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The Student volunteer missions movement

During a dark time in our nation’s history, God raised up evangelist Dwight L. Moody to shake His people from their complacency. In his formative years, Moody had been challenged by a revivalist named Henry Varley who said, “The world has yet to see what God can do with a an fully consecrated to Him.”

Moody responded, “By God’s help, I intend to be that man.”

Moody eventually took his ministry overseas to England and turned Cambridge University upside down. Out of his evangelistic meetings, a group of young men at Cambridge gathered together and started to pray.

At the same time, young people in colleges in America, banded together and also began to pray. One group consisted of three young men in Princeton University. They prayed that the Lord would somehow open people’s hearts to the need to go as missionaries into the world. Their group Covenanter together with this intent, “God permitting, we will go as foreign missionaries.” One of the, the son of a former missionary to India, was named Robert Wilder. He and his sister, Grace, had been greatly burdened for a missionary movement from the universities of America to break out. Robert Wilder, Grace Wilder and other burdened students prayed fervently for widespread missionary fervor to grip college students of America. Candles of prayer continually burned during the long lonely night watches of this breakthrough company. In essence they were praying Matthew 9:38. What they didn’t know was they had become an “upper room” for the birthing of missionary zeal in what was soon to be known as the Student Volunteer Movement.

Moody called a convention of college students to meet in Mt. Hermon, Massachusetts in 1886. Students from all over the country were invited to come. Robert Wilder was hesitant to attend but Grace persuaded him to go. Later Rober recalled: “She insisted on my going. Before leaving, my sister said to me, ‘I believe our prayers will be answered at Mount Hermon, and that there our Princeton beginning will become intercollegiate.’ She also prophesied as I remember it, that there would be a hundred volunteers listed there.” 

Oh, for the young men and women to see their visions come into being and act upon them! This is the mark of the Holy Spirit upon a generation.

So a year before, in 1885, a young man named John R. Mott transferred to Cornell University. There, he studied political science and history. In his eyes, he had two options: to pursue law or his father’s business. Instead, at Cornell University, Mott’s life would be changed forever.

J.K. Studd, brother of the famous missionary to China, C.T. Studd, was invited to come to America by D.L. Moody and leaders of the YCA to speak at college campuses and share with them a missionary message. On January 14, 1886, Studd spoke at Cornell University.

Mott was late getting to the meeting, and when we arrived he heard J.K. Studd say from the pulpit, “Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not. Seek ye first the kingdom of God!” Mott was instantly arrested by those words. He could not sleep as he pondered what they meant for his life. The next day he engaged Studd in a private conversation and was deeply impressed by the evangelist’s life example. The encounter changed him, but it was only the beginning.

Though missions was heavily emphasized throughout this season, Mott did not commit himself fully until the summer of 1886, when he represented Cornell University’s YMCA at the first interdenominational, international Christian student conference ever held — the very same one called by D.L. Moody. The conference hosted two hundred fifty one college students from eighty-nine colleges and universities, and was held on the Northfield College conference grounds in Mt. Hermon. Though world evangelization was not supposed to be a topic of the conference, Wilder and Grace pressed the issue. Wilder convinced a man named A.T. Pierson to give a bold, missions message. His title was “All should go. And go to all.” Following this, Wilder went directly to Moody and asked for permission to gather ten students to hold a session on “the forgotten peoples.” Those ten students each had three minutes to share. This ended up being the climax of the whole event resulting in further missions messages being preached.

On the final day, Robert Wilder gave a missionary challenge and an aggressive appeal for personal commitment. All in attendance were deeply moved. Wilder sought to keep track of the commitments made by asking the small assembly to write a declaration similar to that which he and his friends had covenanted to keep a few years before.

It stated, “We, the undersigned, declare ourselves willing and desirous, God permitting, to go to the unevangelized portions of the world.” At the end of the conference, ninety-nine men had signed what was known as the “Princeton Pledge.” In the very last meeting of these student volunteers, the one hundredth volunteer slipped in, knelt and signed the pledge. These men became known as the “Mount Hermon One Hundred.”

John Wesley once said, “Give me a hundred men who fear nothing but God, hate nothing but sin and are determined to know nothing among men but Jesus Christ and Him crucified, and I will set the world on fire with them.” Among that hundred was none other than John R. Mott. The meeting was the beginnning of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions.

At Grace Wilder’s memorial service, Rev. Stanley White spoke of how God used her to start the SVM. “In closing I am privileged to mention what is known to but very few, namely, Ms. Wilder’s relation to this Student Volunteer Movement...others are receiving the praise of this movement. We should not forget that God redeeed His promise of answering prayer, and that it was the faithful and effectual prayer of Ms. Wilder and her brother, which, humanly speaking began this work.”

Let me frame and elucidate the significance of this previous quote. The whole Student Volunteer Movement was birthed by one woman and her brother praying the radical prayer, “Lord of the Harvest, thrust forth laborers into the harvest fields.” Here is one of the clearest examples of the extraordinary power of just a few praying this radical prayer. First, one hundred were ekballoed, which then led to one hundred thousand!

So tell me, what would happen if a million worldwide took up the prayer of Matthew 9:38 every single day? I tell you, in a short while we will hear the final trumpet and the Lord returning with a shout, for the task would be done. John R. Mott said it well, “If added power attends the united prayer of two or three, what mighty triumphs there will be when hundreds of thousands of consistent members of the church are with on accord day by day making intercession for the extension of Christ’s kingdom?”

Mott officially organized the Student Volunteer Movement in 1888 with the rallying cry, “The evangelization of the world in this generation.” As leader and organizer of the SVM, Mott had a huge task before him if they were to see their motto fulfilled. He stayed the course and led the SVM for more than thirty years. Others like Wilder also stayed the course and despite different assignments for different seasons, they were committed for life.

Mott felt that the best way to fulfill their motto was to mobilize thousands of college students to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. He attempted to do what organized religion had never before done, which was to join students from all different denominational backgrounds in a single, unified purpose: delivering the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

John R. Mott never lived overseas as a long-term missionary, but he traveled the world in an effort to connect with missionaries and national students in every country he visited. Today, we would call him a “missions mobilizer.” His work made it possible for great numbers of people to effect world evangelization through praying, giving, and going.

The Student Volunteer Movement was arguably the most potent force for missions we have ever known. In about ten years’ time, one hundred thousand had committed themselves. Eighty thousand young people met together in small groups on a regular basis, actively praying for global evangelism. Twenty thousand of the eighty volunteered to go overseas (and actually went), while the other sixty stayed home and formed themselves into a group called the Layman’s Missionary overeat. This movement was composed of college graduates who went on to become the businessmen, lawyers, bankers, and doctors of the day. They met regularly to pray for those who had gone overseas, mobilizing large sums of money for their support. 

Leaders of the SVM like Mott and Wilder showed that the power of students and young adults have to start world-shaking movements. They showed why prayer and organization together are vital; and that is what they did. Men like Moody fanned the flames, but young people forged the movement.But there are many pieces to this puzzle, and all are important. Without missionaries like Studd visiting and challenging the students with bold, sacrificial messages, stirring deep ambitions for the sake of the gospel, the movement would not have located its top organizers and promoters, those most stirred to take up the charge. Furthermore, spiritual fathers like Luther Wishard and A.T. Pierson, who mentored and guided the movement, kept it on track through difficult times. Finally, but most importantly, without the hidden prayers of unsung heroes like Robert Wilder’s sister, Grace, the fires of missionary zeal would surely have become cold embers. Grace received a prophetic word that one hundred men would volunteer at the Mt. Hermon conference and that word came to pass. God employed Grace to plow the hard ground and push the missions movement forward. Isn’t her name beautiful? He can employ such grace in you, too.

Both Robert and Grace Wilder took off for college campuses around the country in order to spread the message. At this time, Wilder’s father was on his deathbed, causing Wilder deep misgivings. He was about to back out of the circuit of mobilization he was committed to, but his father called him to his deathbed and released him, saying, “Let the dead bury the dead. You go and preach the Kingdom.” Within twelve months, traveling by train, Wilder had visited one hundred sixty-two campuses and received the commitments of two thousand one hundred and six students to volunteer for missions. Five hundred of them were women, remarkable for that day.

All of these forerunners took strength in the stories of those who had gone on before them such as Samuel Mills and the Haystack Prayer Meeting that had seized the students at William’s College and launched America’s first notable missionaries, men like Adoniram Judson. The sacred histories of previous generations gave these ones permission to stand upon the shoulders of giants and dare to believe. So they did. They went further, faster, with even more boldness. 

Every generation has the opportunity to consummate what the previous generation attempted. What was theirs to begin is passed like a baton and becomes ours to complete.

First, we must see what Jesus saw as He gazed upon the harvest of His day, and from there, to the harvest of all time.

Second, we must also consecrate ourselves, praying dangerous prayers like, “My life for the Gospel and the glory of God among the nations, whatever the cost!” Or “Here I am Lord, send me!”

”A missionary movement which would evangelize the world in this generation must acquire great momentum; and this can result only in more Christians giving themselves to the ministry of intercession...The SVM owes everything to prayer. It was conceived in days and nights of prayer at Mt. Hermon. The missionary enthusiasm in which it called forth all over the student field had its springs in prayer.” - John R. Mott