Rolled into sunny Wheaton, Illinois last night to start my research at the fabled Billy Graham Center Archives. Located on the campus of Wheaton College, this archive is like nerd Disneyland. The collections are beautifully organized and intimidatingly expansive.
What am I doing here? It’s the natural first stop for anyone interested in the history of conservative evangelical colleges. The collections offer two great things. First, Wheaton College itself has been a leading fundamentalist/ evangelical college since the 1920s. It enjoys a unique and uniquely influential history as a leader in the network of conservative colleges. As leading historian Joel Carpenter put it, in the 1920s
There was only one college of thoroughly fundamentalist pedigree . . . that was neither just half-evolved from Bible school origins nor still waiting for the ink to dry on its charter.
That school, of course, was Wheaton. For my current research, I’ll need to dive deep into the history of Wheaton itself. What was life like for students in different decades? For faculty? I also have some specific questions about interesting episodes. For instance, why did Wheaton kick out its fundamentalist president in 1939? Why did the board of trustees add in 1961 a line to the statement of faith that Adam and Eve were real, historical people? What did Wheaton’s version of the “free-speech” movement look like in 1964?
But these archives offer more than just a look at the history of Wheaton itself. Since the school was such an influential leader in the field of evangelical higher ed, its leaders kept in constant contact with other school leaders. In their correspondence, I’ll be digging to discover the issues that motivated school leaders across the entire network of conservative evangelical colleges. This will include prosaic issues such as admissions and accreditation, but also uniquely evangelical issues such as determining which schools remained orthodox and which threatened to slide into liberalism and modernism.
Best of all, decades of work by the archivists at the Billy Graham Center has created an invaluable collection of oral history interviews. Some of these are available online and I’ve been reading them during the past weeks. But many more are only here at Wheaton. In these interviews, alumni of Wheaton and the rest of the conservative evangelical college network remember what life was like at these schools in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and more recently. Why did they decide to go to Wheaton? Or the Moody Bible Institute? Or John Brown College? Or a ‘secular’ public university? Many of these interview subjects offer unique perspectives on what college life was like.
With such a vast collection, I need to pace myself. There’s no way to take it all in during one short visit. Instead, I’ll see what I can discover and make plans to come back soon.