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.

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.

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Accession 19-29. Beginning of a December 1949 letter from Jim Elliot to Elisabeth Howard.

The men’s death and the decision of the two women to live among them received global coverage in both secular and the religious press and made a deep impression on American Evangelicals. In Ecuador, the growth of a Christian community among the Waorani occurred alongside of the tribe’s increasing and often painful integration into the modern world. Dr. Kathryn Long spent decades researching the story, exploring more than just the deaths of the five men or the biographies of Elisabeth Elliot and Rachael Saint. Dr. Long also wrote about the impact the Waorani had on the world, as well as the impact of the world on the Waorani. Her book, God in the Rain Forest: A Tale of Martyrdom and Redemption in the Amazonian Ecuador was also published in 2019. After its release, she donated her manuscript, research files, interview tapes, and more to the BGC Archives, where they complement and greatly augment our other collections related to the so-called “Auca Incident,” Waorani Christianity, and western missions in Ecuador.

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Accession 19-15. Sample of materials Dr. Long gathered in her research. Top is a carbon copy of a letter from Catherine Peeke, 1971.  Beneath it is a photocopy, with Long’s annotations.  Catherine Peeke also lived among the Waorani and was the chief translator for most of the Waraoni New Testament.

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Accession 19-24. Digitizing Larry Eskridge’s interview tapes

On a completely different note, in 2013 Dr. Larry Eskridge published his award-winning book, God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America, probably the most insightful work  published on this Christian tradition, its history, music, and significance. Among his research activities for the book were interviews with dozens of people who had been leaders in the movement or involved in some other way. Dr. Eskridge allowed the BGC Archives to make digital copies of more than a hundred of these valuable resources that tell this story from late 20th century America.

Another author, Dr. Richard Gehman, was a missionary with Africa Inland Mission and professor at Scott Theological College in Kenya for many years. After his retirement, he made multiple visits to the Archives’ Reading Room researching our African mission collections. His book, From Death to Life: The Birth of the Africa Inland Church in Kenya, 1895-1945 and The Spreading Vineyard: The Growth of the Africa Inland Church, Kenya from 1945 Onward were published in 2014 and 2015 respectively and will likely be the standard works of the subject for many years to come. Dr. Gehman had previously given the Archives multiple boxes of his notes, research files, and rare documents on African Christianity. In 2019, he donated more manuscripts and materials, including the handwritten journal from AIM’s Kangundo station in Kenya.

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Accession 19-19. Title page and first entry from the Kangundo station logbook, ca. 1903.

This was also an excellent year for Elisabeth Elliot materials. Besides the Jim and Elisabeth Elliot letters mentioned above, the Bible Broadcasting Network generously sent us digital copies of Gateway to Joy, her radio program that aired from 1988 to 2001. Late in the year we received a donation of many more boxes of letters, lecture notes, manuscripts, photos, scrapbooks, audio recordings, films, and videos that document not only her time as a Bible translator and missionary in Ecuador, but also her ministry after she returned to the United States to become an influential author, lecturer, professor, and broadcaster.

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Accession 19-31. Photos from Elisabeth Elliot’s scrapbook of her Wheaton College years, 1946-1947

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Accession 19-14. Undated portrait of Robert E. Coleman

This past year was also a significant one for oral histories. Recording and preserving interviews with people involved in sharing the gospel has always an important part of the BGC Archives’ collecting strategy. This year we recorded interviews with indigenous Christian workers from Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya, Uganda and India, in which they described topics as diverse as the AIDs epidemic, African theologian Abeneazer Gezahegn Urga, the church’s response to child marriages in Ethiopia, work among refugees in Greece, Christian social work among the rural poor in India, and college and university ministry in Uganda. We have also recorded many hours of interviews in the past with Robert Coleman, evangelist and professor of evangelism. We recorded another this year, in which he describes his involvement in the Lausanne Movement and his memories of, among others, Billy Graham, Bob Pierce, Paul Cedar, and Franklin Graham, as well as the impact of his book, The Master Plan of Evangelism.

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Accession 19-27. Lantern slides, a Chinese New Testament, and notebooks of training lectures for missionaries from the papers of Robert Glover.

The history of Evangelical, nondenominational, global missions has always been an important priority in our collecting. This year we received two particularly significant additions. One was the files from Africa Inland Mission’s TIMO program to give American seminary and university students long-term (up to two years) experience in cross-cultural service in different parts of Africa. The other was the papers of Robert Glover—longtime leader of China Inland Mission—and digital copies of the Chefoo Schools alumni newsletter. Chefoo is the name given to the schools for missionary children in China and later throughout East and Southeast Asia.

We even collected some interesting Billy Graham materials in 2019. Douglas Yeo gave us a copy of his interview with Cliff Barrows, Graham’s long term choir leader, for Yeo’s book on the history of the trombone. We also received a fine set of snapshots from the 1981 Billy Graham Baltimore Crusade from photographer Joel Fetzer, and the testimony of a woman who had been converted at a Youth for Christ meeting Graham held in Wales in 1946.

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Accession 19-25. Transcript of Myrtle James’s testimony, who was converted a 1946 Youth for Christ meeting in Wales led by Billy Graham.

At the very end of the year we received one more accession that was both an author collection and a missions collection. In 1944, Jane McNally, Wheaton class of ’39, sailed from America around the Cape of Good Hope to arrive in India, where she spent the next four decades as a TEAM (The Evangelical Alliance Mission) worker. Almost all of it was spent as the director of the Light of Light correspondence course, which taught Biblical knowledge to new Christians and eventually was available in 22 languages on the subcontinent. McNally also founded Light of Life magazine in 1957 and Good Shepard Academy in 1983. After retirement and return to the United States, she wrote The Abuse of Christian Women in India and Remedy in Twelve Biblical Studies on Equality of Man and Woman in 1997. Jane McNally passed away in 2013, and last month we received boxes of her correspondence, writings, and 1944 thesis, “The Place of Women in the New Testament,” written when she was the first woman student in Dr. Henry Thiessen’s theology department at Wheaton College.

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Accession 19-37. Note to Jane McNally from one of the users of her correspondence course.

There are many more accessions we could brag about of equal importance and interest. But we hope this gives our researchers an idea of the riches we were entrusted with in 2019 and what we hope is a promise of what we will receive in 2020.

“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.

This December, the Billy Graham Center Archives remembers the lives and spiritual legacies of John and Betty Stam, killed by communist soldiers in Anhui Province, China eighty-five years ago this month and showcases a few items from the Stam Family Papers and China Inland Mission Records (now Overseas Missionary Fellowship).

From Moody to the Mission Field
Stam Portrait

Undated portrait of John Stam (1907-1934) and Elisabeth Scott Stam (1906-1934).

The oldest child of Presbyterian missionaries, Elisabeth Scott was born in Albion, Michigan but raised on the mission field in China. From a young age, Betty felt called to a life of spiritual sacrifice and missionary service (see Collection 449 for examples of her poetry) and after graduating from Wilson College in Pennsylvania with a stellar academic record, she enrolled at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago for further training in missions work. A major hub of missionary training in the 1930s, Moody Bible Institute also drew John Stam, another young missionary candidate intended for the mission field in China.

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Portrait of John Stam, taken on the rooftop of Moody Bible Institute a week before his graduation. April 14, 1932.

While at Moody, John and Betty’s friendship developed into love, but the couple postponed the possibility of marriage as John was convinced his first years in China would be spent in rural regions too dangerous to for a family.

A year ahead of John in the program, Betty graduated from Moody Bible Institute in 1931 and sailed for China under the auspices of China Inland Mission, where she completed six months of language school.

China Inland Mission officially accepted John Stam’s missionary application in July 1932, and he sailed for the mission field three months later. After landing in China, John unexpectedly met Betty again in Shanghai where she was receiving medical treatment for tonsillitis, and the pair became formally engaged.

John Stam and Betty Scott were married by American evangelist R. A. Torrey on October 25, 1933 in the Scott’s garden in Jinan, China.

Stam Wedding

John and Betty Stams’ wedding portrait. The ceremony was performed by R.A. Torrey (fourth from left) at the home of Betty’s parents (second and third from right) in Jinan, China. October 25, 1933.

The Stams spent the year following their wedding completing further language school and preparing to join the CIM mission work in Jingde. The fledgling mission station at Jingde was only five years old when the Stams replaced the Warrens, a missionary couple due for furlough. In 1934, the region surrounding Jingde was reeling from more than eight years of civil war, plagued by bandits and outbreaks of violence between Chinese Nationalist and Communist forces. After a brief stay in Wuhu, where Helen Priscilla was born in Wuhu Hospital in September, the Stams returned to Jingde in mid-November after the district magistrate personally guaranteed the their safety from communist attack.

“Things Happened So Quickly This A.M.”

Two weeks later, on December 6, Jingde fell to a sudden attack by the communist forces. Moving from house to house, communist soldiers plundered the city. The Stams, along with household staff, were in their home when soldiers appeared, demanding money and valuables. After surrendering their possessions, the Stams were marched to the local jail, where their captors discussed killing Helen Priscilla and forced John to write a ransom note to China Inland Mission headquarters in Shanghai demanding 20,000 dollars for their release (see transcription below). The Stams spent the night in prison, and the ransom note was never delivered. The next day, the foreign hostages were forced to walk twelve miles to neighboring Miaosheo, where they spent the night in an abandoned house. On the morning of December 8, John and Betty were paraded through the city to their execution. When a local Chinese merchant, Chang Hsiu-sheng, pleaded with authorities to spare the couple, soldiers searched his home. Finding a bible and hymnbook among his possessions, they arrested Chang Hsiu-sheng and killed him the next day. The Stams were forced up a hill outside Miaosheo, where they were executed by decapitation at the summit. Their bodies were left behind by the evacuating soldiers.

The “Miracle Baby”
Helen Priscilla

Three-month old Helen Priscilla Stam, where she was found in an abandoned farmhouse two days after her parents’ deaths.

As the Red Army moved out of Miaosheo, a local Christian evangelist, Lo Ke-chou and his family, cautiously returned to their plundered city, where they were told about the deaths of two foreigners. Having met John Stam only weeks before, Pastor Lo recovered the Stams’ bodies and began a frantic hunt for their missing daughter. Retracing the Stams final steps led Pastor Lo and other local Christians to the abandoned home where John and Betty spent their final night. Inside they heard faint crying and found Helen Priscilla hidden in her mother’s sleeping bag with several clean diapers and two five dollar bills.

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Helen Priscilla balanced in a rice basket with her rescuers, Pastor Lo (left) and his wife (third from right). December 1934.

Pastor Lo hastily arranged a funeral for the murdered missionaries and arranged to carry Helen Priscilla to safety. Traveling northward, Pastor Lo and his family carried Helen Priscilla and their four year old son in rice baskets through the mountainous regions surrounding Jingde, using the ten dollars Betty concealed with Helen Priscilla to buy powdered milk for her. On December 14, nearly a week after the Stams’ murder, the Lo family trudged into Xuancheng, in southeastern Anhui Province and delivered the baby to George Birch at the local CIM mission station. Within hours, the Stam family in Paterson, New Jersey received Robert Glover’s telegram: “Stam Baby Safe.” Transferred to Wuhu Hospital where she had been born three months earlier Helen Priscilla was examined by doctors and declared a “miracle baby.” Shortly afterward, the baby was sent to her maternal grandparents in Jinan, where she lived until the age of five.

Becoming Missionary Mythology
Helen with Chinese Girls

Baby Helen Priscilla with Chinese schoolgirls in Jinan, China in early 1935, where her maternal grandparents lived.

The Stams’ death sent shock waves throughout China Inland Mission and American Fundamentalist circles, as authorities scrambled to uncover how the missionary couple were allowed to return to Jingde despite the Red Army’s presence in the region, and details slowly emerged about the Stams capture and final days. A full month after the couple’s death, Robert Glover sent the following letter to the Stam Family in New Jersey, still piecing together the timeline of events and providing a copy of John Stam’s final written words.

Letter to Cornelius Stam

From CN 499, Box 1, Folder 5. Letter from CIM North America Home Director to the Stam Family in Paterson, New Jersey a month after the Stams’ death.

In January 1935, the bodies of John and Betty Stam were reinterred in the foreigners’ cemetery outside Wuhu, Anhui Province at the request of the governor.

Stam Coffins

The coffins of John and Betty Stam, as they arrived under military escort at Wuhu General Hospital for reburial in January 1934.

 

Headstone

Headstone for John and Betty Stam in Wuhu, Wuhu, Anhui Province, China.

Today, the Stams are honored as China Inland Mission martyrs, and for years afterwards the compelling narrative of their tragic deaths and the rescue of the “miracle baby” has become part of twentieth-century missionary mythology. The Stams’ sacrificial deaths are often cited as galvanizing a new generation of missionary candidates, including 700 young people at Moody Bible Institute, the Stams alma mater, and 200 at nearby Wheaton College, all pledging to follow the Stams example of selfless Christian service and echoing John Stam’s final message to his missionary colleagues: “The Lord bless and guide you—and as for us—may God be glorified whether by life or by death.”

The BGC Archives’ fullest account of the Stams’ brief ministry and final days in China are recorded in a packet of letters from missionaries serving in Anhui Province to the Stam family in New Jersey in the weeks following John and Betty’s death. Included below is the extended letter from George Birch, who delivered Helen Priscilla safely to Wuhu Hospital in December 1934. For more of these letters, see Collection 449, Box 1, Folder 5.

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The items featured in this post and many others documenting the life and ministry of the Stams are found in BGC Archives Collection 449: Ephemera of the Stam Family. More information about the Stams’ deaths and China Inland Mission’s response to the crisis is found in Collection 215: Records of Overseas Missionary Fellowship.

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.

Plymire, Victor

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.

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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.

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“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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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).

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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.”