Autographs as Artifacts

In the BGC Archives’ collections, personal signatures are everywhere, littering correspondence, membership rosters, covenants, and random scraps of paper. These signatures come in all shapes and sizes, some deliberate and others barely more than doodles—breezy nicknames closing a letter, hasty initials scrawled on a memo, or elaborate signatures finalizing deeds and contracts, or legitimizing passports. Occasionally, signatures are accompanied by additional information, like a favorite biblical text, personal motto, illustrations, or decorative flourishes. Depending on the size and style of handwriting, signatures can give researchers insight into a subject’s personality, level of education, and even nationality.

This April, the Billy Graham Center Archives features the autograph album of Edna Asher Case (1905-1999), a Chicago native and 1929 graduate of Wheaton College. In the 1920s, autograph albums were a popular way to document and remember the places and people you encountered and to exchange personal messages. Case’s autograph album—a slim 4×6 leather bound book with brightly-colored pages—offers readers today a glimpse into the bustling world of 1920s American evangelistic fervor, captured in the sprawling signatures and well wishes of celebrity revivalists, musicians, and urban social work crusaders who spread the gospel through revival meetings and rescue missions in the city that came to epitomize the Jazz Age.

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The worn cover of Edna Asher Case’s autograph album held in BGC Archives Collection 197 Papers of Virginia Healey Asher, Folder 1-1.

Born in 1905 to parents deeply involved in evangelism work in Chicago and St. Louis, Edna’s childhood coincided with the pinnacle of Billy Sunday’s revival ministry. Sunday’s traveling evangelistic team included Edna’s aunt, the vocalist and speaker, Virginia Healey Asher. Through her aunt’s connections, Edna was introduced to many of the leading evangelists and revival preachers of the early twentieth century whose signatures and personal messages fill her autograph book. The album contains dated entries spanning 1922-1929, and ranges from Chicago to Winona Lake, Indiana. Continue reading

“This is My Story, This is My Song”: Celebrating Two Centuries of Fanny Crosby

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Fanny Crosby in 1895. Accession 15-01.

When commemorating National Women’s History Month, the BGC Archives could celebrate any number of extraordinary women represented in its collections: author and missionary Elisabeth Elliot, evangelist Helen “Ma” Sunday, prison preacher Rev. Consuella York, Mission Aviation Fellowship pilot Betty Greene, Holocaust-survivor and author Corrie ten Boom, faith-healer and evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman, and many others. But this March, the BGC Archives remembers poet, hymnist, composer, social reformer, and public speaker, Fanny Crosby (1820-1915), born two hundred years ago this month.

Although she could print little more than her name, Fanny Crosby became the most prolific American hymnist of the nineteenth century, writing thousands of sacred songs, sometimes composing up to six or seven hymns a day. Her most famous works include “Blessed Assurance”, “To God be the Glory”, “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior”, and “Safe in the Arms of Jesus.” A household name in her lifetime, Fanny Crosby’s compositions still litter hymnals across American Protestant denominations today. Crosby’s enduring popularity is a testimony not only to the extraordinary volume of her musical corpus but also to the simplicity and power of her lyrics to convict, comfort, and inspire audiences around the globe.

In addition to photographs, song books, and memorabilia, the BGC Archives holds nearly 2,400 original manuscripts of Crosby’s hymns and poetry, composed between 1862 and 1915. The majority of the manuscripts are numbered and dated, a helpful guide for researchers tracing Crosby’s immense literary output. The finding aid for Collection 35: Papers of Fanny Crosby provides more details about these materials. Continue reading

Remembering Consuella York, the “Jail Preacher”

York PortraitThis February, in celebration of African-American History Month, the Billy Graham Center Archives commemorates the life and spiritual legacy of Rev. Consuella York (1923-1995), the “Jail Preacher,” and showcases a few items from her personal papers.

Affectionately known as “Mother York,” she ministered in the Cook County correctional system for over 43 years, bringing the Christian message of love and redemption to inmates and correctional officers alike.

Born and raised in Chicago, Consuella York demonstrated an early aptitude for preaching, inherited from her Baptist preacher father. In her 1988 oral history interviews held in the BGC Archives, York recalls winning a prize for oratory in 1948 and shortly afterward entered the Chicago Baptist Institute, where she studied advanced homiletics and pastoral theology, despite the fact that her church denomination did not ordain women as clergy members or allow them to preach. In the same oral history interview, York describes the day 1952 that changed the direction of her life: Continue reading

Ring in the New, Accession the Old

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Accession 19-31. A portion of the Elisabeth Elliot Gren papers, which were donated in 2019 by her husband, Lars Gren, with assistance from Kathy and David Reeg.

As the Billy Graham Center Archives greets New Year 2020, we remember with thanks the accessions of 2019. Every profession has its own special terminology, rarely used by those outside it. Architects have muntin. Archivists have accession. We share the word with libraries, museums, and some monarchs. As a verb (in archival usage), to accession or accessioning means logging a new item into our collections. As a noun, it refers to an individual addition, which might be a single photograph or hundreds of boxes of correspondence. Archivists accept diverse material from a wide variety of sources and are much more inclined to collect than divest materials (although in recent years deaccessioning has become more of a priority among institutions). For the BGC Archives, 2019 will always be remembered as the year when the records from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association that had been deposited in the Archives were returned to the BGEA at its request. But it was also a year that brought a variety of significant, unusual, and wonderful additions.

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Accession 19-34. Undated photo of the staff of the American Sunday School Union. An example of the many individual items sent to us unsolicited by kind donors.

Continue reading

“Stam Baby Safe”: Remembering John and Betty Stam

The telegram contained only a single sentence: “Cablegram from mission headquarters Shanghai reports Stam baby safe Wuhu.”

Viewed today, the fragile, yellowing Western Union message is unremarkable, but to Peter Stam, its original recipient in Paterson, New Jersey, the telegram furnished yet another detail in a still-unfolding tragedy on the other side of the world. But this time it was good news. Signed by Robert Glover, longtime North America Home Director for China Inland Mission, the telegram announced to desperate, waiting relatives that their  granddaughter was alive and safe at Wuhu General Hospital in Anhui Province, China, the same institution where she had been born three months earlier. Only now, she was an orphan.

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Telegram sent by Robert Glover, China Inland Mission Home Director for North America from 1929-1943. The original telegram is found in Collection 449: Ephemera of the Stam Family.

The deaths of John and Betty Stam at the hands of communist soldiers and the “miraculous” survival of their daughter, Helen Priscilla, have been documented in multiple books, articles, blogs, and testimonies over the decades, becoming something of twentieth-century American evangelical missionary lore. Much like Jim Elliot and the “Auca Incident” twenty years later, the Stams’ deaths shocked American Fundamentalists, heightening anxiety over the spread of global communism and inspiring a new generation of missions efforts. Continue reading

Still “Geared to the Times, Anchored to the Rock”: Celebrating 75 Years of Youth for Christ

“‘What are you doing? Can’t we do it here? How do you get started?” And we did everything we possibly could to help everybody we possibly could. And they came here, and we sent people out there, and we were busy” (CN 285, Tape 3).

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Torrey Johnson, founding member and first president of Youth for Christ.

“Busy” is how Torrey Maynard Johnson describes the explosion of interest in youth evangelism stemming from the runaway success of Youth for Christ evangelistic rallies in Chicago in 1944. In a 1984 oral history interview with BGC Archives staff, Johnson recalls the rapid emergence of Youth for Christ during World War II, a movement that innovated evangelism practices—specifically targeting young people—launched the career of a young Billy Graham, and became an international phenomenon still ministering to young adults today.

This November, the Billy Graham Center Archives celebrates seventy-five years of Youth for Christ, and explores the origins and early rallies of Youth for Christ in Chicago prior to its formal establishment in November 1944. Continue reading

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. Continue reading