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The Story of the Student Volunteer Movement

November 26, 2018
 “The evangelization of the world in this generation.”

That was the rallying cry of the collegiate men and women who were part of the greatest missions mobilization movement in world history. It is called the “Student Volunteer Movement” and 100 dedicated believers in July of 1886 in Northfield, Massachusetts provided the powerful impetus to launch over 20,000 long-term, cross-cultural missionaries from America into a myriad of unreached parts of our world over the next 40 years.

During this time one out of every 37 college students signed a declaration that they were willing and desirous to spend their lives taking the gospel to a foreign field. If that same ratio was applied to the American college students of today, we would have well over half a million signing up to be missionaries.

Why can’t it happen again today?

Why can’t  the fire that burned within those early student volunteers ignite again?

What is holding back this generation from becoming radical, world changing, disciples of Jesus Christ who yearn to take that same gospel to the ends of the earth?

What is the key to mobilizing this generation to evangelize the world?

Read Jay Gary’s excellent article and ask the Lord to lay it on your heart what role He wants you to play.

This original story by
Jay Gary first appeared in World Christian magazine, July/August 1986.

One hundred years ago this summer they stepped forward, unexpected and almost unnoticed. They called students to volunteer for foreign missions. During the next 50 years the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM), as they named themselves, catapulted 20,000 Christians into overseas missionary service.

Today, a century later, the SVM no longer exists as an organization, but thousands of Christians still respond to its call: “the evangelization of the world in this generation.”

The Summer Awakening at Mount Hermon

Every night of the academic year of 1885-86, Robert Wilder and his sister, Grace, prayed for a thousand new missionaries to emerge from the colleges of America. They had experienced first hand the spiritual needs of India, where their parents were missionaries. Moved to share this burden with others, Robert, who was a seminary student at Princeton College, invited five fellow students to his home on Sunday afternoons to study foreign missions. Grace usually prayed from her post in the room adjacent to the parlor that their hearts would be stirred. (It was not proper for young women to mix with unchaperoned college men.)

That spring, Robert received an invitation to attend the first summer Bible conference ever conducted for college students in North America. It was sponsored by the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), which in contrast to its work today, was then openly evangelical in orientation and outreach. D.L. Moody, the well-known evangelist of that day, hosted the event throughout the month of July at his “Mt. Hermon School,” tucked away in the hills of western Massachusetts.

At first, Robert deliberated on whether to attend the conference, but his sister Grace saw in this event the answer to their prayers. She told him: “Robert, you have to go. There, I believe our prayers for a missionary awakening will be answered.” She added prophetically, “God will raise up 100 students who will volunteer for missionary service.”

When Wilder arrived at Mount Hermon on July 6, he joined 251 college men, representing 89 schools across America. From the start, he invited others to join him at an afternoon missions prayer meeting. At first, the prayer group numbered four, then 14; soon the numbers swelled to 21. Each of them signed the declaration Wilder had brought. It read, “We, the undersigned, declare ourselves willing and desirous, God permitting, to go to the unevangelized portions of the world.”

Once they signed the declaration, these students started challenging others during the conference. Pledge-signers began to talk about missions everywhere–in the dining halls, at the swimming wharf, during leisurely hikes and on the athletic field.

Although Moody did not plan to include missions as an emphasis of the conference, within 10 days Wilder persuaded the evangelist to schedule a missionary program on two Friday evenings. At the second Friday meeting, students presented the spiritual needs of 10 nations. Those in the audience were deeply moved and hushed as they heard about lost souls in such countries as China, India, Persia and Japan. The meeting closed in quiet prayer, and everybody scattered among the groves overlooking the Connecticut river. Many prayed into the night, surrendering themselves to the lordship of Christ.

One who dedicated his life that night was John Mott, soon to be a junior at Cornell. He later became the greatest missionary statesman and ecumenical architect of modern times.

Mott described the mood of the conference in a letter to his parents: “The Holy Spirit is working here with mighty power. He has brought about the greatest missionary revival the world has ever known. Up to this noon, over 80 of the students have consecrated themselves to foreign missionary work and I know by Sunday night they will number 100. It thrills me through and through to record this fact. Here I have received a far richer anointing of the Spirit than I had dared to ask for before I came.”

By the last day of the conference, a total of 99 students had signed the missionary declaration. As they knelt in prayer during a farewell meeting, one more person opened the door and slipped in, filling the ranks of what came to be know as the Mount Hermon 100. Grace Wilder’s prophecy of 100 volunteers had come to pass.

The Missionary Surge

In the school year that followed, Robert Wilder and a fellow volunteer from Princeton traveled to 162 colleges, securing the names of an additional 2,100 volunteers.

Samuel Zwemer was one of them. Now remembered as the “Apostle to Islam,” Zwemer was a student at Hope College in Michigan when he volunteered for missionary service through the SVM. He and a fellow seminarian sought to be considered for service in Arabia, the heart of the Muslim world. The mission board of the Reformed Church turned down their request because they considered such a mission “impractical.” Undaunted, Zwemer and his friend organized their own mission and raised support. Zwemer ministered to Muslims in Bahrain and Cairo for more than 39 years.

By 1888, the missionary surge that started at Mount Hermon became formally organized as the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, serving the campus department of the YMCA and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). The SVM united groups of pledged students into local volunteer bands on the campuses, conducted conventions that drew thousands every four years, and published hundreds of missions pamphlets and textbooks.

In simple terms, the SVM was a huge divine megaphone in the ear of the Christian student. The SVM regularly sent “soon-to-be” missionaries on speaking tours of the college campuses. Their challenge to other students was not, “Pray for me,” or “Please support me,” but rather, “Come with me.”

At the turn of the century the SVM had spread out through the YMCA-YWCA network to Britain, Holland, Germany, Australia and also into Japan, China and India. In 1916, 500 SVM volunteers sailed overseas to become missionaries, three-fourths of all new missionaries that year. In 1922, 700 volunteers sailed overseas, marking the highest yearly total of new missionaries the SVM had ever recruited. For one brief moment, among the students and churches of the world, there was, as one volunteer said, the “feeling that we were one team, working for one world, under one Captain.”

An All-encompassing Vision

The SVM was able to call out so many volunteers because their vision for what God intends to do in the world was clear. The phrase “the evangelization of the world in this generation” became the rallying cry for the SVM. This slogan assumed that it was not good enough just to go across the world and do a good job. This watchword demanded that the volunteers work toward finishing the task of evangelism worldwide in their lifetime. The watchword was explained in hundreds of SVM speeches, appeared in the pages of nearly every issue of their newsletter and was discussed at every volunteer meeting on campus. It became their guiding light. Reflecting on the impact of this watchword, John Mott, who became the chairman of the SVM, said, “Next to the decision to take Christ as the leader and Lord of my life, the watchword has had more influence than all the other ideals and objectives combined to widen my horizon and enlarge my conception of the kingdom of God.” For a time it became the Protestant world’s most widely recognized and effective slogan.

But these early SVM-ers needed more than catchy slogans to keep their vision. The SVM also helped students organize into small groups to study foreign missions in their extra-curricular time, letting “the facts become the fuel by which to feed the missionary flame.” During the school year of 1914, the SVM reported that
40,400 students in more than 700 colleges were studying its missions materials. John Mott could claim that the study of missions “is now regarded to rank with Bible study as one of the two foremost and fundamental Christian activities among students.”

An Uncompromising Commitment

These early volunteers also gave themselves unreservedly. Robert E. Speer, for example, turned his back on promising career plans to volunteer for missionary service. He earned his reputation at Princeton College as a hard-hitting defensive tackle on the varsity football team. Speer planned to follow his father as a lawyer and politician. As a result of Wilder’s challenge, however, he became a “pledge-signer” and prepared for missionary service along with several of his classmates. After he graduated, he visited different colleges for a year and signed up more than a thousand volunteers.

Later, an invitation from the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions interrupted his preparation for mission work. They asked him to fill their highest administrative post. For a second time, Speer abandoned his own career plans–this time the dream of becoming a missionary. Refocusing his efforts, Speer influenced thousands through his speaking engagements during the next 46 years. He raised the number of Presbyterian missionaries serving overseas from 150 to 1,500.

It’s one thing to understand God’s intentions for the world; it’s another thing to measure one’s life goals by that vision and to make the necessary adjustments. But that’s what these early SVM-ers did, neglecting pleasure, ambition and praise.

“Man, of all luggage, is the hardest to move. The head heeds the admonition, but the heart postpones assent,” wrote Robert Wilder. In order to move college students to action, he developed a declaration card like the one used at Mt. Hermon. The latter version read, “It is my purpose, if God permits, to become a foreign missionary.” According to an historian of the SVM, 20,5000 students who had signed the declaration reached the field by 1945. In a real sense, this declaration became the cornerstone of the SVM.

Many volunteers later bore witness to the impact the declaration had on them. More than 60 years after signing his declaration card, Sherwood Eddy, an early volunteer, recalled, “There have been a few crucial moments that shaped my whole life. One was a quiet evening, in 1893, in Union Theological Seminary when I signed the Student Volunteer declaration card. At that moment I “became” a missionary.”

Looking Back. Looking Forward

A hundred years have passed since the SVM swept onto the scene of intercollegiate life in North America. By the 1930s, the SVM’s parent organization, YMCA-YWCA, lost its evangelical fervor and gradually ceased to play any significant role in the life of college students. Others like InterVarsity, Campus Crusade and the Navigators have moved onto the campuses to call college students to follow Christ to the world.

Today, another generation of students and young adults are stepping forward for missionary service. The SVM slogan, “the evangelization of the world in this generation,” still challenges college students to live their lives in uncompromising commitment. The Master is still walking in our midst, saying, “Come with me.”

Reprinted with permission

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