Robert Wilder and the Student Volunteer Movementby Dr. Dan Pierce
"He said to them, 'Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation." -- Mark 16:15
"We can do it, if we will"The story of student missionary activity in America well-dates Robert Wilder and the "Student Volunteer Movement" and can be traced back to 1810 and Williams College in Massachusetts, to what is known as the "Haystack Movement." At that time America had not yet sent her first missionary to a foreign land. Much of America itself had not yet been pioneered, much less the rest of the world. Four students led by Samuel Mills decided to go out into a field to pray for missions around the world. As a storm arose, the students sought refuge behind a large haystack, but continued to pray with a decision to serve missions. Mills' motto for the group was "We can do it, if we will." Soon the "Society of Brethren" was established for this purpose. The group moved the next year to Andover seminary carrying with them the original documents of the "Society of Brethren." There they continued to foster and nourish a sincere interest in missions, establishing "The Society of Inquiry on the Subject of Missions." The "Haystack Movement" also led to the formation of societies on other campuses with the explicit purpose of world mission. Princeton students, for example, formed a group in 1814 and kept close contact with Andover students. Clearly, a movement of God had begun in the hearts of American students. Students were happy to write letters to missionaries, such as to the Englishman William Carey serving in Serampore, India. The students yearned to know "what's it like to be a missionary?" They invited missionaries to come to their colleges and speak. They collected funds for missions. They prayed, they prepared, and finally they went. America became a missionary sending nation starting with students. Of the 372 members of the "Society" at Andover seminary, 217 entered the foreign mission field. Royal Wilder, the father of Robert Wilder was one of the Andover students called to the mission field of India.
Robert Wilder, was born in Kolhapur, India in 1863 where he lived for the first fourteen years of his life. His father, Royal Wilder, was an American missionary who sailed for India in 1846 and later pioneered Kolhapur, India. After thirty years of serving India, Royal Wilder, suffering from ill health, was forced to return home. The family took up residence in Princeton, but the mission field was always in their hearts. Royal Wilder founded and edited the periodical, The Missionary Review of the World. Grace, his daughter, went off to Mt. Holyoke, a women's seminary in Massachusetts, and Robert began his studies at Princeton.
Willing and DesirousAt Princeton, Wilder studied hard and excelled in Greek and philosophy. But it was God's calling, not school study, that moved his heart. He met with several students regularly to study the Bible and to pray for missions. At the beginning of his Junior year he attended a conference of the "Interseminary Alliance" and was inspired to challenge fellow students to pray for a revival at Princeton and to have interest in missions. That same fall semester Wilder and his friends established the "Princeton Foreign Mission Society" on the campus. This society took a bold stance on missions with a clear purpose to be raised as missionaries in between Latin and Greek and football practice. To quote from the society's constitution, " any student of the College who is a professing Christian may become a member by subscribing to the following covenant: We, the undersigned, declare ourselves willing and desirous, God permitting, to go to the unevangelized portions of the world."
Robert's sister Grace had started a girl's student group while at Mt. Holyoke with a similar declaration, "We hold ourselves willing and desirous to do the Lord's work wherever He may call us, even if it be in a foreign land." At Mt. Holyoke thirty four girls signed their names.
The Princeton group met Sunday afternoons at the Wilder's home. And while they met in one room, Robert's sister prayed for them in another. In his senior year, Robert and his sister Grace met regularly and prayed for a wide-spread missionary movement in the colleges and universities of America. They boldly prayed that one thousand would be sent out. Then, in the Summer of 1886, D. L. Moody, the famous Bible teacher, in conjunction with the (then Bible centered) YMCA organized a one month summer Bible conference for college students at Mt. Hermon in New York. Before Robert left for the conference, his sister Grace prophesied that there would be one hundred student volunteers for the foreign mission field enlisted at the conference.
The Meeting of the Ten NationsThe conference was attended by 251 students and Wilder immediately took the initiative to create an interest circle for foreign missions. Foreign missions had not originally been planned as an important part of the program, but Wilder made sure that "World Mission" was going to be highlighted. D.\ L. Moody was not that knowledgeable about missions and Robert Wilder tried to persuade him to have a world mission night where 10 students would share about foreign mission. Moody wasn't sure if it was safe to let students take charge, but after consulting with other organizers he granted permission to Wilder.
Wilder found some foreign students, an American Indian, several missionaries-kids studying in America, and including himself, "The Meeting of the Ten Nations" was held with representatives from Japan, Persia, Native America, Siam, Germany, Armenia, Denmark, Norway, China, and of course India. Wilder's testimony focused on Mark 16:15, "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature." "The Meeting of the Ten Nations" had an enormous impact on the students and in the next several days of the conference after much soul searching, a total of exactly 100 students made the pledge to serve foreign mission. 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." God had provided exactly 100 men at Mt. Hermon that summer. The "Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions" or the SVM was on its way.
" this generation."Four representatives were chosen from the 100 for the task of traveling throughout the US and Canada to visit as many campuses as possible. Three of them later found excellent excuses for not going and the movement might have ended. Robert Wilder, the fourth member of the team, the only one from Princeton also had a problem: his father was dying! With his failing health, Royal Wilder needed Robert's help to edit The Missionary Review. After two days of silence his father called for Robert and said "Son, let the dead bury their dead. Go thou and preach the kingdom." Wilder enlisted his Princeton college friend John Forman who had just begun study at Union Seminary in New York. Forman, a man of prayer, decided to postpone his studies and travel with Wilder.
The burden of visiting campuses was great and to quote Wilder's own words, " the strain was so heavy that I collapsed completely and the doctors said I must give up the tour or run the risk of a permanent breakdown. Forman and I took this to the Lord and were confident that He wanted me to continue the tour ." It was a fruitful year and many student groups were organized. During that first year Samuel Zwemer, the great missionary to the Moslems, and Samuel Moffett, the great shepherd for Korea, as well as Robert Speer, the great missionary-statesman, all joined. When Wilder caught him, Speer was a brilliant student at Princeton. He was one of three students receiving the highest honors that century. He was an important member of the football team, editor of the student newspaper, and involved in half a dozen other activities. In addition, his father was a highly successful lawyer who fully expected his son to follow. When Speer was asked by a friend, "What will your father say to this?" Speer replied, "I could not help it; when will you decide?" (Incidently, the Robert Speer Library at Princeton has an excellent collection on world missions.) During that first year 162 campuses were visited and the names of 2106 volunteers were secured, 500 of whom were women.
These volunteers pledged to support missionaries both in prayer and financially. In addition, they began receiving training with the aim of going out as missionaries. The students not only pledged themselves, but they challenged the American churches to have mission. Many churches repented of their long standing sin of denying the world mission command of Jesus. This resulted in what is known as the "Forward Movement" of the churches. In order to awaken people to the missionary cause the reading of the lives of missionaries became popularized. When tens of thousands of business men read Blaikie's "Personal Life of David Livingstone" and the "Life of John G. Paton, Missionary to the New Hebrides" they cried "Oh Lord!" and gave their support.
The SVM held their first conference in 1891, from February 26 to March 1, in Cleveland. One hundred fifty-one educational institutions were represented, including 580 student delegates, 31 returned foreign missionaries, and 32 representatives of missionary societies. Wilder was 27 years old when this first conference took place and by that time 320 student volunteers had already left for the mission field. The watchword of the SVM was, "The Evangelization of the World in this Generation" which became a banner over their meetings. It was this bold proclamation that became the distinguishing mark of the SVM. At the conference, Robert Wilder gave a message entitled "The Bible and Missions." He stressed that the foundation of mission work is Bible study. J. Campbell White's lecture, "Ten Lessons on the Bible and Missions," Robert Speer's, "Prayer and Missions", Grace Wilder's, "Shall I Go? --- Thoughts for Girls" and others were powerful and moving. The SVM conferences became a great success with students and were held every four years for 76 years.
That summer Wilder traveled to England on his way to India. In England the SVM became an international movement (excepting of course Canada which had been involved from the start). Again Wilder visited campuses, starting at Cambridge, then Oxford, then in London. Then after one and a half years of working in England, he obeyed his pledge, his covenant with God, and set off for India the nation of his birth. Upon Royal Wilder's death Robert's sister Grace and their mother also returned to India.
At the second SVM conference held in 1894 in Detroit 1082 attended. Great missionaries such as the Rev. J. Hudson Taylor of the Chinese Inland Mission delivered addresses. During the meeting a cable from Robert Wilder was delivered and read aloud, saying simply, "India needs now one thousand Spirit-filled volunteers." The challenge to obey the world mission command was certainly present. At the next conference in 1898, 1598 student delegates, visiting missionaries, various other delegates, and Wilder himself attended for a total of 2221. Wilder had been urged to come back to America and encourage the students. At the conference, Wilder gave a message entitled "Our Equipment of Power," where he discussed the necessity of spiritual power to do the work of God. Wilder urged students to prove Christ is risen and living today by being Spirit-filled. He said, "The early Christians turned the world upside down because they themselves were first turned upside down by the power of the Holy Spirit." Wilder then spent the next two years laboring on American campuses and in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. In Scandinavia, one professor spoke up to persecute at a meeting, saying "To speak of 'the Evangelization of the World in this generation' was not humble." Wilder, however, never compromised the watchword of the movement. After two years of campus work, he again returned to India. He continued, however, to make trips to Europe including Germany to meet with student groups and to organize conferences. Finally due to poor health he left India for the last time and returned to Europe. It should be mentioned that by the time Wilder left, the student volunteers to India were already many hundreds, if not thousands.
The Next GenerationBefore 1925 the SVM is considered to have provided the volunteers from which one half to two thirds of North American Missionaries were sent oversees. Conservative estimates are that the SVM was responsible for sending out over 20,500 missionaries by 1948, most being sent in the early years. The movement suffered decline however, during the First World War, the roaring twenties, the great depression, and the Second World War. During these years the movements watchword "The Evangelization of the World in this Generation" was severely attacked as being too presumptuous. At the 1932 SVM conference, the watchword, which had been the movement's crowning glory was conspicuous by its absence. To quote a critical synopsis of the 1936 meeting, "The mass of delegates had little or no knowledge of the Bible and spiritual things. They had evidently not studied the Bible in their homes, in churches or in colleges and universities. They lacked the background and foundations for the appreciation of missionary themes . The audience was the
mission field rather than the missionary force." Wilder never gave up his efforts to maintain the SVM as mission centered. Movement leaders, however, could no longer embrace evangelizing the world as a primary theme. It was during these turbulent times that Robert Wilder was laid to rest in 1938, at age 75. In his last years of life, Wilder wrote, "The Great Commission" and "Christ and The Student World." The first chapter of "Christ and the Student World" is entitled "The Fight For Character." To Wilder, man's problem is a sin problem that begins in his thought world. Sin blocks the way to a pure heart. Wilder quoted, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." From his message at that first SVM conference in 1891 entitled "The Bible and Missions," to his books at the end of his life, he stressed Bible study as the only foundation. Wilder used Jesus' teaching "Give us this day our daily bread." to describe the basic need for nourishment of the Word of God. He hoped that students would see the structure of the Bible and the point of the Bible best revealed through Jesus' world mission command.
In following years, the SVM was continually transformed. Fewer and fewer students signed the pledge to go to the foreign mission field. In 1959 the SVM merged with the "United Student Christian Movement" and the "Interseminary Movement" to form the "National Student Christian Federation." In 1966 a further alliance with the "Roman Catholic Newman Student Federation" and other groups to form the "University Christian Movement" occurred. The "University Christian Movement" soon voted itself out of existence.
World Mission GenerationsThe SVM left its mark on Korea a century ago. One of the first to sign "the pledge" or as Wilder called it, "the covenant" was Samuel Moffett. In 1889, Samuel Moffett was the first of the student volunteers to sail for Korea. In 1893 he moved to Pyeng Yang which is now in North Korea. He was founder of the Pyeng Yang Church and her shepherd for 17 years. To the Koreans he was known as "sun-che-cha" (prophet). The years of Korean pioneering were difficult, but American students were in constant prayer and hundreds prepared and went to Korea. Sam Moffett established the Korean Union College and the Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The first graduating class of the seminary and the establishment of the Korean Presbyterian Church occurred in Pyeng Yang in 1907, It was just before this, in January 1907 after a series of intense Bible meetings that what is called the "Korean Pentecost" occurred in Pyeng Yang. God sent his Mighty Spirit and Korean people cried out to God in repentance and were given spiritual power.
Researching the SVM at the Speer library, I happened to meet an elderly man, Samuel Moffett, the son of Samuel Moffett, missionary to Korea. Born in Korea, Sam was a second-generation missionary to Korea and later, a missionary to China before retiring to Princeton. He is now Emeritus Professor of Missions at the seminary. He was very encouraged that I had been researching the SVM and was well aware of UBF and its mission. He asked me to say hello to his good friend from earlier days, Sarah Barry. Then he took me over to a side window and pointed out, saying, "that's his house, over there, where Robert Wilder prayed, 12 Stockton Street." Mrs. Moffett was very proud to tell me about her son, little Sam, who is a missionary in Thailand. We parted with her words of encouragement, "all the power to you!"
While in Chicago for the recent weddings, my wife Missionary Birgit was talking with Missionary Sarah Barry, the co-founder of "University Bible Fellowship" about Robert Wilder. To our surprise Missionary Sarah said that she had signed the pledge to become a foreign missionary. After several years in Korea, Missionary Sarah and Missionary Samuel Lee established UBF in 1961. Just as the SVM was disappearing, UBF was appearing! Royal Wilder, Robert and Grace Wilder and three Samuel Moffetts, not to mention our very own Sarah Barry, all accepted God's call to "Evangelize the World in this generation" as their duty and honor. God used Sarah Barry as a torch bearer of world mission for her generation. Should we not also be willing and desirous to enter a covenant relationship with God for the sake of this generation?
One Word: "Evangelize the World in this Generation"
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