Missionaries often find themselves in disparate places all over the world, and even though their primary role is not to be photographers, many have a camera in hand to capture the landscape, people, rituals, homes, costumes, daily activities, ministry activities, staff group shots, and more. Sometimes the images are intended for use in prayer letters or marketing efforts by their agency or sending church. Other times missionaries, like amateur anthropologists, are perhaps among the first to photograph a people group, such as Elisabeth Elliot’s shots of the Waodani people in Ecuador.
As we archivists say to budding researchers, understanding why a document is created (including photographs) is one key to interpreting the document. Knowing the original contexts and the intended use of these photographs helps us understand them more deeply.
World War II not only commanded the world’s attention and shaped international politics but also proved to be a decisive moment for missions’ history. Young American men and women military personnel traveled the world, saw the war’s devastation, and came face-to-face with the spiritual needs of the local populations. Their war experiences shaped the college educations they returned to the U.S. to complete and the futures they later stepped into.
But the context they returned to was also evolving. American Evangelicals were emerging from their isolation following the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920s to take a more active role in church, political, entertainment, education, and business spheres. The National Association of Evangelicals was formed, the roots of Billy Graham’s ministry were already taking hold, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Navigators, and Campus Crusade for Christ were established on college and university campuses, and Youth for Christ was on the move among American high school students. Out of this convergence of factors grew new mission agencies, including the Far Eastern Gospel Crusade (FEGC), now known as SEND International.
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.
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.
For a brief moment in 1941, the attention of the Western world was transfixed by the unknown fate of the Zamzam, an aging cargo and passenger ship en route from the United States to Cape Town, South Africa. Built in 1909 as a British luxury liner and christened Leicestershire, the vessel was requisitioned to carry British troops during World War I. In peacetime, the steamer was purchased by an Egyptian company and renamed in honor of the Zamzam Well in Mecca, a holy site for Muslim pilgrims. Over the next decade, the Zamzam served primarily as a passenger ship ferrying pilgrims to the holy city of Mecca, but by 1940, its ownersbroadened services to transatlantic travelers and cargo. On March 20, 1941, the Zamzam sailed from Hoboken, New Jersey for Alexandria, Egypt, with planned stops at Baltimore, Trinidad, Recife, Cape Town, and Mombasa. Between passengers and crew, the Zamzam featured a truly international cast of characters—the Scottish captain and chief engineer, Greek stewards, Egyptian and Sudanese crew, and passengers from around the globe. The Zamzam’s passenger list featured 202 names, including twenty-four members of the British-American Ambulance Corps, traveling to North Africa to serve as noncombatants with the Allied forces. But the largest passenger contingent by far was American and British missionaries bound for Africa. Over 140 Christian workers, including 17 Roman Catholics and members of twenty-one Protestant denominational and independent faith missions, boarded the Zamzam, eager to begin Christian service across the African continent. But the aging steamer never reached its home port in Alexandria. In the early hours of April 17, 1941, the unarmed civilian vessel was shelled and sunk by the German surface raider, Atlantis, off the coast of southwestern Africa. This April, the Archives highlights the voices of missionaries who survived the final voyage of the Zamzam, a straightforward transatlantic crossing turned international event, eighty years ago this month.
In celebration of Women’s History Month, the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives commemorates the many women whose unique voices and stories are preserved in our collections and who labored—in the public eye or in obscurity—in faithful Christian services as missionaries, writers, doctors, preachers, musicians, evangelists, and more. This March, the Archives highlights the ministry of Isobel Miller Kuhn, author and long-term missionary with her husband John to the Lisu people of southwest China and Thailand from 1928-1954 under the auspices of China Inland Mission. The Kuhns’ nearly three decade service with China Inland Mission is documented in the organization’s records, including the couple’s voluminous newsletters, a CIM-published biography of Isobel, and John’s report on missionary evacuations from China in 1951, following the Chinese Communist Revolution. Isobel Kuhn’s personal papers, including prayer letters, photographs, correspondence, and articles, are described in Collection 435: Ephemera of Isobel Miller Kuhn, and provide a glimpse into the daily struggles and joys of missionary service—the loneliness and isolation of rural evangelism and church planting, the breathtaking beauty of remote Yunnan Province, Lisu culture and customs, and her own deep Christian faith.
This December, the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives highlights the ninth triennial InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) Student Missionary Convention held 50 years ago this month. The traditional climax of IVCF’s ministry year, the five-day conference exists to mobilize college students for Christian evangelism, on university campuses across the globe. Since its first iteration in 1946, dubbed the “International Student Convention for Missionary Advance” held in Toronto, Canada, thousands of students from North America and around the world have dedicated themselves to the work of Christian evangelism and discipleship after hearing the likes of Billy Graham, John Stott, Stacey Woods, David Howard, Samuel Escobar, Elisabeth Elliot, and Francis Schaeffer describe the challenge and call of world evangelization. Today, significant numbers of men and women in full-time Christian service can trace their vocational inspiration back to an “Urbana” convention.
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.
As the Wheaton College 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 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.
Every once in a while, acquisitions in a given year seem to follow a specific theme. In 2018 we received several large collections of private papers by prominent figures in evangelistic ministry, including Merrill Dunlop, Luis Palau, Merv Rosell, and George Beverly Shea. On the other hand, 2019 was the year of the authors. Individuals who had written significant books on evangelism and /or evangelical history contributed their research files, which included boxes and boxes of letters, transcripts, audio recordings, photos, and more that they had gathered. For example, Valarie Elliot Shepard donated the letters her parents had written to each other during their courtship, which formed the basis of her book, Devoted: The Personal Letters and Love Story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot (2019) The gift also included Jim Elliot’s papers from his days as a Wheaton College student. The Elliots were best known for their involvement in evangelism among the Waorani people of Ecuador. The Waorani had never heard the Christian gospel, and Jim and five other men formed a project to reach them. On January 6, 1956 after an initial friendly contact, all five men were killed by members of the tribe. In October 1958, Elisabeth, along with Rachael Saint, the sister of one of the five, and three-year old Valerie traveled into the jungle to live among the Waorani and begin the work that was to bring many of them to faith in Jesus Christ.