Letters from Lisuland: The Ministry of Isobel Kuhn

A portrait of Isobel Miller taken for her missionary application to China Inland Mission. ca. 1927.

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.

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Autographs as Artifacts

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.

Cover

The worn cover of Edna Asher Case’s autograph album held in Collection 197 Papers of Virginia Healey Asher, Folder 1-1.

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

“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.

Telegram

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. Continue reading