Connecting Faith and Life

Student Force in World Missions: A Study

The Missionary movement in India is gradually showing signs of decline. Many of the leading mission agencies are finding it difficult to get new recruits. One of the key reasons for this, I suppose, is the spread of self centered teaching by Prosperity preachers. Perhaps, young people who aspire to make it big in life become very vulnerable to such teachings. Radical Discipleship and Mission mindedness are outdated or out fashioned in today’s Christianity. The following historical study shows how students in the 19th and early 20th centuries had been the backbone of world missions. It is my desire that this article will inspire at least a handful of students to think about Missions.

God has been raising people and movements throughout history to accomplish the task of World Evangelisation. The modern era of ‘Christian Missions’ was undoubtedly a period of world wide expansion of Christianity. The contribution of the student community to this rapid growth is fabulous and this phenomenon is worth a detailed study. This paper aims at tracing the history of the development of student activity in world missions, pertaining to the period between 1800 and 2000. The paper is divided into four sections. The first section gives a brief account of the student impetus in missions preceding the eighteenth century. The second and third sections deal with the history of student contributions to world missions during the 19th and 20th centuries respectively. The final section has an abbreviate estimation of the whole movement within the overall context of missions.

Even before the universities came into existence, young people of student age and similar educational level were playing important roles in missions. For instance, in the middle ages, the monasteries (Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, etc) which were centres of learning also acted as foci of missionary activity.1 In the post Reformation era, the Pietist movement and Great Awakening stirred mission interest among students to a great extent.2 Student involvement in missionary activities becomes more evident and clear during the 17th century.3 The story of the Moravians is an outstanding one. Zinzendorf who studied at Halle university, along with five other students formed the “Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed.” Later from this order, missionaries were sent to many parts of the world.4 John Wesley and Charles Wesley too can be regarded as pioneers of student mission. They formed “Holy Club” during their studies at Oxford for prayer and study of the New Testament. Later, the Wesleys themselves after graduation went to Georgia as missionaries to reach the American Indians.5

As we have noted before, pietism and the Great Awakening influenced both Europe and North America well into the nineteenth century. As a result, we find some crucial events happening separately in both the continents among students. Moreover, as we shall notice shortly, God brought together people of same vision and passion, from these two continents, over a period of time, to create a world wide mission awareness.

3.1. The Beginnings
Charles Simeon, an ordained minister at Holy Trinity church, Cambridge, became influential to many a student of that time. He conducted Bible studies at his home for them. Students who heard him were led to the conviction that they had to do something for the Lord. As a result, in 1811, the followers of Simeon started the British and Foreign Bible Society at Cambridge in order to translate Scripture into many of the world’s languages.6 In USA, the first series of college awakenings occurred as early as 1787. In colleges, some students took the initiative in starting Christian fellowships. In many places tiny societies were formed to encourage holy living and prayerful life.7

3.2. Haystack Revival and the Formation of Mission Societies 
In August 1806, one afternoon, Samuel J. Mills, a first-year student at Williams College in Massachusetts, and other Christian friends gathered to pray in a maple grove near their campus as was their custom. Thunderclouds threatened, so the students took shelter under a haystack. As the rain fell, their conversation narrowed to the need for American missionaries in Asia. Exhorting his classmates to consider God’s call to foreign missionary service, Mills said, “We can do this if we will.”8 They pledged their lives for missionary work. This event marked the beginning of a great revival of student interest in missions. It is remembered in history as “Haystack Revival.”

In September 1808, Mills and a group of other students formed a community called the “Society of the Brethren.” After graduation, several of them went to Andover Seminary, where they formed another society called “Society of Inquiry.”9 The Society of Inquiry spread to other colleges rapidly and soon a unprecedented missionary awareness appeared. In 1810, they presented a memorial to the General assembly of congregational churches offering themselves as missionaries.10 Thus, emerged the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The first North American missionaries set sail for India in February 1812. This team consisted of five people, including Adoniram Judson.11

3.3. Missionary Challengers
In 1857, David Livingston happened to visit Cambridge and challenged the students for missions. Subsequently, Cambridge University Church Missionary Union was established with the intention of developing missionary awareness among college students.12 D. L. Moody, the popular evangelist of the nineteenth century also played a crucial role in student missions. During his evangelistic tour to Britain in 1882, he was asked to address the student community at Cambridge. Though he hesitated in the beginning because of his less exposure among intellectuals, finally preached to a large student body.13 His Cambridge ministry resulted in many conversions, including the famous Studd brothers.

Following this event, many of the converts felt that they were called to serve in missions. Hence, there was a sudden increase in the number of students who applied in mission agencies like CMS and China Inland Mission.14 What became remarkable was the decision of seven able graduates of Cambridge to join China Inland Missions. Soon after graduation, before sailing to China, these men travelled widely in Britain and Scotland meeting other university students to challenge them about foreign missions.15 This resulted in a sudden outpour of students to far away lands.

3.4. The Emergence of New Student Movements
Several new campus movements arose during the middle of nineteenth century. A major impetus to student Christian work came with the establishment of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in London in 1844 at the initiative of George Williams.16 Following YMCA, YWCA, the women’s wing was formed in 1854. Soon YMCA and YWCA was able to penetrate college campuses in both Europe and USA.17 Many of the secretaries of YMCA chapters were godly men and women with a great zeal for missions. One of the key figures, who took efforts to form the intercollegiate network of YMCA, was L. D. Wishard. He was a great missionary motivator. Moody and Wishard jointly invited J. E. K Studd, the brother C. T. Studd, to speak among the university students in USA about the need for missions, challenging them with the story of Cambridge Seven. This had a huge impact.18 John R. Mott was a direct product of this mission trip. At about the same time, Robert Wilder, son of a former missionary to India, was at Princeton college. He too had a great passion for missions. Fired by the missionary challenge given by A. J. Gordon, a British speaker, they started Princeton Foreign Missionary Society (PFMS).19

3.5. The Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions
As we notice, there was an increasing measure of missionary zeal among college students toward the close of nineteenth century. The time was nearing for a greater move of God. David M. Howard observes,
The ground was being prepared by God to bring together a host of strands that would bind the Haystack prayer meeting, the YMCA, the Princeton Movement, and, indirectly even the Cambridge Seven into what Wilder remarked as the golden chain stretching from the Haystack Meeting to the greatest student uprising in all history.20

Wishard persuaded Moody to plan for a summer Bible study conference for students in Moody’s conference grounds at Mt. Hermon, Massachusetts, during the summer of 1886. Wishard and his friend Charles Ober visited many campuses to recruit students for this conference. With the initiatives of Mott and Wilder, a total of 251 students gathered for a month’s conference. Although the conference was not meant for discussing missions, Wilder and Wishard were moved in their spirits to ask God for a revival in their hearts for missions. A. T. Pierson’s address during the conference further fuelled their missionary zeal.21 By the end of the meeting, one hundred of them willingly expressed their commitment for foreign missions. Thus, originated the world wide Student Volunteer Movement (SVM) with its motto “The Evangelisation of the World in this generation.”22.

The SVM acted as the highest mission recruiting agency of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.23 Wilder, Mott and Robert Speer championed the movement. They criss-crossed the two continents and beyond, challenging the students to take up foreign missions. They influenced the students through their missionary appeals.24 Mott remained as its president for about thirty years and during his time SVM became a dynamic force in the field of foreign missions. By 1940, at least 20,500 missionaries had sailed from North America and Europe to various mission fields by the influence of SVM.25 Four times this number, over 80,000, remained at home, supporting their fellow volunteers as well as increasing missions education.26 Many served under the mission agencies of Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, and congregational churches. The majority went to Asia, with smaller numbers to Africa, Latin America and Middle East.27 Unfortunately, by 1940 SVM ceased to be an active movement. The lack of dynamic leadership, the political context, and deviation from mission focus and much more contributed to the decline.28


4.1. The Formation of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF)
The Period between 1860 and 1880 was marked by great religious activity among Evangelicals throughout England.29 In 1877 the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU) came into existence. Followed by this, Student Volunteer Missionary Union of Great Britain and Ireland was launched in 1892. These two movements were acting together for sometime under the banner Student Christian Movement (SCM).30 Though, SCM had mission focus in the beginning, gradually after 1910, it lost its missionary focus and became more liberal in its approach. After world war I, the CICCU, which had strong evangelical roots decided to separate itself from SCM. By 1928, following the CICCU several other Evangelical unions came into existence.31 These were brought together under one banner called Inter-varsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). Unlike SCM, there was a strong emphasis on mission in IVCF. For instance between 1981 and 1986, through their mission programmes, 30,000 made written commitments to the cause of world evangelisation. They were followed up regularly and interested candidates were guided to Mission agencies.32

4.2. Students Foreign Missions Fellowship (SFMF) and Urbana
In 1936, a new missionary impetus came out of the work of Robert McQuilkin, the founder of Columbia Bible college. This movement was later consolidated and became the Students Foreign Missions Fellowship (SFMF). This movement almost replaced the loss of SVM. Later in 1945, this became the missionary arm of IVCF in universities.33 From the merger of SFMF with IVCF came the idea of a large missions conference to motivate students into mission work. The first one was held shortly after the second world war, in 1946, at the campus of university of Toronto. The next conference was held at Urbana with 1,300 students from all over the world. Since then, once in every three years this missions conference is held at Urbana.34 During the period between 1946 and 2000, in the history of ‘Urbana,’ nearly 213,000 delegates have attended these and approximately, 125,000 have made commitments to be actively involved in world missions.35

4.3. Mission Trends After 1950 
During the second half of twentieth century, several revivals took place in American universities. Two noteworthy were in Asbury and Wheaton. At Wheaton, 39 percent of the class of 1950 devoted themselves for world missions. Similarly, in 1970, about 130 colleges and Bible schools in USA experienced a burden for World missions.36 From the 1950s, many organisations began to focus on students and included in their aims the focus on world missions. Campus crusade, The fellowship of Christian Athletes, Youth for Christ, Youth with a Mission (YWAM), Operation Mobilisation, and many others are involved in student missions.37 Many of these offer short mission trips and tenures for students. Jonathan Rice comments, “Through the 1980s and 1990s, passion for short term international missions projects steadily grew among college students.”38 For instance, since 1983, Seattle Pacific University has trained more than 1,300 students for cross cultural missions through its short-term SPRINT programme.39 YWAM during the first twenty five years of its existence has sent over 1,00,000 young people into all but 20 of the world’s 223 UN-recognised countries.40

Another major trend of this period is the rise of indigenous student movements in many parts of Asia and Africa. In India, Union of Evangelical Students of India (UESI) came into existence in 1954. From its origin missions has been one of its aims. The Spreading Flame, UESI history Manuel notes, “It is our dream that the Lord will use UESI to raise 500 missionaries every year from the rank and file of UESI family.”41 Harvey Co Chien, a recent member of IVCF Philippines comments, “Missions is no longer the Monopoly of Western Christians. Asians have not sold their birthright.”42 Similarly, the focus is not just Foreign Missions but includes their own respective unreached pockets.43

Moreover, in this period, there has been a remarkable awareness of the social concerns. Hence, many students after their graduation seek opportunities to serve down trodden people.44 The holistic concept of missions is now found widely. For instance, this was one of the major topics of discussion at Urbana 1990.45 Overall, the scenario of student involvement in missions looks very positive. In 1998, Amy Barstad, the president of the International Society for Frontier Missiology observed, “I sense the rumblings of another Student Volunteer Movement happening again.”46 Amen.

Robert A. Fryling points out that it is difficult to fully assess all of the worthy contributions of student mission work. Nevertheless, a brief estimation is possible. Students have shown some endearing qualities like spiritual commitment, zeal, compassion and great passion for the Lord’s work as missionaries.47 This is evident by the great names seen in the history of missions. David Brainerd during his time at Yale university committed his life for reaching the Native Americans. E. Stanley Jones, who graduated from Asbury college committed himself to serve in India. C. T. Studd was another committed man who served in various mission fields till his death. Samuel Zwemer focussed his attention on the Muslim world. This is just a representative list. Ruth Tucker cites Sherwood Eddy who expresses well the mind set of many student volunteers of the past, “I was one of the first of sixteen thousand student volunteers who were swept into what seemed to us nothing less than a missionary crusade. We were considered fanatical by some, and we made numerous mistakes which we ourselves came to realise later in bitter experience. Many sacrificed early plans and ambitions for wealth, power, prestige or pleasure, to go to some distant country about which they knew little save its abysmal need. We felt that we were in one team, working for one world, under one captain.”48

Tucker also observes that the Student volunteers because of their secular education were able to adapt their faith to the new culture more efficiently than the other missionaries.49 The student movements helped make missions respectable among the social and educated elite as missionary recruits usually were from humble backgrounds and less educated in those days.50 Moreover, the movements like SFMF were responsible for the rise of indigenous student missionary concern particularly in South Africa, China and India. For instance, in India, the formation of UESI was guided by Norton Sterrett, a staff member of IVCF.51

Many of the student initiatives eventually became a boon for the churches. For instance, by 1914, some 40,000 students were enrolled in mission study classes under the auspices of the SVM, most of whom were not volunteers. They took up influential leadership positions in churches. We also need to observe that many of these student initiatives were essentially lay movements and therefore they were instrumental in mobilising the Christian laity to the support of missions.52

As discussed above, these student movements enhanced ecumenical co-operation among them. Mott envisioned a world network of local student movements and congregations relating directly among themselves and to their own local situations.53 Moreover, many of these societies promoted international partnership. For instance, their conventions drew students from a variety of nationalities together. Hence, this enhanced an international missionary appeal.54 A further contribution of student impetus was the development of missiological discipline in Bible colleges and universities. Societies like Society of Inquiry and SVM promoted missionary education and awareness. SVM leaders and others also wrote voluminously on various aspects of missions.55 Some of the best mission schools were also established during this period. Moody Bible Institute was an outstanding one.56 Nevertheless, the student movements did posses some weaknesses. The student volunteers were products of the imperial generation and held to its values. Ben Harder comments, “Utopian idealism prevailed and this optimism was reflected in an emerging cultural superiority of the Western nations and in a nascent internationalism with its ‘white man’s burden’ sense of destiny.”57 Moreover, movements like SVM had a military sort of approach to missions. Reaching other nations was considered as conquests.58 The intense missionary fervour sometimes led to questionable eschatological and ecclesiological points.59

The history of student involvement in missions is an amazing story of men and women who were used by God in World missions. The growth and expansion during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries did not happen in vacuum. The revival movements of that period highly influenced the students. The students forsook their selfish ambitions and took upon themselves the task of World Evangelisation. Moreover, many like Moody, Wishard, Wilder, Mott, played the crucial role of igniting the passion among Christian students. They extensively travelled and set fire in the hearts of young men and women to plunge out into unknown mission fields without reservations. Moreover, in spite of the majority of student initiatives being sodalities, they could get good support of the churches in general. This too paved way for their success. Similarly, God’s providence is so evident in the way people and groups came together for accomplishing this. Though some of the student Christian movements of the 19th century lost their fervour and focus for missions after a few years of their existence, we see evangelical student movements of the nineteenth century holding fort and continuing the momentum gained from the previous years. The second half of the twentieth century has been a hay day for student missions with more and more mission agencies coming into existence. Hence, the prospects look brighter than before during the twenty first century.

1Samuel Escobar, “Recruitment of Students for Missions,” Missiology: An International Review 15/4 (1987) 531. For instance, about 1300, the Dominicans and Franciscans took missions to reach the Mongols with the gospel. Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 109.
2Escobar, “Recruitment of Students for Missions,” 532. Pietism could be understood as the effort to continue to the spirit of Reformation, stressing purity, renewal and social transformation. It is therefore a spiritual renewal movement. It started during the middle of seventeenth century and influenced many of the revivals that happened later and was instrumental in giving birth to many missions, including student missions. Paul E. Pierson, “Pietism,” Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions 758. The term Great Awakening refers to a series of revivals in western Europe and North America that began around 1725 and extended to the late nineteenth century. Pierson, “Great Awakenings,” Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions 408.
3David M. Howard, Moving Out: The Story of Student Initiative in World Missions (Illinois: IVP, 1984), 15. Howard cites the historical account of seven young law students who made commitments to serve Christ as missionaries during their studies at Paris the early part of seventeenth century.
4Howard, Moving Out, 17.
5Howard, Student Power in World Evangelism (Illinois: IVP, 1971), 58-59.
6Howard,Student Power, 60.
7J. Edwin Orr, Campus Aflame: Dynamic of Student Religious Revolution (California:GL Publication, 1971), 25.
8Orr, Campus Aflame, 39.
9The purpose of Society of Inquiry was to collect and update data about the mission fields and the mission needs.
10George Thomas Kurian, Nelson’s Dictionary of Christianity (Nashville: Nelson, 2005), 324.
11Howard, Student Power, 69.
12Howard, Student Power, 60-61.
13Moody prior to this was involved in revival at Princeton Seminary. Timothy C. Wallstrom, The Creation of a Student Movement to Evangelise the World (Pasadena: William Carey International Press, 1980), 37.
14Howard, Student Power, 62.
15Howard, Moving Out, 22.
16From initiation YMCA was ecumenical in nature. The supreme aim of the organisation was to encourage young people to live for God’s glory. Evangelism and social concern were considered as part of preaching the gospel.
17Philip Potter and Thomas Wieser, Seeking and Searching the Truth: World Student Christian Federation (Geneva: WCC publications, 1997), 2-3.
18Potter and Wieser, Seeking and Searching the Truth, 4
19The conference of the Inter-Seminary Missionary Alliance in 1883 turned out to be a memorable for Wilder and his friends. Students who joined the Society had to sign the declaration card which stated, “We, the undersigned, declare ourselves willing and desirous, God permitting to go to the unevangelised portions of the world.”Wallstrom, The Creation of a Student Movement, 35.
20Howard, Student Power, 79.
21Wallstrom, The Creation of a Student Movement, 42-44.
22Wallstrom, The Creation of a Student Movement, 42-44. The statement was not meant to be a prophesy. Rather, it stressed the responsibility of Christians in each generation to proclaim the gospel to the whole world. Pierson, “The Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (SVM),”Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions 914.
23Ben Harder, “The Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions and its Contribution for 20th Century Missions,” Missiology: An International Review 8/2 (1980) 143 .
24To get a glimpse of their missionary appeals, please see [n.a.], Students and the Modern Missionary Crusade (New york: SVMFM, 1906), and [n.a.], The Student Missionary Appeal (New York: SVMFM, 1898).
25Paul E. Pierson, “The Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (SVM),” 914.
26Kevin Little, “Students in Missions,” (accessed 9 August 2007).
27Pierson, “The Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (SVM),” 914.
28Howard, Moving Out, 50-53.
29F. D. Coggan, Christ and the Colleges (London: IVCF, 1934), 14.
30Coggan, Christ and the Colleges, 14-15.
31Douglas Johnson (ed), A Brief History of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (Lausanne: IVCF, 1964), 36-45.
32Escobar, “Recruitment of Students for Missions,”539.
33Robert A. Fryling, “Student Mission Work,” Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions 913-914.
34Fryling, “Student Mission Work,” 913-914.
35Ian Downs, “The Urbana Story,” Mission Frontiers 23/1 (2001)11. The focus of Urbana is four-fold: to present the biblical basis of world missions, to present the contemporary world missions scenario, to challenge students to recognise their role in world missions, and to motivate the students to pass on this vision to their peers. Howard, “Urbana Mission Conferences,”Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions 991-992.
36Fryling, “Student Mission Work,” 913-914.
37Fryling, “Student Mission Work,” 913-914. Many of these organisations regularly conduct mission conferences and retreats to expose the missionary needs among college students.
38Jonathan Rice, “The New Missions Generation,” Christianity Today (Sept, 2006), (accessed 9 August 2007).
39Rice, “The New Missions Generation.”
40John A. Holzmann, “Youth with a Mission: Just Beginning at 25,” Mission Frontiers 8/10-12 (1985) 9.
41[n.a.], Spreading Flame (Madras: UESI Publication Trust, 1994), 115.
42Escobar, “Recruitment of Students for Missions,” 541.
43Escobar, “The Significance of Urbana 90,” Missiology: An International Review19/3 (1991) 337.
44Rice, “The New Missions Generation.”
45Escobar, “The Significance of Urbana 90,” 336.
46Russell G. Shubin, “Winds of Renewal,” Mission Frontiers 21/2 (1999) 9.
47Fryling, “Student Mission Work,” in Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions 913-914.
48Ruth Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (Michigan: Zondervan, 1983), 262.
49Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, 261.
50Harder, “The Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions and its Contribution for 20th Century Missions, 144.
51[n.a.], Spreading Flame, 115.
52Harder, “The Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions and its Contribution for 20th Century Missions, 151-152.
53Dale Irvin, “John R. Mott and World centred Missions,” Missiology: An International Review 12/2 (1984) 163-164.
54Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, 262.
55Speer wrote no less than 19 mission works. The Missionary Review of the World, first published by Royal Wilder in 1878 and later taken over by A. T. Pierson in 1886, made a major contribution to missions education. Samuel Zwemer contributed to the growing field of missiological literature. Later he assumed the Chair of Missions at Princeton where he served from 1930 to 1936. Kenneth Latourette, the mission historian, originally signed the Declaration at Yale and later served the SVM as education secretary (1909-1910). Harder, “The Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions and its Contribution for 20th Century Missions,”150.
56Harder, “The Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions and its Contribution for 20th Century Missions,” 151.
57Harder, “The Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions and its Contribution for 20th Century Missions,” 144.
58Militant terminology became a standard part of the nomenclature of the SVM leaders. A. T. Pierson perhaps set the tone at the first quadrennial in 1891: This is a council of war In the tent of the Commander we are gathered, and the Commander-in-Chief is here Here are his subordinates, the heads of departments, the under captains, and here are the volunteers in the army. And nothing but this council of war would have brought me here tonight. Harder, “The Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions and its Contribution for 20th Century Missions,” 144.
59SVM’s motto “Evangelisation of the world in this generation” was too much pre-millennial and was questioned by many.

By Sam K John

1 Comment
  1. James says

    Dear Sam,

    It would be good if you can do a small study on trends of raising indian missionaries from different states over the past 65 years of indian independence.

    Another aspect I feel worth studying is decline of ‘mission’ among poor and deserving in the healthcare and education sector. Historically in India, Christians were known for their contributions in these two areas. But I feel it is declining in quantity and quality.

    Alternately, If you can point to any studies (systematic) in bible colleges in these topics, I would be very glad.

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