History is all about context. Usually this means the wider circumstances, including what lead up to the events we study and the mental word of the people we seek to understand. But it has a physical aspect too – the material objects that surround people, shaped by and shaping the culture of which they are a part.
Take, for example, the letterhead – the pre-printed part of a piece of stationary that gives the sender’s name, address and other information. Any archivist or scholar who goes through hundreds or thousands of letters will find amazing variety in this simple device.
Some state their data with clipped simplicity, some overflow with the sender’s beliefs, principles, mottos, and images to such a degree that they easily dominate whatever sentences can be squeezed into the remaining white space of the page.
The ability of the physical page to communicate as well as the words upon it is illustrated by the correspondence of J. Edwin Orr (1912-1987). In 2020, the Archives opened Collection 355, the papers of Orr, an influential evangelist and scholar who exchanged thousands of letters worldwide with people over half a century of ministry. What he and his correspondents wrote to each other is fascinating, insightful, and instructive. But what they wrote upon, the stationary itself, can also be charming, illustrative, and sometimes weird, quietly (or not so quietly) conveying its own message and tone.
Maps are a common feature of archival collections, and the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives is no exception. The Archives’ oversize storage cases contain a wide variety of maps—thematic, navigational, topographical, and even blueprints—used for diverse range of research topics and as a popular tool in archival instruction sessions. As primary sources, maps require a specific set of skills to “read” and interpret. Like all items held in the Archives, maps are social documents, reflecting both the intentions and abilities of their creators (cartographers) as well as the needs and expectations of their anticipated users. Maps tell stories. While a single map can capture a landscape, metropolitan grid, or continent frozen in time, a series of maps can document gradual or abrupt change, like shifting national or regional boundaries, erosion of natural landmarks, or rapid urbanization. No map, however extensive or detailed, can be entirely authoritative. They are not neutral documents—maps reveal the political and cultural perspectives and biases of their creators. They can erase as well as document borders, languages, people groups, or landmarks. Finally, maps are frequently described in purely functional terms, providing information and direction to users, but in many cases they are also highly ornamental, utilizing artistic techniques to feature specific geographical or topographical features.
Valentines in July? It is as good a month as February, actually. Although the feast day of Valentine is celebrated in the Western tradition on February 14, there is an equally strong tradition in the Eastern Orthodox Church for commemorating St. Valentine on July 6th. So this is indeed a month for valentines
Why are there valentines in the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives? As mentioned in previous blogs, archives and manuscript repositories always include many unexpected odds and ends. A collection of personal papers can include a myriad of different objects and artifacts documenting the creator’s mundane daily activities as well the events, ideas, and milestones the creator is best known for. A good example of this is Elisabeth Elliot’s Memory Book. Elliot (1926-1915), a Bible translator and missionary to Ecuador, is perhaps best known as the author of several bestselling books narrating the death of her husband Jim, killed by members of the Waorani tribe in Ecuador in 1956, and her own later experiences living with the Waorani after that tragic event.
Elliot became an influential evangelical writer, speaker, and teacher in the second half of the 20th century. But her Memory Book in the Archives precedes her famous ministry, when she was just Elisabeth Howard, known to her friend and family as Betty or Bets. The scrapbook reflects the interests of a young girl in her pre-teen and teen years. Its contents includes letters, photos, postcards, hair curls, paper dresses, maps, early writings, and much more, covering the period of approximately to 1938 to 1943 as well as comments Elliot later wrote in the book as an adult . A map of the 1939 New York World’s Fair contained in the Memory Book was featured in a previous blog post. And among all this wonderful memorabilia are Valentine cards Elliot received at school on February 14, 1940, when she was 13 years old.
Earlier this year, the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives marked the 65th anniversary of the death of Wheaton alumnus Jim Elliot and four other American missionaries in Ecuador at the hands of Waorani tribe members in January 1956. The shocking event became an instant media sensation among evangelicals and the general public in the United States. The five missionaries—particularly Jim Elliot—were praised as examples of heroic dedication to Christian evangelism following their deaths, due in large part to the literary efforts of Jim’s widow, Elisabeth Elliot, who chronicled the now-famous story in Through Gates of Splendor (1957) and secured her husband’s place in post-war missionary mythology through the publication of his journals, Shadow of the Almighty, in 1958. The Archives’ digital exhibit To Carry the Light Further explores this fascinating narrative of missionary martyrdom through photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, and diary entries held in the Archives’ collections.
The death of the five men remains a perpetually fascinating story in American evangelical circles today, and the Elliot papers are among the most popular collections in the Archives’ holdings. Archival materials relating to the other Ecuador martyrs have also found their way to the Archives over the years, adding new dimensions to the story of the Waorani. Those collections include the papers of Peter Fleming’s brother Kenneth, and widow Olive, as well as Ed and Marilou McCully. Just this year, the Archives opened Collection 721, a recent donation of papers containing significant correspondence from Jim Elliot to his parents, Fred and Clara, and their own response in the wake of his shocking death.
Across the wide distances of global missions, a key relationship for many missionaries remained that of their connection to their homeland, supporting churches, and missionary societies. Even as missionaries forged new ties on the mission field they also reached back to the old, to share successes and failures, the wonders and terrors of new lands, and key to their work, elicit financial and spiritual support for their mission. Many materials in the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives document these important ties between the mission field and the homeland, from prayer letters, to missionary cards, to photographs and films.
This month we celebrate the dynamic interplay between missionaries and their supporters at home by featuring a new collection added to the Archives this spring, Collection 720: The Papers of Louise H. Pierson, composed of a single scrapbook with flower pressings, pictures, newsletters, and other mission memorabilia from the world and work of Louise Pierson and other women missionaries in South and East Asia during the late nineteenth century.
The event of a lifetime has become the opportunity of a lifetime!” So claimed the flashy mass marketing letter inviting one and all to the Chicago Convention Campaign. Spearheaded by Torrey Johnson, the tireless president of Youth for Christ, and drawing widespread support from churches and religious leaders across the Upper Midwest, the 1952 Convention Campaign offers a glimpse into mid-century mass evangelism efforts, particularly the potent combination of evangelistic and patriotic fervor.
This July, the Wheaton College Billy Graham Archives highlights the evangelistic ministry of Eugene Blackstone (1841-1935), a self-educated American businessman, evangelist, and author, perhaps best known as the creator of the Blackstone Memorial, a petition calling for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
A fervent dispensationalist, Blackstone’s belief in the imminent return of Jesus Christ spurred his interest in Jewish evangelism and commitment to Christian Zionism. Blackstone played a prominent role in founding the Chicago Hebrew Mission (later American Messianic Fellowship) and became its first superintendent in 1889. He also served as the sole trustee of the Milton Stewart Evangelistic Fund, which financially supported Jewish evangelism efforts in far-flung corners of the globe. Recipients of the Milton Fund include Bible colleges, seminaries, and parachurch organizations, stretching from Poland to Palestine and New York City to Korea. Blackstone’s correspondents included professors, evangelists, missionaries, and administrators serving with the likes of the American Bible Society; All Russian Union of Evangelical Christians; Barbican Mission to the Jews; China Inland Mission (Blackstone’s parents were missionaries to China); Mount Carmel Bible School, Haifa; New York Gospel Mission to the Jews; and Women’s Bible Institute, Korea, among many others. In addition to his evangelistic efforts, Blackstone also authored multiple works, including Satan: His Kingdom and its Overthrow, The Millennium, and the the best-selling Jesus is Coming, which was translated into multiple languages.
The photograph montage above of the founders of the Chicago Hebrew Mission (1887) illustrates Blackstone’s central place in the organization. He is in the center right oval, wearing spectacles. The image is found in “Twenty-Five Years of Blessing,” a commemorative pamphlet published in 1913. From Collection 540, Box 1, Folder 1.
The cover of a well-used copy of “The Story of a Nail” curriculum kit held in Small Collection 113. Undated.
Storytelling is a ubiquitous tool in evangelism efforts—The Archives’ collections are replete with examples of evangelists, missionaries, and lay preachers wielding the power of simple narratives to explain the Christian gospel. While the most famous example of storytelling evangelism might be The Jesus Film (1979), sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ, many parachurch organizations have developed their own curricula for communicating biblical stories or theological concepts with dance, music, puppets, posters, flannelgraph, mime, and more.
This May, the Archives features “The Story of a Nail,” an evangelism kit using a simple narrative and illustrations to present the story of the crucifixion. Originally developed for radio broadcast by Bob Pierce, founder of both Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision, “The Story of a Nail” was later published as a pamphlet with eight illustrated panels. The pamphlet includes tips and techniques for presenting “The Story of a Nail” to Sunday school classes, Vacation Bible School audiences, and other groups using the “flash card” method to match the colorful panels to narrative cues. Presenters are encouraged to memorize the KJV scripture verses in advance and to maintain eye contact throughout the story. Continue reading →
In the 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 Wheaton College 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.
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 →
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.
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 →