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The Preservation of Mission Archives -A Scholar's Perspective

Charles W. Weber, Wheaton College
Consultation on Nondenominational Mission Archives, November, 2001

"If we lose our way to the past, we lose our way to the future." This observation was part of the opening sentence of the 1992 statement, "Archives for Mission in the 21 st Century" drafted by the Documentation Archives and Bibliography Network of the International Association of Mission Studies (IAMS). (1) The truth of this quote may get obfuscated in the ahistorical thinking of much of modern society or in the rapidity of technological advance or in the pressures of day-to-day administration and ministry .But it is an observation worth pondering, especially for the younger churches developing over the last century or more for whom this 1992 document was drafted . My conjecture is that all organizations have a sense of their own significance and that of their leaders, of the importance of their past history and reason for existence, and of the future and destiny of their organization. Thus they tend to preserve in one form or another something of their past as a reminder and record of their activities and accomplishments. I am reminded of research I did some years ago here at the Billy Graham Center Archives in the Women's Union Missionary Society records when I came across a small manila envelope (still uncatalogued at the time) marked "Important History ." Some sort of preservation of what is considered important history is inevitable.

Often the desire to preserve an organization's history results in the writing of parochial and hagiographic studies aimed primarily at the organization' s constituencies and may be intended to stimulate their constituent loyalty and financial support. These kinds of studies tend to concentrate on the growth of an organization: who went where and when, the number of converts, and the establishment of institutions such as churches, schools and hospitals. The raw material for these studies, as indicated in some of our readings for this consultation, is massive and includes correspondence, photos, journals, organizational magazines and publications, minutes of meetings, surveys, interviews, etc. One of the challenges to us today is to take this wealth of raw material on missions and to encourage its use in new directions. Perhaps scholars and mission representatives should ask new questions and seek new applications of this material in order to make these archival resources and the responsible organizations relevant to broader historical themes. In other words to put missions and religion into its broader cultural and historical context.

In brief, let me suggest three categories of application which might be pursued more actively and consciously in the use of mission materials. First, researchers might examine more carefully the domestic scene out of which various missions and missionaries arise, thus showing how missions are part of larger social and religious trends. This might include consideration of the organization's main supporters, the doctrinal and theological background, the social profile of its missionaries and leaders, or the role of gender and ethnicity especially as it regards immigration factors. It also might be instructive to explore more nuanced views of the missionary community itself by investigating their various cultural and religious backgrounds and the influence of this on their mission agency's perspectives, policies and activity. For example, study how missionaries even within the same organization have different viewpoints which influence their ministry and organizational approach. Another consideration could be an analysis of mission agencies with nationals from many countries as their missionaries and staff and the dynamic this multicultural missionary community has on an agency and its outreach. These issues might be especially relevant for nondenominational missions who draw their personnel and support from a broad international community.

Second, instead of writing more institutionalized studies, scholars using mission materials might give more attention to the multifaceted involvement and impact of mission activity within the national societies in which they serve. This approach would analyze a mission's functioning on the grassroots level with the indigenous society. Studies with these emphases would raise issues in such categories as cross-cultural studies, colonial themes, government-mission relations, educational and health policies, religion and nationalism, and contributions to national cultures and the development of national or ethnic identity.

Thirdly, mission archival work has significant and exciting potential for comparative studies. For example, how does a particular mission agency accommodate its policies and approaches working in widely variant cultures (say India and China), or how does the strategy of a Protestant mission and a Roman Catholic mission compare when working in the same culture, or how does a single mission work with various cultures in the same country? Mission studies with these foci might be especially instructive to mission organizations on understanding applied mission strategy and in a more general sense to an understanding of mission impacts and comparative approaches.

My viewpoint is that the above three categories of scholarly analysis involve more than esoteric academic issues. Such studies raise everyone's level of consciousness about the overall dynamic role of missions and its various impacts. This is useful not only to scholars but also is instructive to church workers, missionaries, administrators and others who want to understand and appreciate the dynamics of mission impacts. In fact these efforts are crucial if we accept the assertion that "the next great challenge for writing the history of Christianity is to attempt a genuinely global history." (2)

Studies in mission materials heighten the awareness of college students as well. One of the most rewarding experiences in my teaching career involves student response to my course projects using documents here at the Billy Graham Center Archives. Thanks to the excellent cooperation and creativity of the BGC Archives' staff, challenging and insightful projects have been designed for my African and Asian undergraduate courses. The focus of these projects varies from year to year, but all are made specifically relevant to course material. Sometimes students edit a document and put it into its larger historical context; another time they might pick an event (e.g., Boxer Rebellion, Japanese occupation of Korea, Nanjing Massacre, American occupation of Japan, European colonialism in an African country, mission schools or medical facilities, etc.) and research what is in the BGC Archives from numerous collections regarding that event including what they learn about the event beyond their course reading; on other occasions students may write about a specific missionary or national church leader by doing a biographical sketch relating this person to the historical, cultural and religious context within which they ministered. In each case the student must show the relevance of their archival study to other course material. The archival staff has been most helpful in designing meaningful individual projects and then working patiently with undergraduates who are first-time archival researchers.

But the payoff is in student responses. They are excited to discover primary documents on this campus that relate directly to material in their course texts. They encounter people and organizations involved in world events. They discover national Christians and their role in developing churches. They literally make friends with missionaries through their correspondence and reports and sometimes even interviewing the missionary directly. This adds a personal dimension to their studies. But the real reward is with many of the students who encounter missions firsthand and who are inspired by their archival project to gain a more empathetic understanding of the role of missions along with its evangelistic, educational and social contributions. Some are encouraged in their desire to pursue missionary service.

Mission archives serve this function of building the church. It helps people, especially young people, to learn about missions in a direct way and to gain an understanding of the circumstances and rationale for mission activity. Through my teaching experience with these archival projects, there is a promotional aspect which encourages students to consider missions more seriously and to understand missions as part of a larger socio-historical context.

I also bring a class I teach on mission historiography at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School to the BGC Archives for an orientation and introduction to the collection. These doctoral students in mission studies are impressed with the wealth of material and its potential use both for the study of missions in general and their own research specifically .

In the materials for this consultation Timothy Paul Erdel's paper entitled, "From the Colonial Christ and Babylonian Captivity to Dread Jesus," also demonstrates the scholarly incentive a mission archive can encourage. (3) His example focused on the West Indies Collection in the Zenas Gerig Library located in Kingston, Jamaica and noted how regularly students consult this collection for their own research. The article highlights the crucial importance of archival material in documenting the heritage of the churches established by mission agencies. In my opinion this should be one of the main motivations for establishing mission archives, namely, the mission records provide the main extant sources needed for the documentation of indigenous churches established by the mission agencies. This stewardship of the mission legacy must be given high priority.

However, in my experience there are a number of uncertainties which exist between scholars and their use of mission archives. Besides financial exigency probably the main issue is the mission agency's concern that the scholar will use their materials to criticize their organization and personnel. This concern arises from the feeling that the researcher's interests most likely are not the same as those of the agency's. (4) This anxiety is further illustrated by Deborah Gaitskell's observation, "But how much do mission records actually say, and how much do they conceal, overlook or obscure?" (5) As indicated before in this paper and by many of the authors in the materials provided for us in this conference, mission records may be used for many kinds of research topics other than what the materials were originally intended. This is especially true, as Paul Jenkins explains, of photographs and other visual materials which do much more than record mission activities and frequently are the only substantial record of other peoples and cultures. (6)

Concerns about researchers have some validity, but in my opinion the benefits outweigh the possible detriments. First, I believe researchers are less interested in criticism than is often supposed. Many times I have encountered people doing research in mission records who are not necessarily sympathetic to the organization, yet they recognize the good intentions and devoted efforts of the agency along with the sacrifice, dedication and sincerity of the missionaries and national Christians. In other words they accept the organization and people for what they are trying to accomplish based on the agency's own objectives. Then again, if criticism comes or if the researcher does not see things exactly as the agency does, we should be able to evaluate the criticism and appropriately respond through what is learned. Most researchers are thankful for the availability of mission records and want to be as supportive as possible of the agency for their assistance because often a mission archive is the only or one of the few sources of information on a region, time period or specific topic.

Another consideration is if the material is not readily available on a mission agency, then others will define that agency and its activities. Brian Stanley's article argues this point in regards to the relative dearth of material on the Baptist Missionary Society in relationship to the Church Missionary Society which has resulted in the mission work of the BMS getting noticeably less attention. (7) My point is that allowing a mission agency's story to be told in its own voice, i.e. through the availability of its own resources, provides a more comprehensive and sympathetic understanding of the agency's personnel, activities and policies not otherwise available. In its absence the story will be lost, diminished or defined by others.

Agencies may also protect themselves by restricting especially sensitive information. Martha Smalley has provided us with useful guidelines on how to put restrictions on collections in order to protect confidential material. (8)

However, again, keep in mind that researchers probably are not specifically interested in confidential or personal issues. Perhaps this is the place for me to make one observation regarding mission sources. Today in our more media-savvy society promotional pieces from mission agencies tend to be less informational and therefore less helpful to scholars. (9) Some organizations might be tempted to rely on these printed pieces for their historical records and this approach may have some limited justification for the past, but probably is not satisfactory now as these journals tend to have much less content and, therefore, usefulness for researchers. In any case, especially today, published pieces are much less satisfactory in telling an agency's story and this increases the need for fuller archival collections.


"History does not just happen. Neither do archives." (10) Martha Smalley has reminded us that collecting records is useless unless they have a purpose and are actually used. This paper has attempted to indicate the multi-faceted usefulness of mission archives to many kinds of researchers. (11) In the academic world new questions are constantly being asked of older material and mission archives provide resources for a wide variety of topics.

Bob Shuster argues that mission records are part of a continuing "acts of the apostles and it is good stewardship to preserve the record that makes the telling of that story possible." (12) Returning to the IAMS document, "Archives for Mission in the 21 st Century ," special emphasis is placed on the importance of mission records for world Christianity today. It stresses the importance of mission materials for the understanding of "the history and praxis of mission in the churches of every culture," of how we "can learn from one another's needs and solutions," of "mutual understanding," and of affirming for Christians "both their universal community of faith and the particularity of their own history." For many relatively new churches whose origin is rooted in mission agencies, important aspects of their heritage and identity are preserved in the mission accounts. The basic premise is that we all can learn from one another. Therefore it is for the sake of the world Christian community as well as for its contributions to the academic world that churches and missions must operate on the premise that "faithfulness for the future requires faithfulness to the past." (13) Mark Non has encouraged and challenged us by asserting that missiologists can "lead the way" in this endeavor "because of the sensitivities they have developed as historians of faith, historians of culture, and historians of the interactions between faith and culture." (14)

* * * * * * *

1. Full text of this statement is located in Mission Studies, Vol. XI-1, No.21 (1994), pp. 131-132.

2. Mark Noll, 'The Potential of Missiology for the Crises of History" in History and the Christian Historian, edited by Ronald Wells (Eerdmans, 1998), p. 107.

3. Presented at the American Theological Library Association, Berkeley, California, 22 June 2000

4. Note Brian Stanley's reference to "the encyclopaedic approach of the older genre" in "Some Problems in Writing a Missionary Society History Today: The Example of the Baptist Missionary Society" in Missionary Encounters: Sources and Issues, edited by Robert A. Bickers and Rosemary Seton (London: Curzon Press, 1996), p. 39.

5. In "Women and Education in South Africa: How Helpful Are the Mission Archives," Mission Encounters, p.114.

6. In "Mission and Photography," Le Fait Missionaire, January 2001, pp. 71-89.

7. Stanley, p. 39.

8. Martha Smalley, "An Archival Primer: A Practical Guide for Building and Maintaining an Archival Program," Yale Divinity School Library (2000), pp. 6-7.

9. See Stephen Peterson, "North American Library Resources for Mission Research," International Bulletin of Missionary Research, October 1991, p. 159; which comments that "older missionary periodicals are underused in scholarship given the relatively high value of their contents."

10. David B. Gracy II, "What Every Researcher Should Know About Archives," in Researcher's Guide to Archives and Regional Historv Sources (1988), edited by John C. Larsen, p. 33.

11. See also Cecilia Irvine, 'The Documentation of Mission in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries," Paper presented at the Association of Professors of Mission, 1975, p. 9.

12. Robert Shuster, 'The Preservation of Mission Records," Missiology, April1982, p. 224.

13. See again Mission Studies, Vol. XI-I, No.21 (1994), pp. 131-132.

14. Mark Noll, p. 112.

Last Revised: 10/01/01
Last Revised: 1/5/05
Expiration: indefinite

Wheaton College 2005