By Charles Hermesmann
On March 28, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) announced their request for Wheaton College to transfer Billy Graham’s papers and the BGEA organizational archives from the Billy Graham Center (BGC) Archives on Wheaton’s campus to the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C. Graham, a famous American evangelist and pastor who graduated from Wheaton in 1943, gave the college oral histories of the BGEA, crusade procedure books, news conferences, sermon transcripts, personal correspondences and other materials when the BGC was dedicated in 1980.
In a statement on their website, Graham’s son and president of the BGEA, Franklin Graham, said the decision was made to “continue consolidation in Billy Graham’s hometown.” According to the BGEA’s website, the papers were first given to Wheaton because a facility like the Billy Graham Library did not exist at the time. The transfer would be part of the BGEA’s efforts to centralize all archival information in one place.
Some Wheaton students were unhappy about the announcement. Freshman John Colson felt that Graham’s initial decision to entrust his papers to Wheaton College should not be overridden: “Dr. Graham … knew that we, as the institution that we are, would do the best job making these papers and materials accessible to anyone who might want to use them.”
Wheaton students and scholars from around the world have used the BGC Archives for research. Some are concerned that not being able to access the documents will hinder this work. “People enjoy his work and actually being able to access it firsthand,” said freshman Josh Denniston. “Not having those resources available … won’t maintain or cultivate the learning environment we have here at Wheaton.”
The Billy Graham Library, where the BGEA has requested to transfer the papers, was founded in 2007. On its website, the library is described as a ministry. At its dedication, Franklin Graham said, “It’s a tool for evangelism. And long after my father and mother are in heaven, people are going to come to know the Lord Jesus Christ because of the message they hear inside those doors.”
At the BGC’s dedication in Wheaton, Billy Graham said, “I hope and pray that the Billy Graham Center will be a world hub of inspiration, research and training that will glorify Christ and serve every church and organization in preaching and teaching the gospel to the world.” The BGEA helped fund the BGC’s initial construction.
In the BGEA’s statement regarding the transfer, Franklin Graham said, “We are grateful for the role Wheaton College played in my father’s life and for their ongoing commitment to the cause of evangelism — as well as for their partnership as these archives transition into a new era. We also thank Bob Shuster and Paul Ericksen for their professional care of the [BGC] Archives over several decades at Wheaton.” The BGEA declined to provide the Record with further comment.
Wheaton publicly responded to the announcement in an email confirming that, “college leaders are in communication with the BGEA regarding its planned consolidation.… Wheaton College affirms its longstanding respect for the BGEA and looks forward to continuing the positive relationship that the College and the BGEA have enjoyed for decades.”
Representatives from the BGC Archives declined to comment on the decision and instead pointed to the college’s statement. President Philip Ryken told the Record, “Billy Graham was a gift to the world, but he was also a gift to Wheaton College.… We remain committed to the ministry of evangelism synonymous with Billy Graham’s name, and also to providing world-class archives for the study of global outreach.”
The BGEA has not yet determined which papers will be available for public use upon their retention by the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte. While in the BGC Archives’ possession, the papers were either open or closed depending on the date of their production. In Mar. 2018, the BGC Archives opened two of Graham’s collections that had been previously closed by the BGEA until his death, according to The Gospel Coalition. The collections include documents, such as letters to presidents, that will not be available for public access until 30 years after their production. Some are not to be opened until 75 years after the youngest document in the collection was produced.
In taking control of the documents, the BGEA would be able to regulate who accesses Billy Graham’s papers, letters and other materials and when they would be able to access them. The shift in control has raised some concerns elsewhere in academia
In a Religion News Service article, Messiah College professor of history John Fea said, “By taking the papers away from Wheaton, where access is open, Franklin Graham and the BGEA can… control the narrative of his father’s life in terms of who gets to read them. Evangelicals must come face to face with both the good side and the bad side of their history by taking an honest look at people like Billy Graham. I am not sure this will happen in Charlotte. The Billy Graham Library in Charlotte is not a library.”
In the college’s statement, Ryken assured the Wheaton community that even if the materials are consolidated, the BGC Archives will continue to house information on evangelism both in the U.S. and worldwide.
It is unclear exactly when the move will happen. For now, Billy Graham’s archives remain open to students and visiting scholars in the BGC until June 1 when the documents will begin preparation for transfer.