by David M. Howard
The exciting story of the student impulse for missions and how David Howard himself discovered God’s will.
Clarence Shedd of Yale University, in his definitive work entitled Two Centuries of Student Christian Movements, makes the following statement: “Since Jesus’ time numberless bands of Christian youth have turned the world upside down and thus led mankind forward in its struggle for freedom and deeper religious experience. The universities have always been breeding places for such groups.”
The university as we know it today did not exist during the early and middle centuries of Christianity. Therefore, there was no exact parallel during that period to the student world of today. However, it is significant that the only true missionary work carried out during the Dark Ages was led by monks. The monasteries were academic as well as cultural and religious centers. From them the gospel spread to the pagan lands surrounding the Roman and post-Roman Empires.
By the time of the Renaissance and the Reformation, the university had developed into a significant factor of life. Indeed, the first universities in Europe actually grew out of the monasteries.
The history of the modern missionary movement shows that students have played a decisive role in most, if not all, of the great forward movements of the church in world evangelization. Through their vision and energy the church has often been propelled into renewed efforts of outreach.
The earliest evidence of this comes from Germany in the 17th century. A group of seven law students in Lubeck committed themselves to carry the gospel overseas. At least three of them sailed for Africa. Only the name of Peter Heiling has survived today. He went to Abyssinia in 1634, where he translated the Bible into Amharic and later died a martyr. No successors carried on his work, but the translation of the Scriptures was a significant contribution.
In 18th century Germany, Count Nicolas Ludwig Von Zinzendorf (1700-1760) started the great Moravian missionary movement. Between the ages of 10 and 16 he studied in the Pietistic Paedagogium in Halle. Here he and five other students formed The Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed, a spiritual secret society. They framed four purposes: to witness to the power of Jesus Christ, to draw together other Christians in fellowship regardless of ecclesiastical connection, to help those suffering for their faith, and to carry the gospel of Christ to the heathen beyond the seas. As a student Zinzendorf took his first steps towards a world outreach.
By 1732 Zinzendorf’s burden for sharing the gospel had become so great that he was one of the leaders in sending the first two Moravian missionaries to the West Indies. The modern missionary movement, which traces part of its roots to the Moravians, was actually born in the hearts of a group of students at Halle who prayed and worked for world evangelism.
During this period God was at work in the lives of two students in England, John and Charles Wesley. They began their remarkable careers as missionaries to the Indians of the colony of Georgia in 1735. Where had they received this vision? At Oxford University. They had joined like-minded students in a fellowship of prayer and Bible study. (This was dubbed by their contemporaries as “the Holy Club” and later “The Methodists” because of their methodical ways.) Through this group the Wesleys began to see their responsibility to world evangelization. In the 19th century, Cambridge University, England, became a significant missionary center. Charles Simeon was a Fellow of Kings College, Cambridge, whose remarkable ministry spanned 54 years (1782-1836). The Inter-Varsity Fellowship of England (from which IVCF in the USA and Canada grew) goes back directly to the great work done by Simeon. Out of the small Bible study and prayer groups led by Simeon came some of the great church leaders of the 19th century.
When David Livingstone visited Cambridge in 1857, these student groups formed the Cambridge University Church Missionary Union to encourage a more active missionary spirit on that campus.
In 1882 the American evangelist, D. L. Moody, visited Cambridge. While his evangelistic ministry caused a great impact, the historian, J. C. Pollock, points out that “it was in the increase of missionary zeal that the impetus given by Moody was the most marked . . . Many of Moody’s converts were soon sensing a call to the foreign field.”
The following year seven outstanding student leaders at Cambridge applied to the China Inland Mission, recently founded by Hudson Taylor. These included such leaders as C. T. Studd, captain of the cricket team, and Stanley Smith, the stroke oar on the varsity crew. Following graduation they traveled throughout the British Isles for six months to share the burden for world evangelism. By the time they sailed for China in February, 1885, their brief tour had made such an impact on the church in Britain that literally hundreds of young people volunteered for overseas service.
Meanwhile, in North America the beginnings of missions interest can also be traced directly to , students, and, in particular, to one student, Samuel J. Mills, Jr. (1783-1818). Before his birth his mother consecrated him to God for missionary service, a remarkable fact because in those days there was no such thing as a mission board in North America. Converted at the age of 18, Mills enrolled in Williams College, Mass., in 1806. He and other students spent Wednesday and Saturday afternoons in prayer.
One Saturday afternoon in August, 1806, Mills and his friends were caught in a thunderstorm as they returned from their prayer meeting. They fled to a haystack and prayed as they waited out the storm. They prayed about the awakening of foreign missionary interest among their fellow students. One historian says of them, “Bowed in prayer, these first American student volunteers for foreign missions willed that God should have their lives for service where He needed them, and in that self-dedication really gave birth to the first student missionary society in America.”
Mills and his friends formed The Society of Brethren, whose members were bound together by oath to pray that God would use them in spreading the gospel to the world. During the next years, several of the members went on to other schools, where they formed new chapters of this society.
By 1810 these students had become so convinced that God wanted to send them overseas that they decided to take steps in that direction. In June they went to the annual assembly of the Congregational Churches of Massachusetts with a petition that a foreign mission society be formed to send young people overseas.
Church leaders responded quickly. The petition was presented on June 28. On June 29, they voted to form the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the first foreign missionary society in North America. By February, 1812, their first volunteers sailed for India. Among them was Adoniram Judson, who later persuaded the Baptists to form their own society, which thus became the second mission board in North America.
In addition to founding the Society of Brethren and being instrumental in the founding of the first U.S. foreign missionary society, Mills spent some of his summers in the urban slums of New York, ministering to the social, physical, and spiritual needs of the poor. While there he saw the needs of seamen at the port of New York. So he helped to found the Marine Bible Society, to evangelize the seamen and then give Bibles to be spread around the world. He also was a founding member of the American Bible Society in 1816, a group whose influence on world evangelism has been incalculable. He also helped to organize the Foreign Mission School at Cornwall, Conn., to train international students from overseas to return to their countries to evangelize.
While he desperately wanted to go overseas himself, Mills was persuaded by others to remain in the U.S. to help foment missionary concern among young people.
The crowning glory of Mills was his vision for Africa, a continent as yet almost totally unevangelized. Then he faced one of the glaring social ills of the United States at that time, slavery. Mills felt deeply concerned to evangelize and liberate these slaves. Combining his concern for Africa and his desire to help the slaves, he conceived the idea of liberating these slaves and sending them back to Africa to evangelize their own people. In 1817 he participated in the founding of the American Colonization Society, whose purpose was to evangelize, liberate, and repatriate slaves from North America to Africa.
During the next half century the Society of Brethren expanded its influence throughout the universities of the U.S. Then in 1851 a new society came to the U.S. from England, the Young Men’s Christian Association. The major emphasis of the YMCA was evangelistic, combined with efforts to meet the social and physical needs of young men. Within three years there was a YMCA in nearly every major city of the U.S. As early as 1856 YMCA’s were beginning to appear on college campuses as well. At that time there was no movement working exclusively among university students. In 1877 the YMCA formally organized its collegiate division. Luther Wishard was named full-time secretary. He was the only such university worker in the world at that time.
Wishard was a missionary candidate who considered his work on the campuses to be not only evangelism and social welfare, but also to awaken missionary interest. In fact, he was so anxious to go overseas himself, that he had a major spiritual struggle when the YMCA asked him to remain in the U.S. to serve students here. During his first year as YMCA secretary, Wishard visited Williams College and knelt at the monument on the site of the Haystack Prayer Meeting to commit himself anew to God and to missions, saying, “I am willing to go anywhere at any time to do anything for Jesus.”
God continued to work among students during these years. In the early 1840s Royal Wilder was a member of the Society of Brethren at Andover Seminary. In 1846 he sailed for India under the American Board of Commissioners. Serving there for 30 years, he was forced home in 1877 by poor health. Settling in Princeton, N. J., he founded a periodical, “The Missionary Review of the World.”
His son, Robert Wilder, enrolled in Princeton College in 1881, where he became concerned that God would awaken students to their responsibility to the rest of the world. On Sunday afternoons he would meet in his father’s living room with other students to pray to this end. In 1883 they formed the Princeton Foreign Missionary Society.
Then God began to bring together some other strands. J.E.K. Studd, brother of C. T. Studd of the famous Cambridge Seven, came to the U.S. in 1885 to share the vision that the Cambridge Seven had spread in England. While visiting Cornell University he was used by God to influence deeply the life of a sophomore named John R. Mott.
In the summer of 1885, God brought together Luther Wishard of the YMCA, Robert Wilder of Princeton, John R. Mott of Cornell, J.E.K. Studd of Cambridge, ail of whom shared a mutual vision for awakening missionary interest among students. Strands that had begun 80 years earlier under the haystack were being forged into what has been called “the golden chain stretching from the Haystack Meeting to the greatest student uprising in all history.” These young men were convinced that God wanted to do a great thing among students of their day. So they asked D. L. Moody to sponsor a student Bible conference.
In July, 1886, 250 students gathered at the conference grounds of D. L. Moody, at Mt. Hermon, Mass., for a month of fellowship, prayer, and Bible study under great teachers such as Moody and A. T. Pierson. Wilder and his sister, Grace, were praying that out of that conference God would call 100 missionary volunteers.
During the month the Holy Spirit began to work in a quiet, yet unmistakable way. A powerful address by A. T. Pierson on “God’s Providence in Modern Missions” was followed by most of the students spending the better part of the night in prayer. In that address he provided the seed thoughts for the watchword that became the cry of the students, “The evangelization of the world in this generation.” By the final night 99 students had signed a declaration saying that they were willing and desirous to go to the unevangelized portions of the world. On that night one more student came to Robert Wilder to indicate a similar desire. Thus, Wilder’s prayers for 100 volunteers were answered.
But the students were not willing to drop this vision at the end of the conference. They asked Wilder and John Forman to travel to other campuses to impart this vision. During the 1886-1887 school year Wilder and Forman visited 162 schools in the U.S. and Canada, and saw 2,106 students sign missionary volunteer declarations. Among these were some of the great missionary leaders of the next half century, such as Samuel Zwemer and Robert E. Speer.
The students felt that some form of organization was needed to maintain their impetus. So they formed the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, which was formally incorporated in 1888. John R. Mott was named chairman and Wilder traveling secretary. The cry, “The evangelization of the world in this generation” became their watchword. Mott in later life said, “I can truthfully answer that next to the decision to take Christ as the Leader and Lord of my life, the watchword has had more influence than all other ideals and objectives combined to widen my horizon and enlarge my conception of the kingdom of God.”
The growth of the SVM was phenomenal. In 1891 they sponsored the first student missionary convention. This subsequently became a quadrennial affair. Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship U.S.A. and Canada readily acknowledges its debt to the SVM for the idea that lies behind today’s Urbana conventions.
For the next 30 years the conventions and the movement grew rapidly. By the post-World War I era thousands of students had gone overseas because of the influence of SVM. The entire church in the U.S. and Canada was awakened to its worldwide responsibilities by the impact of this movement.
The first quadrennial convention following World War I was held at Des Moines, Iowa, in 1920, with 6,890 in attendance. This was the peak year, statistically and in terms of influence, of the SVM. The next year, 2,783 students enrolled as missionary volunteers. Less than 20 years later their entire enrollment of volunteers for one year was 25. The quadrennial convention held at Toronto in 1940 was attended by 465 delegates. What had happened to cause such a drastic change in so short a time? Reports of the conventions for the next 12 years indicate a veering away from the original purposes of SVM, with a notable absence of the watchword. By 1936 at Indianapolis it was stated that “the audience was the mission field rather than the missionary force.”
William Beahm, in a doctoral dissertation on the history of the SVM, states, “Their emphasis shifted away from Bible study, evangelism, lifework decision and foreign mission obligation on which the SVM had originally built. Instead they now emphasized new issues such as race relations, economic injustice and imperialism.” In view of this “by 1940 it had almost ceased to be a decisive factor either in student religious life or in the promotion of the misssionary program of the churches.”
Yet God does not leave himself without a witness. By the mid-1930s with the decline in missionary interest, with the Great Depression taking its toll, with war clouds rising again in Europe, with the liberal-fundamentalist controversy raging, the church was deeply discouraged. But once again God moved upon students who would not be deterred from fulfilling God’s call, in spite of surrounding circumstances.
In 1936 at Ben Lippen Bible Conference grounds in North Carolina a group of students shared their concern that SVM seemed to have changed its original purposes. Convinced that they could not sit idly by and watch the church give up its missionary outreach, they decided to act. The following week a delegation from Ben Lippen went to Keswick, N. }., to share with a similar student conference the burden God had given to them. After careful consultation with some SVM leaders, and feeling that their purposes were now different, they decided to form a new organization.
Thus, the Student Foreign Missions Fellowship was organized. In 1938 the SFMF was formally incorporated under student leadership, and chapters were formed throughout the country. Rapid growth was experienced, and once again the church was awakened through students who refused to be daunted by the circumstances of their times.
In 1939 Inter-Varsity came to the U.S. from Canada. It was soon evident that one of its purposes, that of fomenting missionary interest among students, overlapped directly with the purposes of SFMF. After several years of prayer and consultation, both groups felt led by God to a merger that was consummated in November, 1945, the SFMF becoming the Missionary Department of IVCF.
In December, 1946, the newly merged SFMF and IVCF sponsored their first international missionary convention, attended by 575 students, at the University of Toronto. In 1948 the first convention was held at the University of Illinois, Urbana, where it has been held since that time.
Following World War II there was a great upsurge of missionary concern. Veterans who had fought in the Pacific and Europe returned to the campuses deeply desirous to go back and share the gospel with the people who so recently had been their enemies. These veterans had seen the world, life, and death in a way few students before or since had seen it. God used them to lead others into an understanding of mission obligation. From many campuses in the late 1940s and early 1950s more students went overseas in missionary endeavor than at any other comparable period in history.
However, during the 1950s it seemed as though the human race was begging for a breather. This general lull took its toll in missionary interest as well. Once again there was a decline in the churches and among students.
In sharp contrast, the student world of the 1960s was marked by activism, violent upheavals, and negative attitudes. The anti-government, anti-establishment, anti-family, anti-church attitudes were also expressed in anti-missions reactions. Seldom have missions been looked upon with less favor by students than during that decade.
However, early in the next decade a sudden, unexpected change took place. Apparently recognizing that negativism was not going to solve the problems of the world, students began to take a more positive attitude and to work for change from within “the system.” Nowhere was this more dramatically seen than at the Urbana student missionary conventions. Inter-Varsity uses world evangelism decision cards at these conventions as a regular part of the process of stimulating student response to missions. In 1970 seven percent of the students at Urbana signed these cards. Three years later, 28 percent signed the card. The number grew to 50 percent by the 1976 convention. This percentage has remained above 50 percent since then.
Now, in the middle of the 1980s, we are still riding the crest of a great wave of student interest and activism in missions. Summer programs and short-term assignments overseas have increased dramatically in recent years. The Institute of International Studies in Pasadena, and similar programs of missionary preparation, have been attracting steady streams of candidates.
Today’s students have the great privilege of standing on the shoulders of their forebears to view with thanksgiving what God has done in the past and to look ahead to the future with great hope.
I still have a small, faded World Evangelism Decision Card dated 1946, with my signature. Unfortunately, I did not record the day, but it is quite possible that I signed this card at the close of the first student missionary convention at the University of Toronto.
The card used to be green. I can tell by the small green circle where a thumb tack used to hold this card above my desk throughout the rest of my college days. It served as a daily prayer reminder that I had committed myself to serve God overseas unless he were clearly to direct otherwise. The fact that I had 15 years of exciting service in Latin America is attributable in large measure to prayer- much of it stimulated by that little card.
Upon returning to college after the Toronto convention students began to meet regularly to pray for missions. My closest friend in college was Jim Elliot. Jim was only to live for a few years beyond college, but in that short life he would leave a mark for eternity on my life and the lives of hundreds of others. Exactly 10 years to the week when the Toronto convention ended, Jim and his four companions were speared to death by the Auca Indians on the Curaray River in Ecuador. In his death he would speak to multiplied thousands, although we did not know that in our college days. Jim encouraged a small group of us to meet every day at 6:30 a.m. to pray for ourselves and our fellow students on behalf of missions. This became a regular part of my college life.
Jim Elliot also organized a round-the-clock prayer cycle, asking students to sign up for a 15-minute slot each day when he or she would promise to pray for missions and for mission recruitment on our campus. The entire 24 hours were filled in this way. Thus, every 15 minutes throughout the day and night at least one student was on his knees interceding for missions at Wheaton College.
Art Wiens was a war veteran who had served in Italy and planned to return as a missionary. He decided to pray systematically through the college directory, praying for 10 students by name every day. Art followed this faithfully through his college years.
I did not see Art again until we met in 1974 at the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Switzerland. As we renewed fellowship and reminisced about old times, he said, “Dave, do you remember those prayer meetings we used to have at Wheaton?” “I certainly do,” I replied.
Then Art said, “You know, Dave, I am still praying for 500 of our college contemporaries who are now on the mission field.” “How do you know that many are overseas?” I asked. “I kept in touch with the alumni office and found out who was going as a missionary, and I still pray for them.”
Astounded, I asked Art if I could see his prayer list. The next day he brought it to me, a battered old notebook he had started in college days with the names of hundreds of our classmates and fellow students.
Jim Elliot not only prayed for other students, he worked on them. He took several campus leaders as special prayer projects and then went after them aggressively on behalf of missions. Our senior class president was Ed McCully, star football player and track man, holder of the college record in the 220-yard dash, and winner of the national oratory championship. Ed planned to be a lawyer, and he would have made a good one. He was smooth, articulate, brilliant, and spellbinding in his oratory.
One day shortly after Ed had won the national championship in oratory, he came into the locker room. Jim was there getting ready to shower. I recall seeing him go up to Ed, grab him by the scruff of the neck, and say, “Well, McCully, so you won the national oratory championship, did you? Great stuff, McCully. You have a lot of talent. But who gave you that talent? God did, and you know it. So what are you going to do with it? Spend it on yourself all your life? You have no business doing that, McCully. You owe it to God to give it back to him. You should be a missionary, and I’m praying that God will make you one.” Then turning to me, Jim said, “Howard, we’ve got to pray for this guy.”
Ed stood there looking rather sheepish and not saying much. Following graduation he entered law school for a year, but was uncomfortable. God was at work in his heart. At the end of that year he dropped out of law school and joined Jim Elliot in going to Ecuador, where he also died under the Auca spears in 1956.
Two major factors came into focus during my college years. First, it became clear that if Jesus Christ is truly Lord of my life, then I must obey his commands. His last command given on earth-and one that was repeated at least three times during the 40 days following his resurrection-was that we are responsible to give the gospel to the whole world so that every tongue may confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. No honest Christian can get away from that command.
Second, I saw that most of those who have never heard that Jesus is Lord are not located in the area of the world where I live. There are about 4.5 billion people in the world today. Nearly three billion of them have never had an adequate opportunity to hear of Jesus Christ. The population of North America is roughly 250 million. The large majority of these have at least had an opportunity to hear of Jesus Christ. The gospel is available on radio, TV, through the Bible that can be bought in any bookstore, through churches in every city and almost every town. But the large majority of the three billion unreached have no opportunity in their own culture to hear of Jesus Christ. If every tongue is to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, someone must cross those cultural and geographic frontiers to carry the message to them.
As I pondered these two great facts, it occurred to me that I could not go wrong by at least trying to get to some area of the world where the gospel had not been given. If God didn’t want me there, he could close the door. But if he wanted me there, and I was sitting with folded arms at home waiting for a spectacular call, it would be far more difficult to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord in my life. To accept his lordship meant obeying his commands.
Therefore, about the time I signed the World Evangelism Decision Card, I came to the conclusion that if Jesus Christ was to be Lord of my life, I should plan to obey his commands by heading for some area of the world where the gospel had not yet been freely given, trusting that if God did not want me there, he would close the door.
Recognizing Jesus Christ as Lord also meant a commitment to action on behalf of missions. During my junior year, in prayer with others, I felt that God would have me spend the summer traveling to present the challenge of missions to other young people. This would be done as peer to peer, as one young person to another. So I did something that makes me shudder today when I think of it.
Having now planned such massive events as several Urbana conventions and a world congress on evangelization, and knowing how many things can go wrong in such a venture, I am not sure I would have the simplicity and audacity of faith that I had as a 20-year-old student. But somehow God responded to my step of faith.
Having worked out a detailed itinerary, I wrote to churches and Bible conferences across the midwest from Michigan to Montana, announcing that on a certain date, a group of four young missionary volunteers would be in their area and would be glad to share the challenge of missions. The only problem was that I was the only one prepared to go. I had no other student committed with me and no car in which to travel. As late as April I still had no idea how we would fulfill this commitment.
However, God answered prayer, and that summer four of us-Jim Elliot, Rodger Lewis, Verd Holsteen and I-set out with no money in our pockets, a small car, an itinerary, and a great expectation of what God would do. God graciously responded to our somewhat naive faith, and we have good reason to believe that God touched many hearts through this tour. At least I know he touched the hearts of the four of us in deep ways.
Prayer and action continued to be a key in understanding that Jesus is Lord in my life. Following college, I joined Inter-Varsity staff for one year as missions staff member. I don’t think I made much contribution to Inter-Varsity during that year, but they made a great contribution to me. I learned much from God in traveling across all of the U.S. and Canada visiting 120 campuses to stimulate missions interest.
The next year I was married and entered graduate school for theological preparation for missionary service. My wife had already settled the question of missions in her own life before we were engaged. While in graduate school we decided to investigate several different mission boards to give God a chance to lead us in whatever direction he wished. I had set my sights tentatively on Central Asia, but had no clear sense of calling from God in terms of geography. It seemed more important that we find a group with which we could work happily than it was to worry about the geographical location. I was impressed that God’s call in the Scriptures was primarily to himself and not to a place. Thus we wrote to boards in the Far East, India, Africa, and Latin America. By the process of elimination we sifted our options down to two boards. They seem to be fairly equal in what we were looking for.
Finally, in a step of faith we said, “Lord, we will apply to the Latin America Mission. If you don’t want us in Latin America, you can close that door, and we will look elsewhere.” When we were accepted by the Latin America Mission, we went first to Costa Rica and later to Colombia. I can remember thinking as we got off the plane in Costa Rica for the first time, “Now I can say with certainty that God has called me to Latin America, because this is where I am by his grace, as I have taken one step at a time. He has opened the door, so I take this as his place.”
Psalm 119:105 says, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” The only kind of light the psalmist could have known about was a little clay lamp that could cast a small circle of light. Searchlights and flashlights with strong beams were unknown to him. In the backwoods of Colombia the people make a small lamp out of a tin can. They fashion a simple handle, put a wick through the top, fill it with kerosene, and light it. This little lamp, functionally, is identical to the clay lamp that the psalmist would have known. It casts just enough light for one step.
I have walked along a jungle trail at night in Colombia with one of these little tin lamps in my hand. Sometimes I wished for a powerful flashlight to illuminate the trail far ahead in the darkness. It would be a bit more reassuring to be able to see what lies beyond that next log! But when all you have is a small kerosene lamp, the only way to get more light is to step into the circle of light you have. As soon as you do that, the lamp casts enough light for one more step. In the same way, we can obey Jesus in faith one step at a time. As we obey the light we have, and take that one step, he provides enough light for one more step. This is a lesson I am still learning. I am convinced it is both biblical and practical.
Copyright © 1985 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.*
*As of January 2018: Permission must be obtained from Missio Nexus. EMQ@MissioNexus.org.
Used by permission from Missio Nexus, PO Box 398, Wheaton, IL 60187. Website: www.MissioNexus.org/EMQ.