engaging in activities such as organizing accessions, transcribing oral history interviews, and digitizing obsolete reels and cassette tapes. One project I particularly enjoyed was the digitization of lantern slides featuring Christian cartoons illustrated by E. J. Pace (Collection 702).

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Behind the scenes in the BGC Archives, Hannah uses special equipment to scan over 500 fragile lantern slides, dating back to the 1920s.

Sometimes I can’t help but pause in the middle of a job due to being enthralled by a particular image or text. The historical records I come across can be quite amusing and fascinating (as shown through the provocative messages of Pace’s illustrations)!

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One of the  E. J. Pace lantern slides that Hannah digitized in 2018.

More significantly, however, I have come to appreciate the profound wisdom that can be found in the materials. The other day, I was moved to tears as I listened to and transcribed an oral history interview with Helen Ruth Belcher Elliot (Collection 116), in which she told her beautiful testimony of coming to know Christ as a young woman. It has been a humbling and encouraging experience to listen to voices of Christian men and women who have come before, as their stories of abounding faith, hope, and love remain ever-resonant today.

I have been blessed to be part of the BGC Archives community, and I look forward to serving more visitors who come to the Manuscripts Reading Room!

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The staff of the Billy Graham Center Archives at their annual Christmas party in December 2017.


Billy Graham’s “Strange Things”

Last Thursday we marked the one year anniversary of Billy Graham’s passing, the culmination of a remarkable life and legacy. This March, the BGC Archives pauses to commemorate the beginnings of Rev. Graham’s evangelistic ministry as a fledgling undergraduate preacher at Wheaton College in 1941.

The BGC Archives holds thousands of Billy Graham’s sermons and talks, on paper, wire recordings, phonograph records, audio tapes, digital files, films and videos. He delivered these messages in a wide variety of locations and circumstances, both in the United States and abroad, from the Sports Stadium in Berlin where Hitler once orated, to the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference in Monterey, CA, to the National Cathedral in Washington DC after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Of all the Billy Graham sermons the Archives contains, one of the most interesting as well as the earliest in the collection is “Strange Things.”

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The entire sermon outline of “Strange Things,” dated November 5, 1941. Over its lifespan, the document has obviously been folded in half, stored in a three-ring binder, and taped down the middle to hold it open during preaching.

When Graham arrived on the Wheaton College campus as a twenty-one-year-old  freshman in 1941, he had already completed a thorough three-year course in Bible at Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College). In addition to his coursework at FBI, Graham spent hundreds of hours preaching in churches across Florida and Georgia, held several multi-day evangelistic campaigns, and evangelized on street corners, over the radio, and from caravan to caravan in one of the country’s first trailer parks.

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September 13, 1941 article from the Wheaton-based Daily Journal 

After matriculating at Wheaton, Graham continued to preach while a student, accepting invitations from churches across the upper Midwest. Before long, he was called to pastor his very own congregation—the United Gospel Tabernacle in Wheaton, IL. Dubbed “The Tab” by locals, the United Gospel Tabernacle started as a prayer and Bible study group before morphing into a nondenominational church, drawing congregants from both city and college.

In the fall of 1940, the Tab was pastored by V. Raymond Edman, a professor of history  and acting interim president of Wheaton College. When asked to assume the presidency permanently, Edman resigned his role at the Tab and recommended Graham as his replacement. Already familiar with his preaching style, the congregation ratified Graham as their new pastor. Between September 1941, when he became pastor, and June 1943, when he graduated from Wheaton College, Graham preached at the Tabernacle over a hundred times. The Tab was a popular service for Wheaton undergraduates to attend on Sunday evenings, and many who saw and heard him preach there agreed that Graham’s style in later years remained much as the same as his student days. While perhaps a little less vocally and physically enthusiastic, the sermons Graham preached at the Tabernacle were not significantly different from the messages he preached before packed stadiums over the next several decades of evangelistic ministry.

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An advertisement for United Gospel Tabernacle services in The Record, the student newspaper of Wheaton College. August 19, 1942

During Graham’s tenure as pastor, the United Gospel Tabernacle met in the Wheaton Masonic Temple, a few blocks from the college campus.


The Masonic Temple in downtown Wheaton. Though devastated by fire in 1948, the Lodge was rebuilt nearly identical to the original structure.

The rented assembly hall featured a slightly raised platform with a simple pulpit and piano. Every Sunday, volunteers lined the hall with several hundred folding chairs before services commenced with hymns, prayers, and finally a sermon from Graham. His messages were always evangelism-oriented, calling listeners to respond to the call of Jesus Christ. Wheaton undergrad Ann-Lisa Madiera, a classmate of Graham’s and the Tab’s pianist, recalls the young preacher’s energy and conviction:

“He had something to say, and he said it so well, and . . . his whole control of his voice and the crescendos and decrescendos that all went with that message, you know, he was an enthusiastic preacher I would say. . . . He was enthusiastic about the message that he had to give and, well, the fact that the place was full every Sunday says something” (Oral History Interview with Ann-Lisa Madiera, Collection 74, T67.

Another student attendee remembers Graham’s budding talents as a communicator.

“Oh, he was tops. There was no question about it. And I think it was obvious that he was going to go places…. You could sense his heartbeat. That it was really coming from his heart. It wasn’t just knowledge that he picked up in college. I would say that’s the main thing. It came from his heart. You know, you can go to college and get a lot of knowledge, but it doesn’t always get down to the heart….  [His preaching style was] very plain. Very simple, very clear. You couldn’t mistake understanding what he was saying” (Lorraine Payne, Collection 74, T63).

Graham’s reputation as a preacher continued to grow during his undergrad days, and he often arranged for guest speakers at the Tab when he accepted weekend preaching invitations across the Midwest and especially throughout the summer vacation.

Record June 1, 1943

An advertisement from The Record, highlighting the end of the academic term and Billy Graham’s final weeks as the Tab’s pastor. Graham graduated from Wheaton the same month. June 1, 1943.

The BGC Archives holds thousands of sermons Graham preached over the course of his ministry, but only one from his days as the Tab’s pastor—”Strange Things” (Many records from the United Gospel Tabernacle were lost when the interior of the Masonic hall, including the church office, was gutted by fire in 1948). The typed outline below is annotated in what looks like Graham’s handwriting and dated November 5, 1941, only a few weeks after Graham became the pastor of the Tabernacle. November 5th was a Wednesday, so the message may be a Bible study Graham presented during the Wednesday evening prayer meeting, rather than a Sunday sermon. But it contains the same emphasis that his classmates remembered from his sermons—the power of Jesus to confound the world, forgive sins, and save souls.

265-17-149 Strange Things part1

This original manuscript is much worn, possibly reused for multiple preaching occasions, clearly previously folded and held together by clear tape. The number 850 at the top of the first page was one assigned by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association staff many years later, when they created an index of all Graham’s sermons.

265-17-149 Strange Things part2

The sermon outline describes the “strange things” of Jesus—how strange the Pharisees and Sadducees found this man who said such outrageous words, knew their thoughts, and performed miraculous deeds. Graham’s conclusion was a fitting introduction to the message he would continue to preach for the next sixty years: “That man is well saved who can glorify God in his own house. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, but until his sins are forgiven he has lost his chief end.”

A digital copy of “Strange Things” is available to view here on the Billy Graham Sermon Database, along with other sermon outlines and transcripts from the 1940s to the 2000s.

Reminiscences about Graham by his Wheaton College classmates, including his congregants at the United Gospel Tabernacle, are available in Collection 74: Ephemera of Billy Graham.