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.
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
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.
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
As a major research center dedicated to evangelism and global missions, the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center 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.
This August, the 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. Continue reading