Billy Graham Center

Interview with William McElwee Miller - Collection 387

[Note: What follows is a description of the documents in this collection which are available for use at BGC Archives in Wheaton, Illinois, USA. The actual documents are not, in most cases, available online, only this description of them. Nor are they available for sale or rent. Some or all of this collection can be borrowed through interlibrary loan. ]

Since we are migrating our website to a new platform, we will no longer be updating this earlier version our site. Please visit our Archon database for online guide descriptions. In early 2018, look for our new site, currently under construction, linked in the BGC Archives section on the Library and Archives page. (12/11/2017)

Table of Contents

Brief Description of This Collection

Title Page and Restrictions

Biography of William McElwee Miller

An Essay on the Contents of the Collection (Scope and Content)

Lists of Audio Tapes and Books in This Collection (Location Records)
    Audio Tapes
List of the Contents of Boxes of Paper Records in This Collection (Container List)


Transcript 1

Brief Description.

Transcripts and tape of oral history interviews with Miller in which he describes his education at Princeton, Christian faith, and work as a Presbyterian missionary to Iran from 1919 to 1962. Besides descriptions of his evangelistic, pastoral, and educational work, he also describes many aspects of Iranian and Islamic society. Most of the transcripts are of interviews done for the Presbyterian Historical Society. There are restrictions on the use of this collection.

Collection 387
[April 8, 2005]
Miller, William McElwee; 1892-1993
Interviews; 1979-1988

1 Box (DC; .5 cubic feet); Audio tape


The transcripts in folders 1 to 6 may not be reproduced without the written permission of the Presbyterian Historical Society.

Requests for permission should be directed to:

The Presbyterian Historical Society
425 Lombard Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147
(215) 627-1852


William McElwee Miller was born in Middlesboro, KY, in 1892, the first child of Henry and Flora McElwee Miller. Eventually William had a younger brother, Francis Pickens. William's father was a Presbyterian pastor, as had been his maternal grandfather, William McElwee. In 1901 the family moved to Rockbridge Baths, VA, where Henry Miller succeeded his father-in-law as pastor. William was admitted to Washington and Lee College in 1908. While he was a student there, his father died in 1911. William graduated with a B.A. in 1912. He continued on to receive his M.A. there the next year. During his years at the school he was very active in the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA).

After graduation William taught English briefly at the Marion Institute in Alabama. At the very end of 1913 he attended the quadrennial convention of the Student Volunteer Movement in Kansas City. He was greatly influenced by hearing such men as John R. Mott, Robert Speer, and Samuel Zwemer speak about the need for new missionaries. As a child, he had committed his life to Christ. Shortly after the convention, he further committed himself to become a foreign missionary.

He enrolled in Princeton Seminary in 1914. Again he was active in the work of the YMCA and he became that organization's traveling secretary for the Mid-Atlantic states during his seminary years. He heard Zwemer again while at Princeton and decided to become a missionary to Muslims. William was ordained on May 8, 1916, in the Southern Presbyterian Church. In 1918 he graduated from Princeton and served briefly as YMCA Secretary (really as a kind of chaplain) for the soldiers at Camp Devons near Boston. That same year he was appointed missionary to Meshed, Persia, with the Presbyterian Church in the USA. Miller, along with several other new missionaries, sailed from the United States in September 1919.

He arrived in Iran on November 5. After some time spent in Tehran in Persian language study, he moved on to Meshed, which was to be his base from 1920 until 1932. Throughout his time in Iran, Miller was involved in a wide variety of tasks, including church planting, evangelism, serving as a pastor, administration, and teaching. He was frequently gone for months from his home base as he traveled throughout the country. And sometimes, because of unsettled conditions in the country, missionaries had to temporarily evacuate an area. For example, because of rumors of a Bolshevik invasion, Miller and other Presbyterian workers had to leave Meshed for Seistan in 1921 and could not return until the next year.

Robert Speer, of the Presbyterian mission board, visited Meshed as well as all the other Iranian mission stations in 1923. That same year Miller returned to the United States via the Middle East, Italy, and England for his first furlough. While at home he married a widow, Isabelle Haines, on November 12, 1924, and became stepfather to her three children: Mary, John and Dorothea. The family returned to Meshed in 1925. The next year William McElwee Jr. was born. In 1928, the Millers had another child, Flora. That same year the three older children returned to the United States for their schooling. While in Meshed, Miller published his first book, a translation of Al-Babu'l-Hadi' Ashar by Al-Hilli, a treatise on the theological doctrine of Shi'ite Muslims. The family returned to the United States on furlough in 1931. During this time Miller spent much time speaking to college groups about missions in Muslim lands. In October 1931 he and Isabelle had a daughter, Elise Givhan. The next year he received an honorary doctorate from William and Lee College. In October 1932 the Millers returned to Iran. Miller by this time had been transferred to Tehran, where he had already held open evangelistic meetings, as he had in other Iranian cities. Off and on for the next several years he would serve as the pastor of the Presbyterian church in Tehran. Two years after their return, in October 1934, the Millers had another daughter, Margaret Ann. Isabelle returned to the United States with the children the next year because of her own ill health, but she returned to Iran in 1936. The entire family went back to the United States on furlough in 1939, but because of health problems and the difficulties of raising a family in Tehran, Miller returned alone the next year. He would continue to be separated from his family, except for furloughs in 1945-46, 1949, 1953, and 1957-58, for the next twenty-two years, although one of his daughters, Flora Landrum, did come to Iran with her husband Dallas in 1951 as missionaries.

Among his other activities, Miller began a small school for training Iranian evangelists in 1948 outside of Tehran. In 1953 he was transferred to Tabriz and in 1956 to Resht, to take the place of Flora and her husband, who had had to return home. In 1958 he was assigned again to Tehran and it was there that he ended his service in Iran. In December 1962 he retired and returned to Isabelle. They lived in Mt. Airy, PA. He remained active teaching and writing on Christian missions and Muslims and published a number of books. Isabelle died in 1980 and two years later Miller moved to the Lutheran retirement home in Philadelphia, PA. Miller died in 1993.

Scope and Content

[NOTE: In the Scope and Content description, the notation "Folder 1-1" means Box 1, Folder 1.]

This collection consists of a tape of an interview with Miller conducted by Robert Shuster for the BGC Archives in 1988 and transcripts of interviews with Miller by Alan Thompson for the Presbyterian Historical Society in 1979 and with Cameron Afzal as part of a school paper in 1985. (Afzal was a student at Yale Divinity School.) The Thompson interviews are in folders 1-1 through 1-6 and the Afzal interview is in folder 1-7. Their contents are described briefly below.

Thompson interviews. Thompson interviewed Miller seven times in Philadelphia in January and February 1979. The Archives has transcripts of the last six interviews. What follows is a brief summary of the topics covered in each:

Folder 1-1 January 10, 1979. J. Christy Wilson Sr.; Miller's work with the YMCA during World War I; volunteering to go to Meshed, Iran as a missionary for the Presbyterian Church of the USA; Henry Van Dusen; the importance of preaching Christianity to the people of Islam; ordination; crossing the Atlantic Ocean by boat and traveling through the Caucasus during the Russian Civil War; first impressions of Iran; the city of Tehran; the social and political conditions in Iran in 1919; church work among Assyrians in northwest Iran

Folder 1-2 January 17, 1979. Dr. and Mrs. Samuel Jordan; the Boys School in Tehran; the Presbyterian Hospital in Tehran; the nature of the Christian church in Tehran; relations between Assyrian and Armenian Christians and Persian Christians; converts from Zoroastrianism to Christianity; Mirza Shahriar; Miller's first trip to Meshed; Dr. Lewis Esselstyn and the founding of the mission's work in Meshed; the Presbyterian hospital in Meshed; the difficulty of acquiring property; the Christian life of Esselstyn

Folder 1-3 January 24, 1979. Baptizing believers in Meshed; Mrs. Dwight Donaldson's evangelistic work among Muslim women; difficulties of the church in Meshed; exodus of missionaries from Meshed to Seistan in 1921 because of a threatened Bolshevik invasion; evangelistic work in Seistan; return to Meshed; visit of Robert Speer to the missionaries; his attention to detail; medical work in the surrounding towns; treatment of Christians in towns with no churches; medical evangelism in Afghanistan in the 1920s; Miller's return to the United States in 1923; hostility to missionaries in Meshed; literacy and baptism; convert Mansur Sang

Folder 1-4 January 31, 1979. Open evangelistic meetings in Tehran in 1927; transferring to Tehran from Meshed in 1932; evangelistic meetings in other Iranian cities including Hamadan; the Sunday worship service in Tehran; the Bible in Persian; expropriation of the church schools by the government in 1940; joint occupation of Iran by the British and Russians during World War II; impact of the war on mission work; evangelism in northern Iran while it was occupied by Russian troops; creation of the Evangelical Church of Iran in 1934; the mission work among the Assyrians in Rezaiyeh; relations with the Anglican church

Folder 1-5 February 7, 1979. Signs of Christian belief in the Russian forces occupying northern Iran; Miller's support form the Calvin Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia; four month trip from Philadelphia to Tehran in 1940; beginning the school for national evangelists in Shemiran in 1948; other Protestant missions in Iran, including the Assemblies of God, Operation Mobilization and the American Bible Society; evangelistic use of radio in Iran; the radio station Voice of the Gospel (RVOG); Miller's transfer to Tabriz in 1949; work among Turkish and Armenian people; Dr. Fatihi; transfer to Resht; distinctive nature of this area of Iran; the medical work of the Presbyterian missions in Iran; closing of the hospitals in Iran because of lack of financial support; independent missionaries such as Lewis Johnson; Miller's work in Tehran before his retirement in 1962; evangelistic work in Abadan

Folder 1-6 February 14, 1979. Integration of the Presbyterian mission in Iran into the national church; effect of this decision on evangelism among Muslims; reflections on the current (1978) condition of the church in Iran; possible effect of the Islamic revolution on the Christian community; Miller's post-retirement activities, including promoting evangelistic efforts among Muslims and working with foreign students in the United States; Miller's study of Shiite Muslim beliefs and the tenets of the Bahai faith; his books on Bahai; stories about Miller's contact with members of the Bahai faith; the background to Miller's book, Ten Muslims Meet Christ; writing tracts for Pakistan and Bangladesh; Miller's writings on church history

Afzal interviews. Afzal interviewed Miller on March 2 and 3, 1985 for a paper on Miller's ministry, which Afzal did as part of his course work at Yale University. These interviews were edited into the transcript found in folder 1-7. Besides the text itself, the manuscript includes a preface and several explanatory footnotes from Afzal. Among the topics covered are Miller's arrival in Iran in 1919, the activities at the Meshed (called Mashad in the text) mission station, relations with Iranian government officials, the life of Christian converts in Iran, World War Two and the increase of foreign influence in Iran, description of worship services, evangelistic methods, the joys of evangelism, the school of evangelism established by Miller, the Presbyterian schools for boys and girls in Tehran, relations between missions in the country, contextualization, support given to the mission by churches in the United States, the fall of Reza Shah Rahlevi in 1940, and the origin of the Student Volunteer Movement. Miller also describes several missionaries and Iranian Christian leaders including Louis Esselstyn, Mansur Sang, Samuel Jordan, Jane Doolittle, and Husayn Behzad (written as Hossein Behzad in the transcript).

William M. Miller was interviewed by Robert Shuster on February 23, 1988 at the

Lutheran Retirement home in Germantown, PA, where Dr. Miller was living. The time period for events covered in the interview is 1914 to 1979. Time elapsed in minutes and seconds is recorded to the left of the topics discussed in the interview. The index is keyed to the cassette copy and not the reel-to-reel original.

Tape T1 - side 1
00:00 Introduction
00:40 Attending school with L. Nelson Bell at Washington and Lee University;
description of a speech by Samuel Zwemer about the death of William
Borden; comments by Zwemer on Islam and influence on Miller; some of Zwemer's personal characteristics
07:15 Zwemer's critique of Islam; his speaking style; his other interests; his love of
jokes; his influence on missionaries
16:00 Meeting with Kenneth Scott Latourette in 1917; later contacts; his personality
21:30 Comments about missionary to Persia Belle Sherwood Hawkes and her husband; Miller's friendship with J. Christy Wilson Sr. at Princeton; Wilson's decision to be a missionary in the Middle East; J. Christy Wilson Jr.; Christie Jr.'s work in Afghanistan; Christy Sr.'s personality; his influence in recruiting missionaries and seminary students
32:00 Miller's methods of presenting the Christian message to Muslims in Iran;
respect of Muslims for the Sermon on the Mount; adapting the Gospel to the needs of the people; interest of Iranians in theology; discussing God with an Iranian farmer; attraction of Christianity for the middle class
41:15 Relation of evangelism to Westernization; the importance of presenting the
person of Jesus Christ
45:30 End of side 1

Tape T1 - side 2
00:00 Start of side 2
00:06 Overlap from side 2
03:45 Effect of the 1979 revolution on churches and mission work in Iran; attitudes
toward the United States; migration of Christians
08:45 Gap in tape
08:45 Persecution of Episcopal church; effect on the Presbyterian church;
disenchantment with Islam caused by the revolution; policy of the government toward Christians
13:45 Gap in tape
14:15 High regard in Islam for Christ as a great prophet and a physician; motivation
of Iranians who became Christians
20:30 Reasons for the formation of the Independent Board of Foreign Missions
and its lack of influence in Iran; reason for J. Gresham Machen's actions; accusations of Robert Speer
26:30 Impressions of Robert Speer; his personality; Speer's visit to Iran; Speer's
speaking style
32:15 Story about an Iranian Christian who constantly prayed for Billy Graham's
35:15 End of side 2


All the material in this collection was received by the Archives from Dr. Miller in February, 1988.

Acc. 88-10, 88-14
December 18, 1990
Robert Shuster

Accession 88-14
Type of Material: Audio Tapes

The following item is located in the AUDIO TAPE FILE:

T1 - Reel-to reel, 3-3/4 ips, 76 minutes. One side only. Oral history interview of William McElwee Miller by Robert Shuster in which Miller talks about his work as a Presbyterian missionary in Iran from 1919 to 1962. This reel was copied from a cassette original. February 23, 1988.

Accession 88-14
Type of Material: Books

The following item is located in the BGC LIBRARY::

Miller, William McElwee. A Christian's Response to Islam (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1976).

---. The Baha'i Faith: Its History and Teachings (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1974).

Wilson, Dorothy Clarke. Apostle of Sight: The Story of Victor Rambo, Surgeon to India's Blind (Chappaqua, NY: Christian Herald Books, 1980).

Your Muslim Guest/ A Practical Guide In Friendship and Witness for Christians...

(Toronto, ON: Fellowship of Faith, 1975)

Box Folder Item
Thompson Transcript
1 1 January 10, 1979
2 January 17, 1979
3 January 24, 1979
4 January 31, 1979
5 February 7, 1979
6 February 14, 1979
7 Afzal transcript; March 2-3, 1985

Send us a message

Return to BGC Archives Home Page
Expiration: indefinite