Burr’s Obelisk: A milestone on Wheaton’s path to racial reconciliation.

On Oct. 9, members of Wheaton College’s staff, faculty and members of the student body gathered for a brief ceremony to celebrate the installation of the James Burr Memorial.  Having been lost — in part — found, restored and erected in the south foyer of Blanchard Hall, this ceremony celebrated the legacy of James Burr and his part in Wheaton’s history as an institution devoted to the cause of abolition and freedom for all people.
Burr, an abolitionist donor to Wheaton in the late 1800s, vehemently opposed the institution of slavery, such that he would only tolerate being buried on ground “untouched by slavery.” His remains are laid here on Wheaton’s campus, adjacent to the Student Services Building.  Born in 1814 in Cuba, New York, Burr studied at Oberlin College in Ohio from 1834-35, until he left for the Adelphia Theopolis Mission Institute, in Quincy, Illinois, which had a strong reputation for supporting abolition.  In the summer of 1841, Burr and his two classmates, George Thompson and Alanson Work, were arrested in Missouri “after a reconnaissance mission into Missouri to free those enslaved,” according to the Wheaton Archives and Special Collections. Although the nature of their activities technically did not violate Missouri laws, the men were charged with grand larceny and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in prison. While incarcerated, Burr’s arm was caught in a machine which crushed his arm, rendering it useless for the rest of his life.  He moved to Princeton, Illinois in 1849. A few months before his death in 1859, Burr left $300 to the Illinois Institute, which would become Wheaton College.
Burr wanted the money to be used to educate fatherless young men who were devoted to working for Jesus, who wished to prepare for their calling, who wished to preach the gospel to every race, and who were opposed to slavery.  This is whom the obelisk represents.
This certainly was a ceremony of remembrance. Wheaton College President Philip Ryken said that he saw “rediscovery and restoration of the James Burr Memorial as a sign of God’s blessing. What was lost has been found. And what has been rebuilt reminds us who we are: defenders of freedom, for the sake of love, in the name of Jesus.”
The purpose of this ceremony was not only to remember James Burr’s work, but also to provide an example of Christian faith in practice. Wheaton College archivist David Malone said that Burr “represents all that is right about evangelical Christianity. His faith was one that taught him to go spread the good news of Jesus Christ through word and deed.” Malone further stated that, “he proved himself a good and faithful servant worthy of our emulation and remembrance.”
Why all this pomp and circumstance over one of many outstanding individuals in Wheaton College’s history of Christian faith put into practice?  Vice president of the William Osborne Society, senior Joselyn Broadway said in her speech at the ceremony, “I come from a culture where legacy is important. I believe that it is important to look back at where we come from to see the direction in which we are going.”
This kind of reflection reveals that Wheaton as an institution is not content with societal ills, but confronts them. In this regard, we are reminded that this is an institution founded on the principals of equality and racial reconciliation on the basis of Jesus’ work on the cross.  This ceremony does more than simply honor Burr; it challenges us in the present.  The James Burr Memorial in this sense is more of a milestone.
Wheaton remembers James Burr because he recognized how wrong slavery was despite the normalizing impulses of his day.  Wheaton is celebrating its legacy through the Burr Memorial, its motto indicating that everything it does will continue to pursue Christ and his kingdom.  Although Wheaton has recently made many strides in its policies, changes to the covenant, new scholarships and the like, some students recognize that there are still areas where Wheaton is behind.

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