A New Look at Our History

Yale Divinity School Library Houses United Board Archives

Martha Smalley, former head of Special Collections at the Yale Divinity School Library.

In its earliest days, the United Board supported the work of 13 Christian colleges and universities in China, and the images and documents from its archives seem to bring those long-ago days back to life. The United Board’s archives have been part of the Special Collections at the Yale Divinity School (YDS) Library since 1982, and now a substantial portion of the collection has been digitized, putting it within easy reach of researchers and others interested in the history of Christian higher education in Asia.

“An organization’s staff may not think of these working documents as historical documents, but they are,” says Martha Smalley, former head of Special Collections at the YDS Library. “They provide a range of perspectives, which might not otherwise be preserved.” Indeed, the United Board’s materials shed light on the roles that missionaries and higher education institutions played in famine relief, rural reconstruction, or the social dimensions of life in a particular time period. The collection also appeals to researchers interested in biographical details of a particular individual, conditions in certain geographical regions, major events such as World War II, or cultural topics. The photos are especially valuable, as many similar photos from Chinese sources were lost during periods of political disruption. The United Board files also document its relationships with higher education institutions in other parts of Asia, such as Chung Chi College, Yonsei University, and Tunghai University.

A scene from academic life, circa 1919: a beginning chemistry class at Ginling College (from the archives held at the Yale Divinity School Library).

The United Board images and documents are part of a much larger collection of materials on the Protestant missionary movement that the Special Collections maintains. “We have chosen to document the missionary movement, with a particular focus on China and on educational missions,” Ms. Smalley explains. “We also have documents related to American missionaries in other parts of the world, as well as valuable documentation of medical missions.” Only about a quarter of the people who access the missionary collection are associated with Yale University; many researchers are from China or other parts of Asia, working on dissertations or other research projects.

There are no restrictions on accessing digital materials in the United Board’s collection. “The United Board decided to make these materials widely available,” Ms. Smalley said, and a few clicks at a home or office computer can bring the faces and words of educators, missionaries, and administrators to the screen. Other materials are available on microfilm; academic researchers can register to use these materials onsite in the YDS Library or interlibrary loans can be arranged.

The early leaders of Christian colleges and universities in Asia demonstrated their commitment to education that was both intellectually rich and of service to society. A visit to the United Board archives, either virtually or in person, is a reminder that their vision found expression in the day-to-day business of managing an institution in changing times, a lesson as relevant today as it was 90 years ago.


For an overview of United Board materials in the Special Collections of the Yale Divinity School Library please click here. The finding aid for Record Group 11, which focuses on 13 Christian colleges and universities in China, can be found here; Series 4 and 5 of this record group have been digitized, with documentation of the China colleges and universities available here and photographs available here.