Getting Lost in the Archives: A Conversation with Dr. Amber Thomas Reynolds

Thomas HeadshotThis September, we sat down with Dr. Amber Thomas Reynolds—Wheaton College Grad School alumna and archives enthusiast—and plied her with questions about the challenges, joys, and adventures of archival research. A longtime patron of the BGC Archives, Dr. Reynolds relied heavily on our resources for both her MA thesis at Wheaton College and PhD dissertation at the University of Edinburgh. Currently serving as a guest assistant professor at Wheaton College, Dr. Reynolds can be found in the history department, where she is teaching World History Since 1500 and US Pop Culture Since 1900 this semester.

When and how were you first introduced to the BGC Archives?

I believe it was [Wheaton Professor Emerita] Edith Blumhofer’s Modern World Christianity course during my Wheaton MA that provided my first research experience, way back in 2008!  Our class came to the archives, Bob Shuster led the introduction and showed us documents, and then we were assigned to select a collection pertinent to missions/world Christianity. I can’t recall exactly which collection I chose but it included letters from missionaries stationed in 1970s Uganda, as the political situation worsened prior to Idi Amin [Collection 81: Records of Africa Inland Mission]. The material’s vividness and real-world relevance really surprised me.

What kinds of research projects have led you to the BGC Archives’ collections?

My Wheaton master’s thesis on former Christianity Today editor Harold Lindsell and the evangelical controversy over biblical inerrancy was my first major research project. There was sooo much correspondence! Since then, I’ve completed many proxy research jobs for non-resident scholars, covering a variety of collections such as the China Inland Mission and the Fellowship Foundation.

My Edinburgh PhD thesis research explored ideas popularized in major parachurch youth ministries organized after World War II, including Youth for Christ, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and Campus Crusade for Christ. The BGCA houses the main collections for the first two organizations and a smaller collection on the latter.

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Wheaton College students using a 1920s photo album during an instruction session.

I’ve also just finished a chapter for an edited volume on the Charismatic Renewal. My contribution argues that key neo-evangelicals, still very committed to the Keswick perspective on the spirit-filled life, supported belief in miracles, especially physical healing, and were more open to belief in the gift of tongues than has been acknowledged in the literature. For this chapter I’ve used archival material on V. Raymond Edman, President of Wheaton College (1941-65), and Robert Walker, Founder-Editor of Christian Life magazine (1948-86).

In my teaching for Wheaton’s history department, I have brought my students in a course I developed on twentieth-century US pop culture to the BGCA, as well. In addition to the major evangelical magazines (CT, Christian Life) available in Special Collections, Buswell Library, I assign issues of the Wheaton College student newspaper (The Record) from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80, which are housed in the BGCA Reading Room. Students are fascinated by the ways evangelicals readily imbibed some pop-culture trends—consumerism, e.g.—while continuing to renounce others, like dancing.  In addition, they are able to put current socio-political debates into historical context: Change a few names and details, and many of the editorials from the ‘70s could be reprinted today.

What kinds of collections have you used most heavily and how were they applicable to your topic?

For my dissertation, the records of Youth for Christ; InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and new material from the Urbana Missions Conference; the papers of Herbert J. Taylor; the Fellowship Foundation; some material from the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association; and the Billy Graham pamphlet sermons.

Youth for Christ Poster

Poster advertising YFC’s 1946 International European Farewell Rally in Detroit, featuring the preaching talents of a young Billy Graham.

Youth for Christ and IVCF were particularly useful, as their highschool-and university-age constituencies were prime audiences for messages on discerning God’s plan for their education, work, spouses, and missionary service. Within these collections you will find conference addresses, promotional literature, organizational procedures, administrative correspondence, etc., awash with assumptions about God’s guidance. In addition, the philanthropist Herbert J. Taylor’s papers showcase the early beginnings of these organizations in the 1940s.

The Fellowship Foundation papers include copies of the monthly newsletter and material on Richard Halverson, who helped lead the prayer breakfast movement for political and business leaders in the 1950s—decades before he became Chaplain of the U.S Senate. Stressing God’s specific plan for the individual was prominent in Halverson’s ministry (influenced by Henrietta Mears) and his many publications.

As I revise the dissertation, I will be using more material from the Evangelical Foreign Mission Association’s records, as they will help clarify the state of missionary recruitment in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

What can be intimidating about archival research?

Many things! The sheer amount of materials contained in one collection—one box, even. The desire to go down rabbit trails and completely forget your main objectives. The choice of specific documents to cite out of 60,000 others.

Do you have a favorite collection or one that has yielded unexpected treasures?

Urbana Poster

1946 poster advertising the first Urbana Student Missions Conference, sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Toronto.

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, especially the new material on the triennial missions conferences held at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign starting in 1948. This material captures postwar American evangelicalism’s growing intellectual respectability and engagement with mainstream culture and global Christianity. The administrative correspondence and conference-planning records from the 1960s and 1970s are especially fascinating, as they testify to evangelical university students’ contributions to the era’s protest movements (Civil Rights, Vietnam), theological crises, and backlash against American-led foreign missions to the non-Western world. It’s definitely one of the BGCA’s “hippest” collections!

In your experience, what is the best part of archival research?


Getting lost in history on a Friday afternoon at the start of a research project. Feeling like a detective when you unearth a document which really supports your argument! Or reading material that has nothing to do with your project but reveals an unexpectedly humorous side to a serious historical figure. More seriously, for the BGCA, I enjoy peering into the lives of missionaries and parachurch administrators who worked tirelessly for the Kingdom. Many of these, of course, are women who received none of the earthly glory of their male counterparts. They are an inspiration!

What project are you currently working on?

I am preparing a book manuscript based on my dissertation, which explored how the evangelical teaching on discerning God’s plan or will for one’s life changed after World War II, reflecting broader shifts in American culture.

Billy Graham’s “Strange Things”

Last Thursday we marked the one year anniversary of Billy Graham’s passing, the culmination of a remarkable life and legacy. This March, the BGC Archives pauses to commemorate the beginnings of Rev. Graham’s evangelistic ministry as a fledgling undergraduate preacher at Wheaton College in 1941.

The BGC Archives holds thousands of Billy Graham’s sermons and talks, on paper, wire recordings, phonograph records, audio tapes, digital files, films and videos. He delivered these messages in a wide variety of locations and circumstances, both in the United States and abroad, from the Sports Stadium in Berlin where Hitler once orated, to the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference in Monterey, CA, to the National Cathedral in Washington DC after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Of all the Billy Graham sermons the Archives contains, one of the most interesting as well as the earliest in the collection is “Strange Things.”

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The entire sermon outline of “Strange Things,” dated November 5, 1941. Over its lifespan, the document has obviously been folded in half, stored in a three-ring binder, and taped down the middle to hold it open during preaching.

When Graham arrived on the Wheaton College campus as a twenty-one-year-old  freshman in 1941, he had already completed a thorough three-year course in Bible at Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College). In addition to his coursework at FBI, Graham spent hundreds of hours preaching in churches across Florida and Georgia, held several multi-day evangelistic campaigns, and evangelized on street corners, over the radio, and from caravan to caravan in one of the country’s first trailer parks.

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September 13, 1941 article from the Wheaton-based Daily Journal 

After matriculating at Wheaton, Graham continued to preach while a student, accepting invitations from churches across the upper Midwest. Before long, he was called to pastor his very own congregation—the United Gospel Tabernacle in Wheaton, IL. Dubbed “The Tab” by locals, the United Gospel Tabernacle started as a prayer and Bible study group before morphing into a nondenominational church, drawing congregants from both city and college.

In the fall of 1940, the Tab was pastored by V. Raymond Edman, a professor of history  and acting interim president of Wheaton College. When asked to assume the presidency permanently, Edman resigned his role at the Tab and recommended Graham as his replacement. Already familiar with his preaching style, the congregation ratified Graham as their new pastor. Between September 1941, when he became pastor, and June 1943, when he graduated from Wheaton College, Graham preached at the Tabernacle over a hundred times. The Tab was a popular service for Wheaton undergraduates to attend on Sunday evenings, and many who saw and heard him preach there agreed that Graham’s style in later years remained much as the same as his student days. While perhaps a little less vocally and physically enthusiastic, the sermons Graham preached at the Tabernacle were not significantly different from the messages he preached before packed stadiums over the next several decades of evangelistic ministry.

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An advertisement for United Gospel Tabernacle services in The Record, the student newspaper of Wheaton College. August 19, 1942

During Graham’s tenure as pastor, the United Gospel Tabernacle met in the Wheaton Masonic Temple, a few blocks from the college campus.


The Masonic Temple in downtown Wheaton. Though devastated by fire in 1948, the Lodge was rebuilt nearly identical to the original structure.

The rented assembly hall featured a slightly raised platform with a simple pulpit and piano. Every Sunday, volunteers lined the hall with several hundred folding chairs before services commenced with hymns, prayers, and finally a sermon from Graham. His messages were always evangelism-oriented, calling listeners to respond to the call of Jesus Christ. Wheaton undergrad Ann-Lisa Madiera, a classmate of Graham’s and the Tab’s pianist, recalls the young preacher’s energy and conviction:

“He had something to say, and he said it so well, and . . . his whole control of his voice and the crescendos and decrescendos that all went with that message, you know, he was an enthusiastic preacher I would say. . . . He was enthusiastic about the message that he had to give and, well, the fact that the place was full every Sunday says something” (Oral History Interview with Ann-Lisa Madiera, Collection 74, T67.

Another student attendee remembers Graham’s budding talents as a communicator.

“Oh, he was tops. There was no question about it. And I think it was obvious that he was going to go places…. You could sense his heartbeat. That it was really coming from his heart. It wasn’t just knowledge that he picked up in college. I would say that’s the main thing. It came from his heart. You know, you can go to college and get a lot of knowledge, but it doesn’t always get down to the heart….  [His preaching style was] very plain. Very simple, very clear. You couldn’t mistake understanding what he was saying” (Lorraine Payne, Collection 74, T63).

Graham’s reputation as a preacher continued to grow during his undergrad days, and he often arranged for guest speakers at the Tab when he accepted weekend preaching invitations across the Midwest and especially throughout the summer vacation.

Record June 1, 1943

An advertisement from The Record, highlighting the end of the academic term and Billy Graham’s final weeks as the Tab’s pastor. Graham graduated from Wheaton the same month. June 1, 1943.

The BGC Archives holds thousands of sermons Graham preached over the course of his ministry, but only one from his days as the Tab’s pastor—”Strange Things” (Many records from the United Gospel Tabernacle were lost when the interior of the Masonic hall, including the church office, was gutted by fire in 1948). The typed outline below is annotated in what looks like Graham’s handwriting and dated November 5, 1941, only a few weeks after Graham became the pastor of the Tabernacle. November 5th was a Wednesday, so the message may be a Bible study Graham presented during the Wednesday evening prayer meeting, rather than a Sunday sermon. But it contains the same emphasis that his classmates remembered from his sermons—the power of Jesus to confound the world, forgive sins, and save souls.

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This original manuscript is much worn, possibly reused for multiple preaching occasions, clearly previously folded and held together by clear tape. The number 850 at the top of the first page was one assigned by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association staff many years later, when they created an index of all Graham’s sermons.

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The sermon outline describes the “strange things” of Jesus—how strange the Pharisees and Sadducees found this man who said such outrageous words, knew their thoughts, and performed miraculous deeds. Graham’s conclusion was a fitting introduction to the message he would continue to preach for the next sixty years: “That man is well saved who can glorify God in his own house. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, but until his sins are forgiven he has lost his chief end.”

A digital copy of “Strange Things” is available to view here on the Billy Graham Sermon Database, along with other sermon outlines and transcripts from the 1940s to the 2000s.

Reminiscences about Graham by his Wheaton College classmates, including his congregants at the United Gospel Tabernacle, are available in Collection 74: Ephemera of Billy Graham.