“In This Generation”: The Student Volunteer Movement

Image Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899) was the leading evangelist of his day and it through his influence that grew one of the largest missionary efforts of the era, the Student Volunteer Movement founded in 1886. Under the leadership of John R. Mott (1865-1955), It sought to recruit college and university students in the United States for missionary service. There were similar movements in other nations bringing college graduates into the missionary ranks in numbers never before. Thousands signed the pledge  to become a missionary “if God permit,” which one did only in a minority of cases. It can be presumed that most of those who did not go helped to strengthen the support base. By 1920, some 8,140 college graduates had joined the movement set sail to bring the gospel to foreign nations. More than 2,500 had gone to China, while 1,500 went to India and 900 went to Africa. By 1945, it had recruited 20,500 missionaries.

The Student Volunteer Movement’s motto was “the evangelization of the world in this generation.”  The nineteenth century was indeed the age of heroic missions which produced some great heroes of the faith. Yet churches were only sending a small number of missionaries. But in July 1886, all that changed. Dwight Moody held a small student conference at Mt. Hermon, Massachusetts. 251 college students arrived from all over the country. Moody presided over the conference and students heard pastors and seminary professors preach and teach. Yet early in the four-week conference, something that was unexpected happened. The students began to express interest in missions. One of those students, Robert Wilder, called a meeting of all those who had expressed interest in the topic, and 21 of them showed up.

They invited the well-known missions expert Arthur Pierson to come speak. Two weeks later, Pierson gave a speech called “Christ Means That All Shall Go Up and Shall Go to All.” The students then chose ten students to speak at a missions meeting on behalf of ten nations. Seven of those students were foreign and three were American. Each of them concluded their brief speech with a Macedonian call and the words “God is love” in their native languages. The result was nothing less than electrifying. Wilder recalled that he had never seen anything like it before. By the end of the conference, 100 students had pledged themselves to become foreign missionaries.

Being sponsored by the YMCA, Wilder then spent the next year touring college campuses telling the story of the “Mt. Hermon 100” and urged students to pledge themselves to become missionaries. Two thousand took the pledge. In 1888, the leaders of the YMCA formed the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (known as the SVM). SVM clubs formed on college, university, and seminary campuses across the country. It soon became one of the most successful missionary-recruiting organizations of all time. Prior to the SVM, U.S. Protestants supported less than a thousand global missionaries. Between 1886 and 1920, the SVM recruited 8,742 missionaries in America. Around twice that number were actually sent out. Many of them influenced by the SVM though never members. They also formed college groups around the world in countries where missionaries had established missions colleges. They thought in military terms. They saw missionaries as soldiers in the army of the Lord. The SVM therefore sought to recruit, support and place these missionaries strategically around the globe. If done correctly, they were confident they’d conquer the world for Christ.

The culmination of this was the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference. 1,200 missionaries and church leaders gathered to come up with an unified strategy for global evangelization. The SVM helped create this optimism and cooperation that characterized this conference. They played a key role in preparing the conference and John Mott chaired its plenary meetings. It was agreed that greater cooperation across denominational lines was required for the future advance of the gospel. Preparations were then made to bring about the evangelization of the world within a generation.

The peak of the movement was reached at the Des Moines convention in 1920, with 6900 delegates from 950 colleges. The following year 637 set sail. But the thrust of the movement was changing.

So what happened to the SVM? Following World War I, it found itself in a whole new world. Its characteristic optimism was no longer in vogue. The 1920s saw the rise of cynicism and secularism. Protestantism was being torn apart by the divisions between liberals and conservatives who fought for control of the churches. Plus those in leadership in the movement, who now had a few decades of experience under their belts, felt that the original goal of “the evangelization of the world within this generation” was not a realistic goal. And social issues were attracting more attention than evangelism. By 1934, only 38 SVMers sailed and fewer than 500 delegates attended the 1940 convention. The SVM did lack a sophisticated missiology and was too overly dependent on the optimism and idealism of a now passing era.

But it was a tremendously amazing movement of the Holy Spirit that invigorated the American church for global missions in ways never seen before. And the missionary church among college students was now being passed to a new generation of para-church organizations including YWAM, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and Youth for Christ. And the thousands of missionaries around the globe today are the heirs of the Mount Hermon One Hundred all those decades ago.



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