How the first American missionary movement finally lost its way

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The American missions movement has experienced two distinct waves. A first wave of effort originated in the early nineteenth century during the Second Great Awakening and largely collapsed amid theological controversy after World War I; a second wave began after World War II and continues today.

John Barrett examines the role played by World War I in the demise of the first wave.


How it began

We began the story of the Student Volunteer Movement in 1886. Eighty years earlier God was preparing the way for the greatest student missionary movement in the history of the church.

In 1806 Five students gathered to pray for revival on their campus and in their generation. Samuel Mills, a freshman, shares his passion about world evangelization. He challenges his peers to offer their lives to world missions.

A movement begins. Foreign missions is born in the United States.

When these students prayed, there were no mission organizations or sending structures in the United States.

But in 1812, through the efforts of students, five missionaries sailed to India. This marked the beginning of foreign missions in the United States, and gave birth to the mission organizations of today.

In the next 60 years, over 500 students joined prayer groups, and over 250 set sail to other parts of the world, committing their lives to missionary service.

7 Lessons from the Student Volunteer Movement

The last in a series of posts on the greatest student missionary movement in history. We've seen is rise and its fall. Here are a few thoughts on the enduring lessons for us today.

1. History is made by people who don’t know any better.

The break throughs in the renewal and expansion of the Christian movement always occur on the fringe. One of the greatest Protestant missionary movement was launched by a group of students meeting informally over the summer to study the Bible.

2. Faith moves nations.

The brother and sister team of Grace and Robert Wilder became convinced that God going to do something great among the students of their day. They believed and prayed until that vision became a reality. God took the initiative and they responded with faith and obedience.

3. Serve a great cause.

Everything the SVM stood for was summed up in their watchword: “The evangelization of the world in this generation.” It was unrealistic and simplistic, and twenty-thousand workers responded to the call. Behind the watchword was a confidence in the power of the God to do the impossible.

4. Keep fit, fast and lean.

The SVM embodied its cause in structures and forms that added momentum to its advance. Student run groups were formed in every college campus. Leaders for the organization were raised up from within. Most of the work was achieved by volunteers. Traveling secretaries linked the groups and kept them on track.

These lean structures enabled the movement to expand rapidly without centralized funding, control or bureaucracy.

5. Narrow the focus to widen the impact

The SVM knew its boundaries. It did not get involved in the complexity of sending and supporting workers on the field. Its unique contribution was the recruitment of workers for existing mission agencies.

6. Beware the failure of success.

As quickly as it had risen, the SVM fell. At the peak of its success it embraced another gospel that was more in tune with the spirit of the age. The SVM betrayed its reason for existence: “The evangelization of the world in this generation.”

7. God has the last word.

The SVM survived for decades as a failed organization and then voted itself out of existence. Meanwhile, on the fringes, God was raising up other student missionary movements to take the gospel to the ends of the world. . .


A lost cause

In 1927 Robert Wilder resigned and returned to the mission field. He was the first and last of the founding leaders. The Student Volunteer Movement continued to distance itself from the missionary ideals that had launched it.

At the 1928 SVM convention in Detroit, Sherwood Eddy publicly repudiated the founding vision of the movement: “The Evangelization of the world in this generation.” No one challenged him.

As the SVM, YMCA, YWCA, and the mainline denominations embraced theological liberalism and the social gospel, the outcome was catastrophic.

In the 1920s the numbers of missionaries sent out by the mainline denominations declined by two-thirds. Faith missions replaced denominations as the primary senders of missionaries. They shunned the SVM which became increasingly irrelevant to the missionary enterprise.

In the 1940s the faith missions and conservative denominations turned to the evangelical Intervarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) for missionary recruits.

In its last thirty years the SVM wandered dazed through a series of mergers and restructures. In 1969, the ecumenical student alliance it had joined three years earlier, voted itself out of existence. What had once been the greatest student missionary movement in the history of the church was laid to rest.

Meanwhile many SVM leaders found their way into the ecumenical movement and the religious bureaucracy of the World Council of Churches (WCC). In 1946 John Mott received a Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to the ecumenical movement.

Today Wishart’s dream of a non western indigenous missionary force to complete world evangelization is coming to fulfillment, but not through the SVM.

At the heart of the SVM’s demise was the loss of its reason for existence. A clear missionary mandate to evangelize the world in this generation was replaced by a vague social gospel agenda that eventually found expression, not in social transformation, but in the religious bureaucracy of the World Council of Churches.

The SVM embraced another gospel that was powerless to mobilize students for world missions. The movement was born in 1886, by 1924 it had abandoned its founding cause of world evangelization. For the next 45 years, the momentum of its pioneering era carried it through until what was left of the SVM voted itself out of existence.

When the SVM emerged out of a student summer camp in 1886 there were 2,000 protestant, cross-cultural missionaries serving around the world.

Over the next generation, nearly 100,000 students joined campus SVM groups, and over 20,000 of them sailed overseas to serve God among the least evangelized.

As the SVM lost it's passion for world evangelization, other student movements took up the challenge — InterVarsity, the Navigators, Campus Crusade for Christ, today there is even a SVM2.

Robert and Grace Wilder’s prayers for a student missionary movement are still being answered despite the failure of the original SVM.

Next: Lessons from the SVM


Accounting for the rise of the SVM


The Student Volunteer Movement was the greatest student missionary movement in the history of the church. What accounts for the success of its early years?

1. A passionate and practical faith

The SVM was served by a lean and effective low cost organization with a minimum of paid staff. The real driving force was the faith and commitment of the volunteers. The leaders of the SVM were recruited from within. They combined a commitment to personal holiness, prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit with a down to earth practicality.

SVM volunteers committed themselves to the “Morning Watch” 30 minutes to an hour of bible study and prayer at the beginning of each day. They believed the evangelization of the world in this generation required both spiritual empowerment and effective methodologies.

2. A clear cause

SVM’s sole purpose was, “The evangelization of the world in this generation.” By that they did not mean the conversion of the whole world. Rather giving “all men an adequate opportunity to know Jesus Christ as their Savior and to become His real disciples.” (John Mott)

The SVM was only interested in recruiting missionaries, not in sending them. Their mandate was to inspire others who would serve with the various mission agencies.

3. Effective structures

The SVM’s organizational structure was simple, lean and capable of rapid expansion. Once a student became a volunteer they joined the SVM group on campus. These campus groups were the heart of the movement. Robert Wilder pioneered the strategy when he was at Princeton.

A small band of students met to pray and to encourage each other in their commitment to missions. They also became mission advocates on the campus. The groups were student run. The sole focus was total commitment to the promotion of missions.

Traveling secretaries set up and sustain an expanding network of campus groups. Without these groups the movement would have lasted long.

Next post: How the SVM went global.

The rise of a missionary movement


Next year is the 100th anniversary of the World Missionary Conference of Edinburgh 1910. It marked a highpoint of Protestant missions and the beginning of the Ecumenical movement that birthed the World Council of Churches.

Next year there will be a spate of articles on the centenary, so I'm getting in early with a serious of posts on the movement that was behind Edinburgh 1910.

This is the story of the greatest student missionary movement in the history of the church—its stunning rise, and its shameful collapse.

As he left for the conference Grace told her brother Robert that she believed her prayers had been answered and 100 students would volunteer for missions.

Two hundred and fifty-one young men from 89 American colleges and universities gathered at Mount Hermon Massachusetts.

The atmosphere was relaxed and informal. The conference stretched over 26 days.

During the first two weeks there was no formal missions emphasis, but behind the scenes Robert Wilder and twenty-one others met whenever they could to pray that God would raise up missionary volunteers.

Behind the scenes Wilder organized small meetings of students. Those meetings grew until missions became the dominant them of the conference.

By the end of the conference as 99 volunteers had signed the pledge: “We are willing and desirous, God permitting, to become foreign missionaries.”

As they knelt in prayer the 100th man came and knelt with them. The world would never be the same. Mount Hermon launched the greatest student missionary movement the world has ever seen.

Soon Wilder set off on a national tour of colleges. From 1887-8 he recruited 2,106 missionary volunteers. One quarter of them were women.

Within five years of Mt Hermon there were Student Volunteer Movement (SVM) groups meeting in 350 colleges throughout North America. Six thousand two hundred students had volunteered for missions. Three hundred and twenty had already sailed.

By 1898, 1,173 missionaries were serving in 53 different countries. By 1900 half of the 9,000 American missionaries were SVM volunteers.

Between 1886 and1920, a total of 8,742 SVM volunteer missionaries served on every continent. By 1924, 300 of them had been martyred.

Next: Reasons for the SVM's early success.

The unsurprising death of a missionary movement

Istock 000004177355XsmallI continue to be fascinated by the story of the Student Christian Movement (SCM).

I've just finished reading another account of its spectacular history – from its rise in the late 1800s as a student movement for world evangelization, to it’s demise as an instrument of Marxist ideology in the 1970s.

SCM is a case study in the dynamics of a missionary movement gone wrong.

In the early years members were committed to the “Morning Watch”. They rose early each day to meet with Christ in prayer and Bible study. They were also committed to “world evangelization in this generation”.

Thousands volunteered for world missions — more than the churches and missionary societies could cope with. SCM became known as “the church ahead of the church”.

The death of SCM was sudden, but the cancer that killed it took half a century to do its work. Here are some of the shifts that began as early as 1910:

  1. From Biblical authority, to critical biblical scholarship.
  2. From personal salvation, to salvation as social and political justice defined from an increasingly secular and left wing perspective.
  3. From a membership made up of committed Christians, to a membership of “seekers” questioning the Christian faith.
  4. From Christ alone as Savior, to Christ as the fulfillment of all religions.
  5. From mission clearly defined as world-wide evangelism, to mission defined broadly as the kingdom God in the secular world.
  6. From dependence financially on students, graduates and the churches, to dependence on earnings from past investments.
  7. From biblical and theological studies, to oppressive political ideology.
  8. From the support of cross-cultural missionaries, to the support of revolutionary movements.
  9. From financial viability, to financial disaster.
  10. From the struggle for holiness, to the struggle for gay and lesbian rights.

Now the context has changed over the last century. You're probably wondering about the relevance of this sad chapter in the history of world missions.

The point is, the context may have changed but the drift in various forms goes on in every dynamic missionary movement.