n the summer of 1886, the famous evangelist D.L. Moody and the first American campus minister Luther Wishard invited two delegates from each college across America to a month-long Christian conference at Moody’s residence in Mount Hermon, Massachusetts. Little did they know that what was about to take place would catalyze the largest student missions movement in world history.
To set the stage for the summer of 1886, we must first look back to the unexpected birthplace of student missions in America. Exactly eighty years prior at Williams College, a man by the name of Samuel Mills gathered a few of his friends to talk about the cause of world missions. Much of their conversation centered around the missionary William Carey, who happened to be in India at the time. These young college students, as eager as they were, were also so simultaneously embarrassed by what their fellow students might think of their discussing such topics that they went so far as to meet in an empty field. As conversation intensified, they were completely oblivious to the large storm that had begun to roll in, and scrambled to take shelter the only place that they could find—a nearby haystack. As they huddled together in the cold, each young man was sobered by the reality of what it would cost if they were to truly imitate the life of William Carey and give everything to see the gospel go forth in the nations of the earth. Breaking the silence, Samuel Mills famously said,
“We can do this if we will.”
On June 27th, 1810, four students signed a petition put forward to the Congregational Churches of Massachusetts to send the young men as foreign missionaries, two of those students being Samuel Mills and Adoniram Judson. By 1812, Judson and his wife, Anne Hasseltine, were sent as the first student missionaries from America to Burma. Judson had graduated from Brown University and married Hazeltine in 1812. At age 25 they left for Burma. In the next couple decades, they would suffer persecution and war, Judson’s imprisonment, and Hasseltine’s passing due to smallpox. By the end of their lives, these pioneers of the gospel had planted the seed of the church in Burma by church-planting, discipleship, and translating the Bible into Burmese. The groundwork that they laid would soon prepare the way for one of the greatest missions movements in history.
“In spite of sorrow, loss, and pain, our course be onward still; we sow on Burma’s barren plain; we reap on Zion’s hill.” – Adoniram Judson
Jumping back to that summer in 1886, two key men who attended the conference in Mount Hermon were the visionary Robert Wilder and charismatic John R. Mott. Mott was a Cornell student who quickly perceived the growing interest circulating the conference in the subject of world missions, mainly led by the Princeton graduate Robert Wilder. Though at first reticent, by the end of the month Mott was whole-heartedly gripped by the need for world missions. Wilder was a recent graduate of Princeton who had grown up the son of a missionary in India. His family had moved back to America for him and his sister Grace to attend college. While at Princeton and Mount Holyoke College for Women, both Robert and Grace started missional societies for the purpose raising up missionaries, praying for the unreached, and contending for laborers to be sent. The Wilder family would regularly saturate their nights with prayer for a student missions movement to come out of the campuses of America. It was out of these societies that the pledge was formed,
“We are willing and desirous, God permitting, to become a foreign missionary.”
Little did they know, soon tens of thousands would sign and declare this pledge as well.
Throughout the first two weeks, Wilder began to beg the leadership of the conference to allow him to share on the cause for world missions. Though Moody and Wishard initially refused, they eventually gave in to Wilder’s persistence and allowed him and several friends to share for three minutes each on the need for missions in different parts of the world. This marked a shift in the conference, and for the remaining two weeks, men became deeply burdened for missions. One hundred students committed to volunteer for missionary service by the end of the conference, quickly becoming known as the “Mount Hermon One Hundred.”
Out of the success seen the summer of 1886, Robert Wilder was recruited to tour the campuses of America to mobilize and recruit students for service in the foreign mission field. As Robert left his home to begin his eight-month collegiate tour, he was faced with one of the hardest decisions of his life. Robert’s father, Royal, was on his deathbed and Robert knew that if he left, he would never see his father again. After much prayer and thought, Royal called Robert into his room and, quoting the words of Christ, told him, “Son, let the dead bury their dead. You go and preach the kingdom of God.”
During those first eight months of mobilization he saw two-thousand students commit themselves to foreign service, twice as many as had been sent in the past hundred years from America combined! From this point on, what became known as the Student Volunteer Missions Movement emerged, with John R. Mott as the spokesman. It was said later in his life that he was a man who “dreamed in continents.” The rallying cry put forth by this movement was:
“The evangelization of the world in this generation.”
In John R. Mott’s own words, “Each generation of Christians bears responsibility for the contemporary generation of non-Christians in the world, and that it is the business of each such generation of Christians to see to it, as for lies within its power, that the gospel is clearly preached to every single non-Christian in the same generation.” Over the next three decades 20,000 were sent and 100,000 mobilized to give and pray for the completion of the great commission. Every geopolitical nation in the earth at the time was reached with the gospel. As we now know today, the fulfillment of the Great Commission is dependent of every ethnos, or people group, being reached with the gospel, not just a geopolitical nation. There are currently still over 7,000 unreached people groups that have yet to hear.
Three primary values of the Student Volunteer Missions Movement (SVM) were prayer, biblical truth, and mobilization. It was widely believed by the members that all failure in the SVM could be attributed to a lack of prayer. John R. Mott said, “Prayer and missions are as inseparable as faith and works; in fact, prayer and missions are faith and works. Jesus Christ, by precept, by command, and by example, has shown with great clearness and force that he recognized the greatest need of the enterprise of worldwide evangelization to be prayer. Before ‘give’ and before ‘go’ comes ‘pray.’ This is the divine order. Anything that reverses or alters it inevitably leads to loss or disaster.” Everything that the SVM did was based on the belief that the Bible was the inspired and inerrant word of God. Finally, the SVM highly encouraged recent graduates aiming to leave for the field to take a gap year in between to travel from campus to campus mobilizing more students to missions. These students were both the most effective mobilizers and the most effective missionaries.
The SVM reached its height in 1920 with 2,783 students signing up for overseas missions. By 1938, that number had plummeted to only 25. Emerging from the wake of WWI, the next generation had been greatly influenced by the social gospel and social justice. As higher criticism began to sweep much of the West, missions began to be heavily questioned. Fundamentalists fought back against the onslaught of modern thought. The Bible became criticized as an unreliable book and many began to see Jesus as only one of many ways to heaven. By the 1920s, InterVarsity had become the primary missions mobilizing agency rather than the SVM. “This new generation of students emphasized meetings, conferences, and discussion groups. The outcome of this activity did not lead to consecrated lives but rather ‘a vague interest in international questions.’” Religious relativism replaced evangelistic zeal. Lofty ideals had replaced a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The task of world missions was no longer evangelism, but social reconstruction. The watchword quietly faded away.” – Steve Addision, The Rise and Fall of Movements
We have a great need for another Student Missions Movement in our day. “Barna estimates that roughly 70% of high school students who enter college as professing Christians will leave with little to no faith. These students usually don’t return to their faith even after graduation, as Barna projects that 80% of those raised in the church will be ‘disengaged’ by the time they are 29.” We cannot let this current climate of campus life continue, we need a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the college campuses of America that would result in the greatest sending movement in history! Rather than the few hundred campuses that the SVM recruited from in their time, today we have over 5,000 colleges and universities with over 19 million students enrolled in America. We could see a student movement ten times the size of the SVM, with 200,000 missionaries sent from our college campuses and over a million sending them financially. Could we see the evangelization of the world in our generation, with the one billion soul harvest not being a far-off dream but an attainable reality? For this to happen we must first begin to pray the prayer,
“Do it again in our day God.”