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Collection 405 Papers of W. Robert & Frances Holmes

Identifier: CN 405

Scope and Contents

Collection of letters written primarily by Robert Holmes and his wife, Frances (Frannie) to their families in the United States, while they served as missionaries with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in Sri Lanka from 1947 to 1960. A few of the letters are from the children, Bobby and Carol Lou, to their grandparents, and there are a few letters sent to the Holmes family. (The originals were retained by the donor.) The letters date from 1947 to 1960, and were mostly written from Vaddukoddai, Sri Lanka and from Kodaikanal, India (often referred to simply as "Kodai"); some of the letters were written during their travels to and from the field or on vacation trips around Sri Lanka and India. The letters concern their work with the Church of South India, Jaffna College in Vaddukoddai, Sri Lanka, their children's education at Highclerc School in Kodaikanal, India, comments on American and Sri Lankan political situations, Sri Lankan and Indian culture and religion, the work of the two ABCFM hospitals in Sri Lanka, and descriptions of their travels to and from the field, in Europe, and Southeast Asia.


  • Created: 1947-1960

Conditions Governing Access

There are no restrictions on the use of this collection.

Biographical Information

Walter Robert (Bob) Holmes was born July 18, 1916 in Bowen, IL. While attending Wheaton College, he majored in history and graduated with a B. A. in 1938. He then continued his education at the University of Illinois at Champaign, receiving his MA (1939) and Ph D (1946) degrees in American history there.

Frances "Frannie" Crawford Holmes was born December 25, 1916 in Hope, AR. Like her husband, she graduated from Wheaton College in 1938, majoring in French.

Robert and Frances were married on August 24, 1940. They had two children: Robert "Bobby" Crawford, born July 15, 1941; and Caroline "Carol Lou" Louise, born May 3, 1947.

Robert taught at North Park College in Chicago from 1943-1947, before applying to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). The Holmeses departed in September 1947 for what was then known as Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He was assigned to teach history and coach basketball at Jaffna College, in Vaddukoddai. Their first term extended until March 1952.

Not intending to return to Sri Lanka, Robert taught history and political science at Wheaton College for the 1953-1954 school year. During that year, they changed their minds about serving overseas, and returned to Sri Lanka in February, 1954. In addition to continuing his teaching duties during their second term (February 1954 to April 1960), Robert was made manager of the mission press and served on the board of two mission hospitals, Green Hospital in Manipay, Sri Lanka, and Mc Leod Hospital in Inuvil, Sri Lanka. He and Frances also served as house parents of a men's dormitory at Jaffna College, and he occasionally preached at the college chapel and at churches on some of the islands off Sri Lanka.

One of the Holmeses' classmates at Wheaton was Carl F. H. Henry. When Henry founded Christianity Today in 1956, Bob served as the correspondent for Sri Lanka until the end of their term in 1960.

Frances directed the Jaffna College choir, worked with the Christian Literature Society, and served as a substitute teacher and house mother for one term at Highclerc School in Kodaikanal, India, a school for missionary children, which the Holmes children attended. She also taught her children at home until they were seven or eight. While the children were attending school, the school year extended from January to October; between the end of March and beginning of June, ABCFM missionaries including the Holmeses joined their children at Kodaikanal for what was known as "the Kodai season."

The Holmeses did not return to Sri Lanka after their second furlough in 1960. Because qualified Tamils were available to fill their positions at Jaffna, and the Holmes's salaries dwarfed those of their Tamil counterparts, they felt it was an appropriate time to phase themselves out of the work. Bob accepted a position teaching history at Union College's College of Pharmacy in Albany, where he also taught part-time at the Junior College of Albany. In 1961, he was appointed the Dean of the Junior College.

In 1964, the Bob and Frances returned to India, first to Old Delhi, and then to New Delhi, where Bob directed the University of Wisconsin's College Year in India Program for the next three years. In 1967, the American ambassador to India, Chester Bowles, appointed Bob the director of the U.S. Educational Foundation of India (USEFI), more commonly known as the Fulbright Foundation for India. He continued in that post until 1971 when he and Frances returned to the US. From 1971 until 1978, Bob served as the associate director of continuing education at Schenectady County Community College, in Frances's hometown of Schenectady, New York. Following his retirement in 1978, the Holmeses returned to Jaffna, where Bob spent a year and a half writing a book on the society and economy of Jaffna.

Frances Holmes died March 28, 1993.


1.00 Cubic Feet ; 2 Boxes (DC)

Language of Materials


Arrangement and Description of Material

[NOTE: In the Arrangement description, the notation "Folder 2-6" means Box 2, Folder 6.]

There are several subjects which are found throughout the letters. Bob had an avid interest in American politics, and frequently commented on senatorial or presidential elections, political conventions, national policies, and other events. His main source of news while on the mission field was Time Magazine, and he often referred to specific articles he had read. He commented on the activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy in letters of 3/17/54 and 10/16/54 (Folder 1-8). He sometimes noted Sri Lankan opinion of events in America. In general, the letters from their first term in Sri Lanka (1947-1952) contain more comments about the American political situation than those written during their second term.

His comments on Jaffna College, while numerous, are not extensive. He discussed other faculty, both missionary and native Sri Lankan, but seldom wrote in detail of the workings of the College. He did discuss the cost of living for both missionary and native teachers, in his letter of 3/12/55 (Folder 2-1). His comments on the college community in Vaddukoddai centered more around the social and recreational life of the faculty and students, and especially on his and Frances's role as house parents for a men's hostel.

As they wrote about their everyday lives, they frequently discussed the other missionary families they served with, especially Syd and Ruth Bunker, Ben and Mienecke Bavinck, Willy Sussbach, Ed and Pat Lockwood, Chester and Mary Jane Wagstaff, and Telfer and Jane Mook (Telfer was the ABCFM Secretary for India and Sri Lanka from late September, 1958). Some of the other things they discuss from their everyday lives as missionaries include Bob's frequent trips to Colombo (Sri Lanka's capital) with the college basketball teams, the management of their servants, the effect on them of the devaluation of the British pound (9/25/49, Folder 1-4), and the black market in Sri Lanka (2/13/56, Folder 2-2). Near the beginning of each term (1947 and 1954), both Bob and Frances wrote several times of their struggles at Tamil language study.

Bob noted the presence in Sri Lanka and India of Roman Catholic priests and nuns in his letters of 5/22/49 (Folder 1-4), 3/4/50 (Folder 1-5), 9/25/55 (Folder 2-1), 4/8/57 (Folder 2-3), and 3/16/58 (Folder 2-4). Some of the other denominations whose missionaries and/or native churches he wrote about were Orthodox Syrian (2/8/48, Folder 1-2), Pentecostals (2/28/49, Folder 1-4; and 8/8/58, Folder 2-4), Methodist (4/26/56, Folder 2-2; and 4/21/57, Folder 2-3), Missouri Synod Lutheran (4/21/57, Folder 2-3), Episcopal (8/7/50, Folder 1-5), Chaldean Church in Travancore, India (5/27/50-part 2, Folder 1-5), and Presbyterian (12/23/56, Folder 2-2). He also wrote of the union of the Evangelical Reformed and Congregational Churches in the United States, which resulted in the formation of the United Church of Christ, on 5/13/49 (Folder 1-4) and 7/22/56 (Folder 2-2).

Throughout their stay on the mission field, Bob actively solicited news of his alma mater, Wheaton College. He responded to some of the news and made further comments of his own, some based on recollection of his own experiences as a student (class of 1938), and as a visiting professor (during their 1952/53 furlough), in letters dated 11/24/51 (Folder 1-6), 12/13/57 (Folder 2-3), 12/28/58 (Folder 2-4), 2/1/59 Folder 2-5), and 11/15/59 (Folder 2-5). Their son, Bobby, left to attend Wheaton in 1959, and their letters in 1958, 1959, and 1960 (Folders 2-4,5,6) discuss the application process, and his life at Wheaton College. In his letters of 8/12/56 and 9/23/56 (Folder 2-2) Bob wrote about another Wheaton connection, namely his appointment as the Sri Lanka correspondent for the newly-founded magazine, Christianity Today.

Bob and Frances were very proud parents, and wrote extensive accounts to their relatives back in the U.S. about Bobby and Carol Lou. In the early years, they often commented on the childrens' adjustment to their new environment, and use of the Tamil language. After the children were old enough to attend Highclerc, the school for western children in Kodaikanal, India (1949 for Bobby, and 1955 for Carol Lou), their parents often quoted from their weekly letters to them during the school year (mid-January through October). The childrens' letters described school activities and academic course work. Bob's and Frances's letters during the months of April and May, 1959 (Folder 2-5) describe the festivities for Bobby's graduation from Highclerc.

In addition, Bob and Frances spent the months of March, April, and May at Kodaikanal each year, along with other missionaries from Sri Lanka and South India. Their letters home during those times give a first-hand account of Highclerc School, and news of the work of other missionaries they met there (both ABCFM workers and those from other denominations). During one of those "Kodai seasons," (4/26/56, Folder 2-2) they learned of a petition the Methodist missionaries had gotten up to be sent to their home board, asking that full financial support for the Indian church be stopped, in order to encourage Indians to support it themselves. From the end of January through April in 1958, Frances went up to Kodai early in order to fill in as a housemother in one of the dorms, and to serve as a substitute teacher. Her letters at that time give a more intimate account of the school, its students, and teachers. In a letter written to the Holmeses on 5/20/60 (Folder 2-6) just after they left the field, fellow ABCFM missionary, Pat Lockwood, described a fundamentalist/liberal controversy among the faculty at Highclerc.

Bob's comments on the Church of South India are scattered throughout his letters. Several times a year he made visits to the churches on some of the islands off Sri Lanka, especially Delft, Velani, Nainativu (which he called Nainative), and Punkudutivu (which he called Pungudutive). He mentioned the union of the Congregational and Anglican Churches, which became the Church of South India, in his letter of 2/8/48 (Folder 1-2). Both Bob and Frances described special worship services at Jaffna College, such as Easter and Christmas, when she and the choir presented special programs. Bob often wrote about Sri Lankan pastors and church officials.

The Church of South India took an active role in the World Council of Churches, and Bob commented on this in his letters of 3/10/48 (Folder 1-2), 1/24/50 and 11/19/50 (Folder 1-5), 1/8/56 and 10/8/56 (Folder 2-2), and 1/27/59 (Folder 2-5). When officials of the WCC came to visit in Sri Lanka, Holmes mentioned it in his letters, but usually did not give extensive comments. In 1959, Canon Bryan Green came from England and stayed with the Holmeses during his visit to Vaddukoddai; Bob described him in letters of 8/2 and 8/9/59 (Folder 2-5). Bob commented in interest in divine healing in churches in Sri Lanka in his letter of 5/16/54 (Folder 1-8,).

Daniel Thambyrajah ("D. T.") Niles was one of the leaders of the Church of South India at the time the Holmeses were in Sri Lanka, and he is mentioned in the following letters: 11/13/47 (Folder 1-1), 3/3/48 (Folder 1-2), 8/28/49 (Folder 1-4), 9/25/51 (Folder 1-6), 8/15, 9/26 and 11/21/54 (Folder 1-8), 2/14/55 (Folder 2-1), 10/8/56 (Folder 2-2), 4/8/57 (Folder 2-3), and 2/1 and 6/15/59 (Folder 2-5).

After he was made manager of the ABCFM mission press in Sri Lanka, it figures prominently in Bob's letters from 1954 on. He especially describes the financial difficulties, and discusses some of the projects the press took on, such as printing a Tamil hymnbook, and training native staff to take over his position.

Another area of responsibility for Bob during their second term, was serving on the board of directors for the ABCFM hospitals in Sri Lanka: Green Hospital in Manipay, and McLeod Hospital at Inuvil. He wrote of personnel problems, friction between Sinhalese and Tamil staff, and the difficulty of attracting and keeping qualified physicians. Frances wrote of the frustrations of this part of Bob's work in her letter of 9/18/59 (Folder 2-5), saying that they were beginning to despair that the mission would ever be able to turn the work over to Sri Lankans completely. Bob's letter of 12/1/57 (Folder 2-3) told of a threatened strike by the native workers at McLeod Hospital, and the details of the negotiation efforts. Other letters describing the hospitals are dated: 6/7 and 11/8/54 (Folder 1-8), 3/20/55 (Folder 2-1), 10/20, 10/22 and 10/27/57 (Folder 2-3), 10/25/58 (Folder 2-4) and 10/4/59 (Folder 2-5).

Especially during their second term (1954-1960), the Holmeses took an interest in Sri Lankan politics, and often wrote about elections, governmental structure, and political factions. They described the conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations of the island. The Sinhalese were indigenous to the island, and Buddhist, while the Tamils came from South India, and were Hindu; after the British gave the island its independence in 1948, some of the Sinhalese wanted their language to be the only official language for Sri Lanka, and some of the Tamils wanted equality for the Tamil language, or outright independence for the northern end of the island where the Tamil population was greatest. At the beginning of June in 1958, when Bob and Frances were ready to return from their vacation at Kodaikanal in South India, they were delayed several weeks because of riots in Sri Lanka over the language issue; approximately one thousand Tamils lost their lives during the riots. After their return to Vaddukoddai in mid-June, they wrote about the riots and their effect on the mission work, and on the Tamil population in northern Sri Lanka.

Bob wrote about communism in Sri Lanka and India in letters of 5/22/49 (Folder 1-4), 3/6/55 (Folder 2-1), and 2/17/57 (Folder 2-3). He wrote about communism in general on 10/6 and 11/13/49 (Folder 1-3) to his brother Ralph. He noted Sri Lanka's relationship to the U. S. and the U. S. S. R. in his letter of 10/2/48 (Folder 1-3), and letters of 7/31/55 (Folder 2-1) and 10/25/58 (Folder 2-4) comment on Sri Lanka's relationship with India.

Sri Lanka's Prime Minister, Solomon Bandaranaike, was assassinated in 1959, and the Holmeses wrote about the incident and the subsequent trial in letters dated September 25, September 27, October 3, October 16, and November 29 of that year.

There was an uneasy relationship between the Buddhist government of Sri Lanka and the Christian community. In his letter of 11/4/55 (Folder 2-1), Bob told of some of the restrictions missionaries had to deal with, and in a letter of 6/22/56 (Folder 2-2), he compared the situation of missionaries in Sri Lanka and India, with regard to the attitudes of both governments toward Christian missions. On 2/10/60 (Folder 2-6), he described governmental censorship of a Sri Lankan Christian radio program.

The Holmeses wrote about several aspects of Sri Lankan culture. They described the caste system in the following letters, sometimes comparing it with American racism: 1/22/48 (Folder 1-2), 3/1/49 (Folder 1-4), 10/1 and 12/25/50 (Folder 1-5), 7/5/54 (Folder 1-8), 1-/22/55 (Folder 2-1), 7/15 and 12/16/56 (Folder 2-2), 3/3/57 (Folder 2-3), 9/16 and 10/16/58 (Folder 2-4), and 2/1/59 (Folder 2-5). In some of the letters, the caste system is described as it was found in the church.

Bob described several funerals, both Hindu and Tamil Christian, in letters dated 11/14 and 11/30/47 (Folder 1-1), 2/28/48 (Folder 1-2), 3/14/51 (Folder 1-6) and 1/8/56 (Folder 2-2). He and Frances were spectators at both Hindu and Buddhist ceremonies, and wrote about religious beliefs in Sri Lanka and India in the following letters: 8/10 and 10/19/48 (Folder 1-3), 5/22/49 (Folder 1-4), 8/25/50 (Folder 1-5), 3/18, 8/24, and 9/30/51 (Folder 1-6), 5/16/54 (Folder 1-8), 10/18/56 (Folder 2-2), and 6/28/58 (Folder 2-4).

There is also information about marriage and weddings in the letters for 9/20/48 (Folder 1-3), 4/2/50 (Folder 1-5), 1/10/56 (Folder 2-2), 3/3 and 9/16/57 (Folder 2-3), and 1/5, 2/9, and 9/16/58 (Folder 2-4). The subject of Hindu/Christian marriages is discussed in letters dated 9/6 and 11/9/59 (Folder 2-5), and 1/27 and 2/12/60 (Folder 2-6). Bob discussed divorce customs in Sri Lanka in letters dated 2/23/48 (Folder 1-2) and 10/19/58 (Folder 2-4); and on 5/13/49 (Folder 1-4) he described the procedures their Tamil Hindu servant followed to obtain a divorce from her husband in India.

Customs surrounding women in Sri Lanka, including the Hindu practice of purdah, can be found in letters for 11/14/47 (Folder 1-1), 1/4/48 (Folder 1-2), 1/30/49 (Folder 1-4), and 10/22/55 (Folder 2-1). In letters dated 2/19/and 2/26/56 (Folder 2-2), Bob wrote about the conflict in the church in Sri Lanka, about whether or not it was proper for pastors' wives to work outside the home.

The Western community in Sri Lanka consisted of missionaries, embassy staffs, and others, such as professors at the University of Sri Lanka (then known as the University of Ceylon). Bob and Frances comment on some of the activities they took part in which involved westerners (teas, dinners, tennis tournaments) in letters throughout the collection. They mention visiting professors (from America) at the University of Sri Lanka in letters dated 6/5 and 8/7/49 (Folder 1-4), and 9/18/55 (Folder 2-1). During their first term, Bob visited an American engineering project, a dam on the Gal Oya River in Sri Lanka, and he described it extensively in his letter of 2/27/50 (Folder 1-5).

Bob participated twice in village surveys in Sri Lanka for UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization], which he described on 8/24/51 (Folder 1-6) and 8/21/54 (Folder 1-8). He mentioned writing extensive reports of the surveys, and it is possible that they may have been saved in the archives of the United Nations, in New York.

At the beginning of their first term in Sri Lanka, Frances wrote of her adjustment to the role of a missionary wife in letters of 11/14/47 (Folder 1-1), and 1/4 and 5/7/48 (Folder 1-2). In a letter of 4/14/57 (Folder 2-3), Bob tells of the comment of fellow ABCFM missionary, Mienecke Bavinck about how she preferred being a missionary in Sri Lanka because the position of women in the church in her native Holland was not active enough for her.

The Holmeses made several trips around Sri Lanka and India to visit other areas of ABCFM mission work. They describe rural medical work, including work with lepers, in letters of 12/30/48 (Folder 1-3), 8/18/57 (Folder 2-3), 5/7/58 (Folder 2-4), and 1/15/60 (Folder 2-6). From June through August, 1957, Bob took a temporary teaching position at Ahmednagar College (also under the auspices of the ABCFM) in northern India, in order to have a chance to see what the work was like there, and to have a base for travel in northern India. His letters from that period describe the college itself, and their sightseeing trips.

Along with his interest in American politics, Bob often wrote about international political affairs and events, and there are comments about Soviet-American relations, disarmament, the United Nations, and other topics throughout the collection. Among the first events Bob noted was the assassination of Mohandas K. Gandhi on January 31, 1948, followed by comments on further events surrounding his death, in letters of 2/7, 2/19, and 2/21/48 (Folder 1-2). He wrote about the Korean War in letters dated 7/23, 8/2, and 12/4/50 (Folder 1-5), 6/6 and 8/8/51 (Folder 1-6).

The Suez Crisis hit home for the Holmes family when their Christmas presents from friends and relatives in the United States were delayed by several months because the canal was not operating. They celebrated their 1956 Christmas in the spring of 1957. Bob commented during the crisis itself in letters of 8/12/56 to Pop (Folder 2-2), 11/4 and 11/25/56 (Folder 2-2).

Especially while they were in India from March through May each year, they commented on the state of affairs there. They mentioned a famine and the American response to it, in letters of 2/6 and 2/26/51 (Folder 1-6); and wrote of American aid to India again on 7/21/54 (Folder 1-8). Bob wrote about Prime Minister Jawaharal Nehru's policies on 5/2/ and 9/15/54.

During their travels to and from the field, they wrote about the places they traveled through. In September and October, 1947 Folder 1-1), their letters describe ship travel from New York to London, conditions in post-war London, the trip through the Suez Canal, a train trip across India, from Bombay to Madras, and sailing from there to Sri Lanka.

On their trip home for their 1952/53 furlough, they went east from Sri Lanka by ship, to Saigon, Manila, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. They traveled to Vietnam on a French ship, with French soldiers on board, headed for what was then French Indochina, which is described in the letter dated 3/20/52 (Folder 1-7). While they were in Saigon, they visited with a Christian and Missionary Alliance worker there, J. W. Whipple, and Bob wrote on 3/27/52 (Folder 1-7) of the tour of the city Whipple took them on, and of what he told them of Protestant mission work in Vietnam. When they left Saigon to sail to Hong Kong, the ship they were on was under fire as they proceeded down the Mekong Delta, also described in the March 27 letter. Bob mentioned the situation in Vietnam again in a letter of 7/21/54 (Folder 1-8).

Their other letters (Folder 1-7) from that trip described Manila (3/30/52), Hong Kong (3/31/52), and Japan (4/6 and 4/12/52).

On their return trip to the field in February of 1954, they again sailed from New York to London, and from there to Bombay, but then sailed to Sri Lanka instead of going across India by train. Their letters (Folder 1-8) on this trip describe ship-board life, Port Said, Aden, and the opinion of some of the British people on board of the status of Gibraltar.

Toward the end of their second term, Bob and Frances were frustrated in their role as missionaries, and finally made the decision to resign from the mission. Their letters in late 1959 (Folder 2-5), and January, February, and March of 1960 (Folder 2-6) discuss some of their feelings and reasons for deciding to leave the work in Sri Lanka.

The Holmeses left Sri Lanka on April 4, 1960, traveling home via Pakistan, Cairo, Rome, Venice, Florence, Switzerland, Germany and Amsterdam, and then sailed from Copenhagen to New York on May 30, 1960; their letters between those dates (Folder 2-6) describe the places they visited. During their time in Europe, Bob mentioned the U-2 incident, in which an American spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union (5/12 and 5/22/60, Folder 2-6). They also made a brief visit to East Berlin with their friend Willie Sussbach, who had taught with them at Jaffna College and now lived in West Berlin, and Bob described the experience in his letter of 5/17/60 Folder 2-6). Sussbach had written them on 6/3/56 (Folder 2-2) of some of his observations on the differences between East and West Germany, after his return there from Sri Lanka.

Accruals and Additions

The material in this collection was given to the Billy Graham Center Archives in 1985 by W. Robert Holmes.

Accession 85-49

October 13, 1989

Lannae Graham

P. Ericksen

S. Feeck

J. Nasgowitz

Collection 405 Papers of W. Robert & Frances Holmes
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Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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Repository Details

Part of the Evangelism & Missions Archives Repository

501 College Avenue
Wheaton IL 60187 US