Thursday, December 3, 2009

Books and Archives of Wheaton College Special Collections: CARA Fall 2009 Meeting

"For Christ and His Kingdom" ...and then Some

It will be no surprise to some of you that the declarative "sub-title" of Wheaton College, chiseled finely into its main sign on campus, is the line "For Christ and His Kingdom." Of course, Wheaton, by most standards, is recognized as the intellectually rigorous powerhouse of midwestern evangelical colleges. And looking at this sign and meeting some Wheatonian collegians proved this very fact. Reflecting on what reads below this evocative declaration, "Since 1860," makes me think of the semantic questions that could arise and fill an entire course on systematic theology in 19th century America: "Well, says the good-intended student, was not Christ and His Kingdom here before 1860?" "Yes, of course, but it was Wheaton College itself, which was not, and it is that for which the sign reads!"

Now the truth is that these are just syntactic ditherings, which could lead to more late night dorm room conversations, rather than social evangelical unrest (of course, the latter has been known to happen, too!). Wheaton College is, by all general estimations, a fairly typical school, if you take a walk around campus and see everyone milling around like ants, rushing to class, marauding the dining hall (ranked among the best in the country--something I can vouch for!) en masse around lunch time, and sitting in alcoves and study lounges doing homework or chatting about an assignment or someone cute in class. Admittedly, this was not quite the Wheaton I had developed in my own provincial mind, the Wheaton of strict behavior codes, and purity-laced evangelicalism, and oaths of obedience to "Christ and his Kingdom" since 1860. Friends, relatives, and relatives of friends have peppered my perception of Wheaton as an operation of control over its populations of students, staff, and faculty (which may have some truth, as one person I know described a friend's departure from the faculty, because said person would not sign an oath!).

Whatever the case may be, the operations of Wheaton politics were more or less invisible to the afternoon visitor and biblio-tourist. I parked my car near the center of campus, and perambulated about the school's finely manicured lawns and hyper-clean streets. I found the library almost immediately, and entered the domain of Wheatonized stacks and study carrels. What is interesting about this particular library, the Buswell library, is the story about Dr. Buswell himself. You see, Buswell has a connection not just to Wheaton College, but to Covenant Seminary (PCA) in St. Louis, which I visited with other ATLA members this past June during our annual conference. And those of you who remember this eventful visit, this was where the tour bus got stuck on a hill! But the story of Dr. Buswell, in short, begins during the First World War and continues through some of the most embittered theological battles of twentieth century American Protestantism.

As the Wheaton College website notes:

Completed in 1975, the new wing of the library was named in honor of Wheaton's third president, Dr. J. Oliver Buswell, Jr. Buswell served as a chaplain during World War I, where he was wounded and was awarded the Silver Star. He spoke at Wheaton's Fall Evangelistic Services in 1925 and was so popular that the students petitioned to invite him back for another week. He was then asked to became President in April 1, 1926 after the death of Charles A. Blanchard in December 1925. Buswell served as President until 1940. During those years enrollment tripled and the college received full accreditation. Students first signed the "pledge" during Buswell's administration.

Buswell went on to be part of the a group of individuals, including Drs. J. Gresham Machen and Harold Laird, who fought against what they believed to be unsound theological views in the Presbyterian Church, views which were too far afield from biblical teaching and the real understanding of scripture. Dr. Buswell joined the split of orthodox-seeking, old-school Presbyterians, and defined his role by his time as president at Wheaton and later, Dean at Covenant Seminary, which is why we have two Buswell libraries.

After I entered the Buswell library at Wheaton, I discovered that the Special Collections and Archives were not to be found there, but in another library and building all together. Wheaton has, among other things, a great cultural richness and wealth in its collections. In fact, they have not just several libraries, but several archival collections, which are housed separately. The "main" collection is what you see here today; while the other collections (not included today) contain archival materials of literary significance. I am specifically referring to the Wade Collection, which can be seen at the following website:

In brief, the Marion Wade Center is a research library, which was originally created out of a collection of materials dealing with C.S. Lewis, but has grown into a research center focused on seven British literati, who dealt with Christian themes in their writings: Owen Barfield, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Dorothy L. Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams; (see:

Now let us go to the archives themselves, of which I was afforded a fine tour! The purpose of this visit was to participate in the Fall 2009 meeting of the Chicago Area Religion Archivists, which was hosted by the Wheaton Head of Archives and Special Collections, David Malone. Mr. Malone gave us a great tour and wonderful workshop on Archon software, and spoke to us about the pleasures and difficulties of archival management. We were given tours of the various archival work areas, including the staging areas and the holdings section, where the acid-free boxes occupying thousands of linear feet are kept; a good portion of these archives are kept in a climate controlled vault, which you will see below in the next dozen photos. First though you will see the China missions and missiology collections, which include posters about missionaries in China and glass negatives of antique photographs.

Cut-outs of famous evangelists and images of the good Rev. Billy Graham abounded; at every corner of the archives, something or "someone" was bound to jump out at you!

Above is one of the climate control apparatuses. Below is a section containing BETA and VHS tapes, all held in the very cold vault space.

Above is the meat-lockerish door to the vault, keeping all the cool air in and hot air out!

Another life size cut-out, above, this time of Billy Sunday, former baseball player turned Evangelist extraordinaire, whose signature motion was "slidin' home for Jesus." Below is a view from the manuscripts reading room.

Before I leave you all today, I want to point out one of the few items of intrigue--well, intrigue for some of us! Above, you will see a table full of finding aids for the archives and special collections of Wheaton College, ordered by individual archival collection. I found these to be greatly beneficial, if not simply fascinating. The library and special collections department does a superb job at not just preserving and caring for their collections, but promoting them to the larger, broader public. It makes one realize that there is much to be learned from those institutions, which are trying to preserve history and succeeding quite well at it. Perhaps the lesson learned, in part, here is that the right recipe for archival and special collections success is dedication to the craft and collection and financial commitments of institutions. If you're missing these, then the rich and often hidden archives of our world will continue to flounder in back rooms, simply unknown, unprotected, and ultimately forgotten. So, thank you to my fellow members of the Chicago Area Religion Archivists (CARA) and the archivists of Wheaton College for keeping history alive once again. Like they say, "all politics is local;" well, so too: "all history is local." And whether for "Christ and his Kingdom" or a small, rural church historical society, archives and their keepers help our localities of history survive. So keep your eyes open for old scraps of paper from Grandma's attic--they could be letters from someone important.


  1. This is a wonderful piece! Wheaton College sounds great!

  2. I was hoping that you would catch a glimpse of some of Wheaton's famed collection of Masonica.

  3. Wonderful post. The Special Collections brochures are also available online: