The Form & the Message: Letterheads in the Archives

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.

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Evangelical Protestantism as a Global Tradition in the 20th Century: The J. Edwin Orr Papers

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In 1931, a bakery clerk began to hold evangelistic meetings in the streets of his home town of Belfast, Ireland. The next year he set off on a lifelong journey that would take him around the world to stadiums and tiny churches and academic lecture halls. It was a ministry and vocation which included rigorous historical scholarship into deep spiritual mysteries and enthusiastic preaching to crowds of seekers.

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 Orr speaking to a group of university students in India, 1956.

Collection 355: Papers of J. Edwin Orr, not only tell Orr’s life story, but also documents Protestant evangelicalism around the world in every continent except Antarctica. This June, the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives is pleased to announce that this greatly expanded collection can now be used by Christian workers, scholars, and the general public. Continue reading