Wheaton College


I’m marching on Saturday for change in our country on guns.   I felt bad when Sandy Hook happened; I felt bad for Virginia Tech, and the Pulse nightclub, and the concert goers in Las Vegas.  Now it’s time to start doing something.

I graduated from Wheaton College, founded by a Christian who fought against slavery, Jonathan Blanchard.

Blanchard’s life inspires action for social change.  He began the fight in the 1830’s, alongside famous anti-slavery leaders like Theodore Weld and Thaddeus Stevens.  It took them thirty years of debates, death threats, travel, and writing to change the will of the people, many, unfortunately, Christians.  The story is detailed in a fantastic biography by Wheaton professor Dr. Clyde S. Kilby, more popular today in his associations with C.S. Lewis.

We tend to forget the brutal work it takes to bring change.  Blanchard’s letters, yes the real actual letters from the 19th century (!),  describe that work and are in the Wheaton College archives.  I’ve loved holding and reading them!

original letter from Jonathan Blanchard to Warren Wheaton, 1859. From the Wheaton College archives

One other thing I missed when I was a student at Wheaton was the grave of James E. Burr, a colleague of Blanchard’s in the fight against slavery, which I walked past probably every day.  The white rock marker is right around the corner from the old dining hall, beside what is now the Franklin path that leads to Edman.

James E. Burr’s story from the Wheaton College Archives:

“….After a reconnaissance mission into Missouri to free those enslaved, on the night of July 12th, 1841 Burr returned with two classmates, George Thompson and Alanson Work, and the slave owners ambushed them during their rescue attempt. The men were bound by ropes and paraded off to Palmyra, Missouri. They were quickly indicted for stealing slaves, held without bail, and chained together for months until their trial was called. In 1841 Missouri had no law against encouraging slaves to flee north. In addition, the testimony of blacks could not be used in court as evidence against a white man. Technically the three had broken no law since no slave had run away. In addition, they had spoken only to slaves and there was no legally admissible evidence for the prosecution. Still, the men were tried in mid-September on an illogical combination of trumped-up charges and found guilty of grand larceny though they had stolen nothing. Outside the court, the town’s citizens prepared a gallows “in case they were acquitted.” Dubbed “The Quincy Abolitionists,” they each received 12 years at hard labor in the state peni-tentiary, and, still in chains, they left for Jefferson City. Years later George Thompson wrote his memoir Prison Life and Reflections from the prison journals and letters from all three men. Thompson vividly recalled their first night together in jail, “[we] knelt down, and committed ourselves to God, imploring His guidance and protection, feeling that He had wise purposes to accomplish by this unintelligible dispensation.” Denied paper for nearly two years, Thompson kept his journal on “bedstead, old boards, and blank leaves, by recording, sometimes a word, sometimes two or three words, and sometimes a sentence or two-just enough to bring the occurrence or scene to my mind-with the date.” Deprived of all but the thinnest of clothing and blankets, they almost froze during the first two winters.

Eventually James was permitted to refashion their two small beds into one so that all three could sleep together and “we could take turns getting into the middle. If an outside one was becoming frostbitten, he only had to request the middle one to exchange places awhile; and we were ever ready to oblige and accommodatefor each knew how to sympathize with the other. So far from murmuring, we had great cause for thankfulness-for many were in a worse condition than we.” As “the cause” advanced, the health of all three declined, but Burr was most severely affected, and he was often unable to work for weeks at a time.

On January 19, 1844, James’s arm was caught in a machine, twisted and crushed in such a way that both bones in the wrist were broken with one protruding through the skin. The doctor “set it according to the best of his skill; which we feared at the time was not very good, as the result proved. He [James] bore the setting very well, scarcely uttering a groan-painful yet needful. As feared, his arm never healed properly, remaining useless for the remainder of his life. Burr was repeatedly ill and unemployed but this probably worked to his advantage. Inasmuch as he was of little value to the prison lessees, he was pardoned a year later. Freed quite suddenly in January 1846, he remembered feeling so stricken at the thought of leaving George alone that he offered to give his pardon to his Brother Thompson, but the authorities wouldn’t permit it. Burr returned to Quincy after his pardon, but moved about one hundred miles north to Princeton, Illinois, by 1849. The 1850 census reported him working as a carpenter and having a wife, Mary Anne Munroe, and two children: Charles H. and Mary A. Munroe who were 13 and 11 years of age respectively.

The Illinois Institute had been founded in 1853 by Wesleyan Methodists who had split from the main body of the Methodist Church over the question of slavery. Early in 1859, two months before his death from consumption, which he probably contracted while in prison, he prepared a will leaving $300 of his $4000 estate to the Illinois Institute in Wheaton. This money was “to be used for the educating of indigent fatherless young men who were wholly devoted to the cause of Christ wishing a preparation for such a calling and wishing to preach said gospel to all irrespective of color and who are opposed to slavery and sin of every grade and in favor of the reformers of the present day.” The question of how Burr’s grave came to campus remains an unsolved mystery. According to a brief letter in the Christian Cynosure of February 20, 1879, by George Thompson, Burr was buried there “by special request.” He wished his grave to be on grounds untrampled by slavery. There were many other ties between the tiny school and the city where Burr lived. In 1860 two of the trustees of the institution, Rufus Lumry and Owen Lovejoy, (another zealous abolitionist), list Princeton, Illinois, as their home address. In addition, John Cross, who taught in the school, was also from Princeton. Undoubtedly, Burr was well acquainted with the sympathies of these men and knew of their efforts to aid runaway slaves. Given tuition costs of $24 per year for the college by 1860, his legacy endowed a full scholarship. When forced to reorganize in 1859-60, the administration naturally looked for a man who felt as deeply as they did about the issue of abolition. Consequently, they invited Jonathan Blanchard to become the president of the struggling school and he arrived in January, 1860, almost a year after Burr’s burial. No one knows whether these two men were acquainted, but it is almost certain that they knew of each other and their joint sympathy for the abolitionist cause….”

Burr’s original grave marker now stands in the entry hall of Blanchard Hall on Wheaton’s campus.  The college has a scholarship in his name.


Hopefully I won’t get egged, beaten, put out of my church or put in prison for standing up for reasonable gun laws in our country.    I’ve started by joining the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, writing letters, and calling my legislators.  And I’m marching, with a sign I need to make, on March 24.

Duane and I having dinner at Anderson Commons, Wheaton College, the new (from the time we were students), dining hall, a few years ago when we attended a Theology Conference.


“Just tell him you’re Ralph Mitchell’s granddaughter,”  my dad, Allan Mitchell, urged.  Billy Graham was going to speak in chapel at Wheaton College, where I was a junior in 1976.

“Oh Dad,”  I rolled my eyes.  I didn’t think that would mean anything to ‘Uncle Billy,’ as he was lovingly called in our home.

The following day, dutiful daughter that I was, I got into the receiving line after the chapel service, to greet Billy Graham.

“I’m Ralph Mitchell’s granddaughter, Jill,”  I introduced myself.  His face exploded into a sincere smile.

“Ralph Mitchell’s granddaughter!”

Dad was right.  Billy did know my grandfather.


Ralph Wylie Allan Mitchell, we called him “Pawpaw,” was born September 10, 1898, at 4 Bruce Street, Dumbarton, Scotland.  He left school at 15 to work in Denny’s Shipyard on the River Leven, a few blocks away.   Herbert Wilson, a fellow shipyard worker, held a Bible class at the Railway Mission.   He heard the Gospel and was born again.

“Do you know the first thing he said after he was converted? ‘I want to win my friends.’  He asked God to give him a hundred souls…he always kept that compassion and zeal to see others brought to Christ; and within a day or two he had already won three of his close buddies to Christ.”  – Billy Graham

Ralph married Lily Sutherland Wilson, the daughter of the man who brought him to Christ.  On the Marriage Register, December 20, 1923, under ‘Profession’, is written, ‘Evangelist.’

They had two children; my father, Ralph Wilson Allan Mitchell, in 1925, and Ruth, born in 1931.  Being Scottish was something Pawpaw never let anyone forget.  Dad and his sister, look handsome in their kilts.

After graduating from Spurgeon’s College in London, Pawpaw pastored churches in London and Birmingham, England.  In 1934, Durham Road Baptist Church in Newcastle on Tyne, a large church in northern England, called him as pastor.  He said yes.  Pawpaw, in clerical collar, standing beside Sir Angus Watson, Member of Parliament for the area, and George Raw, a mining executive.  Pawpaw knew everyone.

When I was in sixth grade, my teacher Mr. McGarry called me to his desk.

“Jill, you’re aggressive,”  he said.

I looked at him, not knowing whether it was a compliment or not.  I didn’t know what “aggressive” meant.  I looked it up in the dictionary.

“Like a warrior,” it said.

That was my grandfather, too.

At  football (soccer) games in jam packed stadiums, he taught Dad a special skill: how to make your way through a crowd.

“Push with your body,”  he advised Dad, after a game, squeezed into a mob.

They both pushed.  The gentleman in front of them turned back with fury.

“Hey!  Who’s %#&@* pushing me?!?!”

Pawpaw immediately turned his head to the people behind him.

“Who’s pushing back there?!”  he cried out, then whispered to Dad, as they moved forward, “That’s how to do it.”

He was unafraid to take the actions that faith in God demands.  When Billy Graham, an unknown evangelist, came to England in 1946 scrounging for places to hold YFC crusades, Pawpaw led his church in hosting Billy at the City Auditorium in Newcastle.

“Well, until the first service he didn’t know what kind of evangelist this would be.  He didn’t know if we would stand on our heads – as he had heard American Evangelists would do, or what we would do.  But he had taken a chance because in prayer he had felt that this was of God.” – Billy Graham.

They were both eager to see God work and ready to do whatever it took to make it happen.

When Billy said, “Ralph, you should come to America,”  Pawpaw did, bringing his family with him, on the S.S. Queen Mary in April 1947.

Dad’s ‘sis Ruth’ took this picture.  She planned to go to Wheaton College, because that’s where Billy Graham went.  Dad was engaged to be married to Sheila, a girl he had met while serving in the Royal Marines during the War.  Pawpaw said that was over.  He wanted Dad to come to America.  Dad did.

What did Pawpaw  do when he came to America?

He preached at Bible conferences and churches.  He served with Pocket Testament League.  He worked on behalf of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.  He and Lily attended Crusades.  My sister Wendy with them to the New York Crusade in 1957 when she was four years old.  Before the Crusades, he prayed, shared messages and planned at BGEA retreats.  At one Crusade, when he went into a bathroom in the stadium, he found it so dirty he cleaned the toilets.

Billy sent Ralph to Australia in 1960 after Billy held a crusade there in 1959.   Pawpaw directed follow up and made contacts for the BGEA to plan another crusade.  At that time, phone calling was prohibitively expensive.  The internet did not exist.  So Pawpaw wrote pages of letter reports:

He thrived on his assignment.  He met with the political and spiritual leaders of Australia.  The Governor, Eric Goodwin, attended services where Pawpaw preached.  Thinking like a publicist, he sent articles to Woody Wirt, the editor of the BGEA’s ‘Decision’ magazine.  He talked with media leaders who broadcast Billy’s “Hour of Decision” radio program, to be sure it remained up to date in  Australia.  The reports were filled with descriptions of a vast variety of activities.

“…the services at St. Stephens, I am thankful to say, are wonderfully stimulating and to be able to preach to a crowded congregation each time is a wonderful privilege…”

“…I boosted the Newsweek magazine article…”

“…in reference to Melbourne it was very profitable to me going down to meet several important brethren there…”

“…I was at the docks along with the Archbishop and others to meet Godwin and his wife.  Then I attended the service of installation in St. Andrew’s Cathedral and was amongst the guests at the reception afterwards in the Chapter house…”

“…In asking for your prayers for Nowra (Australia), I am happy to say that the Lord blessed in a very wonderful way.  Altogether, 231 went forward to make a profession of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.  Believe me, Billy, I have never known such wonderful opportunities for the preaching of the glorious Gospel of Christ and for this year I have 10 united crusades booked… ”

Pawpaw’s letters include anything that would be of interest in advancing Billy’s present and future work in Australia.  One letter includes how he uniquely served:

“…my British background… undoubtedly helps a great deal especially with Australians who, as you know, tend to be a little sensitive regarding anything coming from America…they don’t think of me as an American  “Ralph is just one of us.”  (he had become an American citizen in 1953)…if it helps the cause of Christ by being regarded still as  British, that is alright with me.  For one thing, I still retain my Scottish accent and I don’t suppose I will ever lose it.  Amen!!”

Pawpaw received timely and encouraging brief letters in response:

Friendly and detailed, Pawpaw’s letters also remained respectful of Billy, the leader of the BGEA.  Pawpaw was nearing retirement age.

“…I am most grateful to you for allowing me to stay on here for another year and then we plan to return to the United States sometime in March, 1962…”

When Pawpaw and Nana came home from Australia, they showered us with stuffed koala bears and kangaroos, singing “Waltzing Matilda.  We were their only grandchildren.  I know they missed us.

Pawpaw wanted to continue preaching.  But the only available opening with the BGEA was in Minneapolis. Pawpaw was not interested.

What to do?  What’s left for an eager evangelist at retirement age?

A miraculous opportunity appeared.

Chicago business executives Harold Anderson and Paul Brandel, friends of Billy, had bought a hotel in Miami Beach.  The ten story Biltmore Terrace, on the northern edge of the city, was small but beautiful; designed by the same architect of the famed Fountainbleu and Eden Roc.  The new owners wanted this to be a luxury ‘Christian’ vacation experience, which meant no alcohol service in ‘The Globetrotter’ bar.   Its’ signature drink was –  ‘an exotic mixture of frozen punch, blended banana, pineapple, and orange sherbet, garnished with pineapple chunks and cherries.’

Harold and Paul wanted a chaplain for the hotel, to lead daily chapel services.  Billy recommended my grandfather.  Pawpaw was delighted with his new job.  Besides speaking each morning, he hosted and planned the family events for hotel guests and organizations like the Salvation Army and BGEA.  Contestants from Miami Beach’s “Miss Universe Pageant” even stayed there!

Both my grandfathers taught and preached at Bible conferences.  We often stayed in those ‘rustic’ cabin type accommodations.   The Biltmore Hotel combined the fun of a Bible conference with palatial surroundings.   Wendy, Jennifer and I were ‘Dr. Mitchell’s’ grandchildren;  princesses in a beautiful castle.

During the day we lived in our bathing suits by the pool and beach.  We were thrilled to swim in the built in pool, something none of us had in Abington, Pa.  We could take ourselves to The Royal Scot Grille for lunch, the red carpeted restaurant on the lower level, order whatever we wanted, and just sign our names on the check!

We zipped ourselves into Sunday dresses for dinner every night, which was held in a dining room filled with white clothed tables overlooking the pool and ocean.  Stained glass candle holders glowed at each table.  After dinner, we attended family entertainment.  Tuesday nights, a movie.  I remember seeing “Pollyana,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (Pawpaw’s favorite movie), and other films from Hollywood deemed wholesome.  On Wednesday night, the pool director put on a comedy pool show.

Thursday evening was game night.  When Jerome Hines, the Metropolitan Opera singer, was staying at the Biltmore, he gave a performance and also entertained with an evening of hypnotism.  During the day, Dennis, the Children’s Director, planned activities from a suite of cabanas beside the shuffleboard courts.

Pawpaw was the master of it all.  Here he is cheerfully greeting a guest at the front desk.

Vacations at the Biltmore gave me time with my grandfather that I had missed while he was a traveling evangelist.

Pawpaw died suddenly of a heart attack on March 25, 1966.  He was rushing along a hallway at the hotel to help a guest.  I was in the fifth grade.  This was two months before our sister Pam was born.  The sister who never met him is the one most like him.  He had been at the Biltmore Terrace only four years.

British businessman Earnest Shippam sent this letter to Nana after Pawpaw died:



Dad was a  colorful storyteller.   In digging through the manila folders of Pawpaw’s letters and memorabilia he had saved, I discovered his anecdotes were true.    I cherish my own memories, too.

I can still hear Pawpaw’s Scottish brogue, in response to anything outlandish, “Och, away with ye!”

Or the evening at the Biltmore Terrace Hotel when Tedd Smith,  accompanist with the BGEA, was playing at a piano in the lobby.  Pawpaw volunteered me, 9 years old, to sing “Gary, Indiana” from “The Music Man,” for the hotel guests gathered around the piano.  He knew I could sing.  He was proud of his family.

“I have been young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the children of the righteous forsaken, or their children begging bread.”  Psalm 37:25





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