25 Years Plus One of Collecting Mission Records: Observations From the BGC Archives Experience
By Bob Shuster, BGC Archives
For 26 years, the Archives of the Billy Graham Center has collected materials relating to the history of Christian missions. I would like to share with you some observations from our experiences of collecting, processing and making these records available, observations which are relevant to missions or mission schools which want to start an archives program.
Jesus in the Gospel of Luke says to his disciples, "This is what is written: the Messiah must suffer and must rise from death three days later and in his name the message of repentance and forgiveness of sin must be preached to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem." The collecting policy of our Archives is to gather records of this preaching, as performed by one segment of Christ's church during one thin slice of time - that is, the nondenominational or para-church efforts of North American Protestant evangelicals to spread the Christian Gospel and make disciples since the late nineteenth century
At the very beginning of the Center , the Archives gathered and made available records of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. After a couple of years, however, when we began to define a formal collecting policy, we decided also to commit ourselves to a subject area neglected by American religious archives, but one which we were well situated to cover.
There are several denominational archives collect relevant files of their particular church. However, parachurch agencies which have been such influential forces on the practice of American Christianity had no logical home. Their very theology of evangelism placed them outside the traditional archival structure. True, some important 19th century parachurch agencies were collected at college and university archives, but that was because their archives were perceived as being of value, not as part of a general collecting policy.
However, the records of numerous significant twentieth century parachurch ministries were not being preserved. These included, to name a few -- the ministries of mass evangelists like Billy Sunday, youth ministries, radio and television broadcasters, publishers, prison visitation, store front churches and rescue missions, and overseas faith missions. Billy Graham was perhaps the most influential evangelical leader of the last half of the 20th century, and his nondenominational organization, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGC), one of the most prominent examples of these parachurch agencies.
So, we framed a policy that enabled us to add to the universe of information being collected about the American church and was an appropriate extension of our core collection, the BGEA materials.
Mission agency records, therefore, became part of our larger collecting purpose. Indeed, they quickly became one of the most important parts, so important that when we described our collecting policy quickly and informally, we said we were documenting "evangelism and missions."
Many types of evangelism leave little in the way of a paper trail. St. Peter tells every Christian to "be prepared at all times to testify to the faith that is within you" but the simple and informal form that testimony often takes leaves few documents to collect. However, organizations, including evangelistic organizations of necessity do create a paper record in the letters and documents. So initially, much of our strategy was to collect the materials of representative organizations. Independent mission agencies were logical leads for us. We contacted dozens about placing their records with the BGC Archives. Today, we have 686 collections, of which 43 are records of organizations. Of those, 25 entirely, or to a large extent, are concerned with overseas ministry. Eight others are files of conferences on some aspect of missions and /or evangelism. (This does not include microfilm collections we have purchased, such as the microfilm edition of records of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions).
The BGC Archives serves, therefore, as the external historical records depository for dozens of active mission organizations, somewhat like maintaining the liver outside of the body Serving as an organization's archives should ideally involve maintaining liaison with the organization through a representative, receiving at regular intervals the latest batch of inactive and historically valuable records to add to the mission's collection, and providing information, documents and other information as needed. However, our reality has differed widely from the ideal.
Maintaining a liaison, especially, has proved surprisingly difficult. Mission agencies are more interested in carrying out the Great Commission than in documenting how they do it, and so, archival liaison gets a very, very low priority, often so low that it has to look up to see down, as the saying goes. The BGC Archives, in its understanding with an organization, says there shall be one person at the mission who is the channel for questions and requests, in charge of sending new shipments of records to us, and with whom we can contact with any questions. Preferably, this person should be a senior executive with authority to grant permission to see restricted materials. However, in many cases, almost the exact opposite is true.
Instead of a knowledgeable senior official, a temporary worker or newly-hired secretary with almost no knowledge of the organization's history or structure is often given the job. Further, we often find after a year or two that the person we talked to last time is no longer with the mission, has retired or is now overseas. So, someone new has to be educated, again, in how to work with our Archives. For example, we have a set of guidelines on how to prepare a shipment of records for the Archives. It was originally meant to be used the first time a mission sends us their records, but we now find we have to send copies over and over again to the same organization.
I remember when I was a student here at Wheaton, going out on a first date and worrying about what I was going to talk about. A friend reassured me, "Don't worry. Conversation is all the girl's responsibility." Regardless of how reliable that advice was, it does seem to be true that maintaining meaningful contact with an agency is very much the archives responsibility.
One of the main purposes for keeping up that contact is to maintain a regular flow of material to our Archives. What we get from organizations varies widely. Sometimes, an organization makes one donation of materials at one time and we never receive anything else -- despite our best efforts. In other cases, we periodically get certain specific types of information, such as annual reports, newsletters and brochures, and little, if anything, else. Then, there are a few agencies from which we receive large amounts of significant records at reasonably regular intervals, and a few others from which we will receive significant materials -- if we remind them that it has been a while since they sent anything, and review the kind of material that should go to the Archives. As this description suggests, none of the organizations we deal with has a functioning record management program connected to our archives.
The use by missions of their own files stored in the BGC has been light. We have had one mission request that we return temporarily a large number of files, so a writer could prepare an organizational history. (We sent Xeroxes.) In other cases, mission staff people have visited the Archives over a period of months or even years to do research for a history of the agency. There are occasional requests for a photo, name, date or copy of a document. But overall, nothing significant is requested, even from missions preparing to celebrate anniversaries.
There is more use of the Archives by individuals and churches affiliated with a mission agency. It is not unusual for missionaries working on advanced degrees to come to the Archives to use their organization's files as the basis of their theses. We have also received requests from denominations abroad that were started by American missions. Their own collection of their historical documents has been lost through war or disaster, or was never gathered. So, they need information or copies of documents from our archives.
Since the records we get from a mission reflect its ongoing development, they also show how the organization changes over time as it enters new fields or leaves old ones, and as its administrative structure change in both superficial and profound ways. Even the type of documents a mission creates in the course of its work changes. For the same organization, we might have information recorded in letter press books, carbon copies, wire recordings, Dictaphone belts, computer printouts, floppy disks and online databases. The guides to each mission's archives, therefore, must be created in ways that can, with a minimum of reformatting, include new batches of files as well as accurately reflecting the changing realities and underlying continuities of the mission's records.
From what I have said, it can be seen that to be the archives for an existing mission agency requires a significant amount of liaison effort by the Archives. In fact, removing records from the mission and giving them to another organization to maintain seems to decrease the already-low interest in them by that mission. Therefore I think it is preferable, if possible, for a mission to keep the vital portion of its records in its own archives, available for others to use by appointment. The mission staff best understands its records, and the historical information in the records would be easily accessible to the mission and a resource and encouragement for its ministry. However, because of -- what seems to me to be -- the activist, present minded attitude of most missionaries; the low value given in the Evangelical tradition to, well, tradition, and the tight finances and limited personnel of many mission agencies, such attention to internal archives is not given in most - though not all - nondenominational missions. Therefore, an option must exist in which at least some records of independent missions can be maintained by an outside agency.
I have heard from time to time (mainly from scholars, but sometimes from mission executives) of the dream of one organization serving as the repository for all the major independent missions or even a significant number of them. This, as mentioned in the paper you received from Cecilia Irvine, was part of the vision of John Mott for the Missionary Research Library, a vision that proved impossible to maintain over time. We had similar hopes in the early days of the BGC Archives. But given the fact that most archives, even at large institutions, have limited resources and only a few people on staff, I think it is unrealistic to expect the archives of any one university, seminary, or special-purpose agency like the BGC, can collect and maintain those of a long list of outside organizations.
However, that does not mean nothing along those lines can be done. I have never seen a trick rider in a circus even try to ride a hundred horses at one time. But I have seen one ride two or four or six. So, I think it would be both practical and beneficial for to develop small mission archives at Bible schools, seminaries, universities and colleges which train people for the mission field. For example, a school might have an ongoing arrangement with two, three or four mission agencies (with which it historically has a close relationship) to receive the basic archives, and perhaps more, of those agencies. In addition, the school could collect the private papers of its alumni who were missionaries. Together, these could be the nucleus of a significant collection, one that would benefit the mission, the church and the general community. It would also, of course, be an important resource for the school.
That has certainly been our experience with our mission collections here at the BGC Archives. Although we do not get a great deal of use by mission agencies, other users have made our mission records among our most popular collections. Five mission archives are in the top 25 most heavily-used collections in the last seventeen years.
They have been used, for example, by Wheaton College undergrads in a variety of classes -- Asian history, African History, Latin American History, research methods, Chinese language, history of women, management principles, and social psychology, to name a few. They enable students to do research with primary resources, a first-time experience for almost all of them. And of course, our heaviest users include the undergraduate, graduate students and faculty of the college's missions/intercultural department. The Archives is a handy historical laboratory for them to study how missions start, how they are managed, church planting, medical and evangelistic work, use of technology, relations with other missions and with the indigenous church, motives and beliefs of missionaries, and the impact of missions on the host society, as well as missionaries' home society. To quote from the mission department's recent ten year review, "Students in Our research Methods class are introduced to the BGC Archives, and our faculty members receive regular updates of new acquisitions in the Archives. At this time we do not require assignments in the Archives outside the Research Methods and Historical Foundations course, but students do take advantage of the Archives when self-chosen assignments for class benefit from the resources available." Or as one student wrote, "" I enjoyed using the BGC Archives because I felt as if I were really involved in history instead of just reading about it in a textbook. The assignment caused me to delve deeply into the issues and various characteristics involved in India and Indian missions." I have to say too that the professors of the department are very alive to their responsibility, in the words of the 1992 IAMS statement, "assist in the responsibility of documenting mission and convey to their students a vision of learning from the faith of those who have gone before, catechist and missionary, layperson and religious, minister and priest, women and men, minorities and elites, national and expatriate."
Outside users find it very convenient that so many of the collections they need are kept in one place, so they don't have to get research grants to go to the far corners of the globe. It is also true that the value of one collection on a subject is greatly multiplied by being in close proximity to several others on similar subjects. The whole of the Archives is more valuable in terms of information than the sum of its individual collections. The research that Kathryn Long described last night obviously is strengthened and deepened by the opportunity to study haw several missionaries and mission agencies used images over time, rather than how one individual in one place at one time use photography. Or, for another example, Someone who is interested, for example, in studying mission response to the 1960 Congo conflict to see how missions handle crises can find relevant information here in fifteen different collections. Often the documents in one collection supply further details or a contrast to the story told in another collection. To truly document the mission enterprise requires many different types of collections, not just the organizational files of a mission agency. There are congresses and conferences on mission themes, the private papers of individuals (missionaries, mission executives, members of board of directors, church leaders), files of mission service agencies, the records of churches that support individual missionaries and/or a mission agency. And oral history is a tool that provide information and insights not available elsewhere in the documents.
Our experience has shown that educational institutions involved in training for missions and evangelism can benefit from maintaining a small mission archives. And In believe that mission agencies that have the resources and insight to understand the benefits that an archives can provide to their organization can maintain their own archives. If these two different but supporting types of archival networks can be created and encouraged, they can be the means of preserving a meaningful sample of nondenominational missions for the church and for the larger community.
Memory, to remember, is one of the responsibilities of Christian stewardship. Peter wrote, "I think it is only right for me to stir up your memory of these matters as long as I am alive. I know that I shall soon put off this mortal body, as our Lord Jesus Christ plainly told me. I will do my best then, to provide a way for you to remember these matters at all times after my death." The staff at the BGC Archives has seen many times the nurture, knowledge and wisdom, the intellectual and spiritual benefits that can come from study of the church's past. We too of this generation of missionaries, archivists and users must do our best a best to provide the means for our brethren of today and tomorrow to remember.