[pp. 80 – 88 of A Prophet With Honor by William Martin]
Theologically, Wheaton was a Lamb's-blood relative of Bob Jones College and Florida Bible Institute, and the motto carved on the cornerstone of Blanchard Hall—For Christ and His Kingdom—clearly expressed the dominant ethos, but Wheaton embodied the broadest spirit of American Fundamentalism in the 1930s. As an accredited and academically respectable liberal arts college, it attracted the offspring of many of America's most affluent and influential Fundamentalist families. Because Wheaton gave him almost no credit for his courses in Florida, Billy, now almost twenty-two, had to enroll as a freshman. If his bright clothes, Li'I Abner brogans, and North Carolina accent caused people to think him a naive country boy, his age and status as an ordained minister with real preaching experience gave him a jump on other neophytes, and he soon emerged as a well-known campus figure. He had not yet drawn many invitations to preach, and Frank Graham had stopped sending him money, so he found a job working for another student who hauled luggage and furniture in a battered old yellow pickup. The CEO of the Wheaton College Student Trucking Service was preparing for mission work in China and introduced his new assistant to Ruth Bell, a second-year student who, as the daughter of a Presbyterian medical missionary, had grown up in Tsingkiang, China. Ruth claims not to remember their first meeting with any real clarity. Billy fell in love with her immediately and informed his mother of that fact before he ever got up the courage to ask for a date.
In many respects, Ruth's and Billy's childhoods could hardly have differed more. He had pored over books about faraway lands; she lived about as far away from Charlotte as it was possible to get. He had heard sermons on the wickedness of card playing and swearing; her regular path to school took her alongside putrid streams where dogs ate the tiny carcasses of infants slain by their parents because they were female or deformed. She knew of children kidnapped by bandits and sold into slavery or prostitution, and of missionaries who had been murdered or who had killed themselves in despair over the wretchedness of their circumstances. Billy arose at 2:30 A.M. to milk cows; Ruth often still lay awake at that hour, unable to sleep because of the noise from gunfire and bombs, or from fear of rats and scorpions that even the strictest measures could not eliminate. In Mecklenburg County, the religiously peculiar were those who insisted on singing hymns without an organ or who kept the Sabbath as if they were Jews; Billy's father had once warned him to be wary of Lutherans because they held "very strange beliefs." In North Kiangsu province, nine thousand miles away, the heretics were the Christians, foreign devils with their peculiar belief in only one God, and that one a wrathful being who permitted the death of his only son.
Despite these differences, striking points of contact existed between the two young people. Ruth's father, Dr. L. Nelson Bell, not only loved baseball but had signed a contract with a Baltimore Orioles farm team shortly before he got caught up in the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (inspired by D. L. Moody) and dedicated himself to medical missions. As head of the Tsingkiang General Hospital, founded in 1887 by Pearl Buck's father, Dr. Bell proved to be a talented surgeon and, like Frank Graham, a resourceful provider. Also like the Grahams, the Bells steeped their brood in Presbyterian piety, rearing them on daily doses of private and family devotions and expecting them to commit large sections of Scripture to memory. Ruth's religion, however, took a serious turn far earlier than did Billy's. By the time she was twelve, she was pointing toward a career as an oldmaid missionary to Tibet and praying regularly for a martyr's death. As another measure of her devotion, she loved to conduct animal funerals, complete with hymns and eulogies, before interring the dearly departed in her own pet cemetery. Of these leanings, Dr. Bell observed in a note to her teacher, "We feel Ruth has a slight tendency to revel in the sad side of things, letting her religion (which is exceedingly real and precious to her) take a slightly morbid turn." As she matured, the darker side of her piety gave way to a spunky willingness to tackle the world head-on rather than look for avenues of escape, but she continued to cling to the vision of a solitary mission to nomadic Tibetan tribes, at least in part, because it seemed like the hardest challenge she could possibly undertake.