1- Birth

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.

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 spreading fires of early Pentecostalism

Allan Anderson has a new book out: Spreading Fires: The Missionary Nature of Early Pentecostalism.

My copy is still on the way but I have read a summary article. Here are some highlights . . .

According to Anderson, Pentecostalism is probably the fastest expanding religious movement ever. Here are five of the main features of Pentecostalism that contributed to its advance from the beginning.

1. The imminent return of Christ

Early Pentecostals were convinced that their experience of Spirit baptism was a fire that would spread all over the world, a last-days universal revival to precede the return of Christ. Missionary newsletters were filled with one overriding concern: to evangelize the nations of the world before the imminent return of Christ.

2. Intercultural origins

From it's inception Pentecostalism was both interracial and intercultural. The Azusa Street Revival was led by William Seymour the son of former slaves. Within two years missionaries were circling the globe with their message of spiritual power.

At the same time, in western India, an equally influential revival was led by Pandita Ramabai at the Mukti mission. Missionaries, mostly young women, were sent throughout India and church planted. Anderson traces the origin of Chilean Pentecostalism back to India rather than North America.

3. Spirit-centered Mission

Pentecostalism grew out of a common experience of the Spirit. That experience of the Spirit led Pentecostals into world missions.

Within two years missionaries were sent out to China, India, Japan, Argentina, Brazil, Palestine, Egypt, Somalia, Liberia, Angola and South Africa.

This was the beginning of what is arguably the most significant global expansion of a Christian movement in history.

These early missionaries had no fixed plan. Many went out believing they had “missionary toungues”. Many left without any source of funds. Their sacrifices were startling. They were poor, untrained and unprepared. Many died on the field.

4. Personal Inflexibility and Adaptability

Like other foreign missionaries Pentecostals were not always sensitive to the local people and culture. Some took too much responsibility for the expansion of the faith and stifled local expressions and leadership.

The result was often secession as new converts reacted to missionary paternalism and control.

The truth was often that the national churches grew in spite of, and not because of, these missionaries, who were denying their converts' gifts of leadership. The Holy Spirit was anointing ordinary people to spread the fire to their friends, relatives, and neighbors, and even to other communities, peoples, and nations.

5. Responsive to Local Contexts

Pentecostal mission was inherently flexible, responding creatively to different contexts. Pentecostalism both absorbed and transformed the religio-cultural context wherever it went.


The wildfires of Pentecostalism were chaotic, unpredictable and out-of-control. When human organizations attempted to quench the flames, as they often did, this futile effort resulted in new fires breaking out in other places and the further proliferation of new churches.

Pentecostalism has been most successful in the Majority World where half the world's Christians live today, where forms of Christianity are very different from what Westerners often assume they must be.

Heart of a founder: William Seymour

Craig Borlase is William Seymour's latest biographer. Recently Craig attended the Centenary of the Azusa Street Revival. The Azusa Street Revival launched Pentecostalism as a world wide movement. Seymour was the key figure in that revival.

Here are his reflections on Seymour as a founder and on how far modern Pentecostalism has come from it's humble beginnings.


It’s a question that’s on my mind as I wander among the crowds pressed together at the Azusa Street Centennial. Just what would William Seymour do here?

Seymour was known for his less-than-glamorous style. Blind in one eye, sparsely educated, he was not a particularly charismatic preacher. He rarely took an offering and simply placed a collection box by the door, choosing to leave it up to the people to settle with God as they felt fit. As for putting on a good show, he spent much of his time during the numerous daily services with his head in a packing crate – his makeshift pulpit. He even played down what were to some the most exciting elements of the meetings, telling people “don’t go out of here talking about tongues, talk about Jesus.”

Today’s 600 million Pentecostals and Charismatics may find themselves orbiting around a different set of values. From slick presentations to high-value collections and spiritual spectacles, much of what we have today differs from the infancy of the most significant movement in Christianity of the last century.

Much of the change has been for the better, yet there is one central element which was at the core of William Seymour’s work which is missing today: mission.

The distinctive of the Azusa Street revival was not so much the chaos caused by the Holy Spirit in the meetings, but the great force with which people were sent out. Much of the spread of the Pentecostal church was due simply to the fact that believers left their homes, put aside their careers and headed off to where they were needed, whether that was the other side of the world, the state or the street. Sacrifice and obedience were high on the list of desirables, and coupled with a desire to take the gospel out to those without prior knowledge, the army of inspired Spiritual footmen was a formidable force.

Craig was interviewed at the Centenary by Ministry Today. It's good. Here's the podcast link.

“William Seymour: A Biography” (Craig Borlase)

Heart of a founder: Martin Luther

Martin Luther Summa summarum: Drink beer and let the Word do the work.

“Summa summarum,” said Luther, “I will preach, speak, write, but I will force no one; for faith must be voluntary. Take me as an example. I stood up against the Pope, indulgences, and all papists, but without violence or uproar. I only urged, preached, and declared God’s Word, nothing else.

And yet while I was asleep, or drinking Wittenberg beer with my Philip Melanchthon and Amsdorf, the Word inflicted greater injury on popery than prince or emperor ever did. I did nothing, the Word did every thing.

Had I appealed to force, all Germany might have been deluged with blood; yea, I might have kindled a conflict at Worms, so that the Emperor would not have been safe. But what would have been the result? Ruin and desolation of body and soul. I therefore kept quiet, and gave the Word free course through the world.

Do you know what the Devil thinks when he sees men use violence to propagate the gospel? He sits with folded arms behind the fire of hell, and says with malignant looks and frightful grin: ’Ah, how wise these madmen are to play my game! Let them go on; I shall reap the benefit. I delight in it.’ But when he sees the Word running and contending alone on the battle-field, then he shudders and shakes for fear. The Word is almighty, and takes captive the hearts.”

Source: Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation, 494.

The great movement founders let God do the work.