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The New Wilmington Missionary Conference, 1906-2015.

At the dawn of the twentieth century the Protestant missionary movement in North America was growing in strength. The work of foreign missions was predominantly in the hands of denominational boards, with a majority of missionaries coming from forty women's boards. Charles Forman writes, "In the new enthusiasm following 1890 mission work was seen by its interpreters as the essential work of the church; no church could be healthy without it." (1) This interest included a thirst for "missionary intelligence," that is, reliable and compelling information on the progress and meaning of foreign missions that could be distributed to urban and rural homes across the United States.

Missionary cooperation on foreign fields led to the formation of dynamic organizations such as the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM, 1886), the Layman's Missionary Movement (LMM, 1906), and the Young People's Missionary Movement (YPMM), which, beginning in 1902, met annually at Silver Bay, Lake George, New York. These organizations recruited volunteers and directed them to denominational boards. Samuel Capen noted, "The Student Volunteer Movement has to do with providing the missionaries. The Young People's Missionary Movement has to do with the missionary education and training of the men and women of tomorrow. The purpose of [the LMM] is to furnish more rapidly the money and to help push the work all along the line." (2)

The 1904 Silver Bay Conference was attended by six persons from the United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPNA), including Charles Watson, secretary of the denomination's Board of Foreign Missions. Watson challenged his group to stage a Silver Bay-type conference in western Pennsylvania, the heartland of the UPNA. A meeting of interested persons met in Pittsburgh the following fall, and in 1906 the first New Wilmington Missionary Conference (NWMC) convened at New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, a small town about sixty miles north of Pittsburgh. This one small stream of missionary enthusiasm continues to this day, holding its 110th annual meeting in July 2015. Once part of an array of vibrant regional missionary conferences, the NWMC is the only surviving example from that era. A participant for fifty years at "Conference" (as it is popularly called), I have attended nearly half of the NWMC meetings. A sense of their present character is best glimpsed through the NWMC website, www

United Presbyterian Church of North America

The United Presbyterian Church of North America was a small denomination formed in 1858 from Scottish Covenanter and Seceder traditions. It lasted only one century, merging in 1958 with the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA), a denomination ten times its size.

Entry into foreign missions for the UPNA began even in the late 1850s in Muslim lands, in the Punjab of India (after 1947: Pakistan) and in Egypt, leading to involvement in the Sudan (1900) and in Ethiopia (1920). The UPNA distinguished itself as the denomination with the highest per capita mission giving. By 1906, annual giving to foreign missions was $2 per member. In 1932, total giving was $28.96 per member, of which a third went to home and foreign missions. (3) Each congregation was challenged to give as much for missions as it spent on itself, with many churches achieving that objective.

Typical of all denominations, the UPNA included a Women's General Missionary Society (WGMS), whose missionaries outnumbered those of the denomination's Board of Foreign Missions. Though stereotyped as conservative, the UPNA did not entirely fit the description. For example, women exercised leadership through the WGMS, and the denomination's flagship school, Westminster College, founded in 1854, was among the very first U.S. colleges to grant degrees to women. Four periodicals focusing heavily on the missionary task persisted throughout its history. As a small denomination, everyone knew everyone, and a missionary church culture was firmly established, with the Conference (the NWMC) as the linchpin.

Early Years of the NWMC

Anna Milligan, a leader in the Christian Endeavor Union, attended the Silver Bay Conference in 1904, assuming that she would be the only United Presbyterian. She discovered, however, five others in attendance: Effie and Helen McMillan and Loretta Mitchel, teachers from Pittsburgh; Watson, the first full-time secretary of the Board of Foreign Missions; and J. Campbell White, who had served with the YMC A in Calcutta and soon became the general secretary of the Layman's Missionary Movement. (4)

The six held a Mission Study Institute in Pittsburgh in 1905. McWatty Russell, the incoming president of Westminster College, which was located in New Wilmington, offered the campus as the location for an August 1906 inaugural conference. Two hundred attended, including thirty ministers. The attendees were mostly adults who were committed to teaching young people about missions. The daily schedule from the Silver Bay conferences was followed: Bible Hour, mission study classes, and Institute Hour in the mornings; rest and recreation in the afternoons; and evening vespers and platform meeting, followed by prayer groups. Much the same schedule is followed today. It was a great success from the start, with attendance reaching five hundred by 1911. (5)

The first Board of Managers, formed in 1910, consisted of seven men and five women. Watson was an ex officio member, but the board was independent of denominational oversight. Women predominated in leadership roles at NWMC then and continue with prominent roles today. The purpose of NWMC was stated as follows:

   To enable missionary secretaries in charge of young people's
   work and the leaders in Sabbath schools and young people's
   organizations to spend a week or more in uninterrupted conference
   and prayer, outlining under the guidance of the Holy Spirit
   plans of missionary work in the ensuing year.... [It is] a training
   school for leaders ... promoting deeper spiritual life and
   missionary interest among our churches. (6)

The statement of purpose found on NWMC's website today is similar.

   The NWMC looks to deepen the missionary spirit, seeking fulfillment
   of the Great Commission, with a focus on youth, ages
   12-24. Mission interpretation meets the duty and ideal of carrying
   the gospel to ALL the world. NWMC uses its Presbyterian
   mission heritage to encourage a deep spiritual life of fellowship
   with God by promoting service and witness for Jesus Christ.

Missionary Education Movement

The NWMC did not emerge from a vacuum. Significant mission institutions were bubbling up all over North America in the period around 1900. The SVM had launched the first mission study courses in 1893, commissioning college students to carry the vision ("the evangelization of the world in this generation") to young people's (high school) societies. The 1900 Ecumenical Conference on Foreign Missions in New York City attracted more than 200,000 visitors. Summer leadership conferences followed, both "for missionary workers in Sunday-schools and young people's societies ... [and] for the better equipping of young people for leadership in missionary work in the local church." (7) In 1907, attendance at Silver Bay totaled 1,336, with another 1,200 taking part in seven sister conferences.

Three-day fall institutes were staged in eleven locations in 1904, with 22,000 in attendance, with requests from twenty other cities. Attendance increased to 100,000 by 1907. Five million high school students were participating in young people's societies. (8) The first YPMM International Convention was convened in 1908 to promote home and foreign missionary education, with over 2,000 delegates in attendance. (9) By 1910 more than twenty Summer Schools of Missions were meeting annually, each with hundreds enrolled, some with over a thousand. The 1910 Edinburgh Conference included Commission VI (The Home Base of Missions), which addressed the matter of "missionary intelligence." The YPMM was renamed the Missionary Education Movement (MEM) in 1911, with its Board of Managers rotating among twenty-six male secretaries from the mission boards of Protestant denominations. (10)

By 1920, thirty conferences were using study materials produced by the MEM, focused on training for mission education in preschool, primary, and intermediate ages, with particular emphasis on high school young women. The MEM materials reflected the efforts of women educators committed to the spiritual formation of youth.

The theological developments and the crisis in foreign missions that followed World War I continued into the mid-1930s, by then with a second world war on the horizon. The MEM annual conferences became known as Schools of World Friendship. Fewer missionaries were being sent, however, partly because of the Great Depression. (11) In 1933, after thirty years at Silver Bay, the MEM conference was absorbed into the School of Methods of the New Jersey Council of Religious Education. Clearly its agenda was broadening beyond foreign and domestic missions. (12) Theological and missiological divisions (such as those related to the modernist/ fundamentalist controversy) were deepening, and nondenominational mission boards were increasing, as seen in the SVM conference for college students in 1934, a forerunner of the InterVarsity Urbana Conference.

The high level of missiological consensus of 1900 was disintegrating, and two divergent streams emerged. What was to become conciliar ecumenism spawned the Federal Council of Churches (1908) and, later, the World Council of Churches (1948). In 1950 the MEM became part of the National Council of Churches, the year after its founding. The National Association of Evangelicals (1942) and the World Evangelical Alliance (1951), however, emerged as another stream of ecumenism. The Lausanne Conference (1974), which Time magazine described as "a formidable forum, possibly the widest-ranging meeting of Christians ever held," developed as a representative of this larger stream of missionary activity. (13) The Lausanne Cape Town 2010 gathering included over 5,000 participants from 197 countries. The evangelical and conciliar streams of ecumenism present significant overlap, and the NWMC has always had an appreciative relationship with both ecumenical streams.

Distinctive Developments in the NWMC

The NWMC grew quickly from 1906. The UPNA was known as a conservative Reformed denomination, but the topics found in its publications and at the NWMC belie this simple description. As noted, from the beginning women played a major role. Women leaders and speakers were prominent. (14) Dr. Mabel Lossing Jones, wife of E. Stanley Jones, was celebrated as a "missionary in her own right." (15) On the fiftieth anniversary (1955) approximately 40 percent of the speakers were women. By the 1950s not only women but also international speakers were common in prominent roles. Topics were not limited to UPNA concerns but included reports on work from other denominations as well.

NWMC majored on the denomination's foreign work, but there was always a place for home missions. The UPNA actually devoted greater funds to domestic mission than to foreign fields. This emphasis gave rise to significant interest in topics such as immigration, race, literacy, Mormons, low wages in the cities, immigration, rural poverty, and temperance. Resistance to parochialism, although not universal, was not uncommon at NWMC. (16) Unlike the MEM conferences, however, NWMC developed two distinctives.

First, Conference focused predominantly on international mission, but it also always included domestic concerns from "Jerusalem, ... Judea and Samaria" (Acts 1:8). This commitment was affirmed in 1914, when Watson called a preconference meeting for five members of the Foreign Board, nine members of the Women's Board, and thirty-two missionaries who would be attending Conference. They discussed a variety of shared concerns, and the event was well received. Similar preconference meetings continued until the 1958 merger with the PCUSA. In 1923 newly appointed missionaries were included, and by 1939 the preconference meeting was used as an occasion for the board to make policies. It survives to the present as the Day of Prayer, a time of preparation for all staff and leaders. (17)

As early as 1910 the minutes of the Board of Managers show that there was regular discussion of NWMC's singular purpose as maintaining the missionary vision of the UPNA. This purpose is noted by Charles Watson (director, 1906-16) (18) and Mills Taylor (director, 1926-48), who, referring to the Great Depression and financial problems, "resisted strong pressure to change the Conference to something other than mission [and] remained true to its missionary purpose, serving, through dark days, as a source of inspirational education, keeping alive a sympathetic and supportive understanding of the role of foreign mission in the Church." (19) A 1936 article reported NWMC's belief that "the Christian church was to be a missionary church preaching the gospel to all nations ... and when she lost her missionary outlook it was a sign that she had lost her vitality at home as well." (20) A centennial article noted that NWMC is "a Missionary Conference marked by a strong missionary purpose and a deep spiritual life." That it remains focused on mission "is perhaps the most remarkable part of the Conference story." (21)

A second distinctive of NWMC is that it grew out of the Young People's Missionary Movement and has always maintained its focus on youth. The first meeting of the Board of Managers (1910) agreed that a "girl of eighteen" and the "young preacher" should be the primary audience. By 1913 most of the delegates (as participants are known) were between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one. (22)

Local Young People's Christian Union (YPCU) societies were in existence from the beginning of the UPNA and by 1940 were present in 250 of the denomination's 850 congregations. Oversight of this work was assigned to the denomination's Board of Education, as noted in the Christian Herald Union, which published articles focused on "missionary intelligence" among young people. By 1936, youth constituted 70 percent of the attendees at NWMC, with adults actually discouraged from attending. (23) For understandable reasons this limitation only to youth could not be maintained. Missionaries and staff would bring their children, and young adults would marry and want to continue their participation (with their children). Eventually the board concurred that it was an intergenerational conference (providing programming for all ages), but always with priority focus on youth and young adults. Board minutes show that 74 percent of the participants were youth in 1976; by 1997 this figure had dropped to 32 percent. The challenge of attracting youth and young adults would continue. (24)

The Summer Service Program, which indicates NWMC's deep commitment to young adults and for which there is a dedicated endowment, was proposed in 1961 by Edwin Fairman (director, 1958-81). In 2015 the program will celebrate its fifty-fifth year, having chosen, through a competitive application and interview process, six college-age young adults and a leader for a mission vision trip to Cuba. These groups receive significant orientation, reflection, and debriefing. Long-standing worldwide connections have made the program a highly mature and sustainable short-term mission effort. Next to the concept of the conference itself, this program may be NWMC's single most significant innovation for continuing its commitment to youth.

Relationship with the Presbyterian Church (USA)

NWMC was a favored auxiliary of great importance to the UPNA during its hundred-year history, culminating in the 1958 merger. Donald Black (director, 1955-57), reflecting on the merger's impact, noted that "the NWMC suddenly became vulnerable." (25) Given that the merger partner was ten times larger than the UPNA, the marginalization of the conference was inevitable. Missionary orientation and commissioning ceased; furlough conferences for missionaries were scheduled in other locations and in conflict with NWMC dates; travel funds were not available; more than 90 percent of the churches in the new denomination, the United Presbyterian Church in the USA (UPCUSA), had no history with NWMC; and the conference was seen as competition for local camps and conferences.

"In the confusion of reorganization, the organic link between Conference and a national mission agency, bonded through the [director's] position on both, had been completely severed." Black wrote, "As we approached the church union of 1958, it became evident that [Conference] would not fit into the new structure." (26) NWMC was on its own; forty years and another denominational merger were required before a constructive new relationship with the denomination began to emerge.

NWMC was not thwarted, however, and actually thrived at a time when commitment to world mission was deeply diminished in the UPCUSA. (27) A symbol of that era occurred in 1969, when a petition signed by 1,300 attendees (most under twenty-five years of age) asked the UPCUSA to "advance, not retreat" and not "to deny this generation its opportunity for missionary service," and pledging "their loyalty, prayers, and support for the missionary enterprise." Missiology was in deep crisis and was undergoing change in mainline denominations; the NWMC, however, was in its ascendency and maintained a strong alternative witness. (28)

What Lies Ahead for the NWMC?

The culture of NWMC as a large extended family is apparent to all and has been a significant contribution to its longevity, but it can also threaten future vitality. The Board of Managers began a season of reflection and discernment in 2014 in anticipation of a transition in leadership over the next several years.

NWMC functions with a volunteer board of twelve (plus ex officio members): a director, a half-time office coordinator/secretary, and several summer contract staff. More than 200 volunteers oversee all other details, and only a few speakers receive token honoraria. Other than the NWMC, the last surviving annual Presbyterian mission conference closed more than twenty years ago and was operated by denominational staff. The volunteer culture of NWMC contributed significantly to its growth in the second half of the twentieth century, when the denomination experienced a deep decline.

Another dimension important to NWMC is its partnership with World Mission Initiative (WMI) at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. "WMI is a fellowship of Presbyterians dedicated to developing mission vision, nurturing missionary vocations, and cultivating missional congregations by helping Christians understand how God is at work in the world and how they can share in that work." (29)

Donald Dawson, brother of the author, has been the director of both NWMC (one-third time) and WMI (two-thirds time) since 2002. This gives NWMC access to leadership with fulltime dedication to awareness of and interaction with the world Christian community. It has also accounted for the conference's best relationship with the PC(USA) since 1958. Dawson has developed a close partnership with the Presbyterian mission board to assist in missionary orientation and speaking opportunities. He provides leadership at PC(USA) mission events and develops expertise through organizations like the American Society of Missiology. These are essential assets that NWMC could not afford on its own.

The NWMC/WMI partnership also addresses the original concern to reach the "young preacher. "No other seminary brings such resources together to connect and support future pastors in their role in world mission leadership. Pittsburgh seminarians develop a passion for mission through service at NWMC and WMI travel seminars.

NWMC attendance surpassed one thousand in the early 1960s, ranging as high as 1,500 in the 1980s, but more recently it has dropped to 800 (plus a thousand day visitors). This decline has been of concern to the leadership as they compete with the variety of opportunities available to high school youth, who today number less than half their total in the 1980s. Technical changes have been made (earlier date, music/bands, change of the name from "missionary" to "mission," greater programming for younger ages, use of social media); but as with all other areas of church life, NWMC is affected by challenging cultural developments.

In shaping the programming of the annual meetings, regular prayer and the Day of Prayer that precedes Conference have been considered inviolable essentials. NWMC purpose statements have always included references to cultivating spiritual life in fellowship with God. The missionary "duty and ideal" have been nurtured through personalization of mission in relationship with participants from the world Christian community.

Legacy of the Missionary Education Movement

How does the story of the NWMC fit within that of the wider missionary conference and "missionary intelligence" movement? Dana Robert, recounting the century of history of the Missionary Education Movement, concludes, "While people can turn to many sources for information, formation for mission in a postmodern, pluralistic world is seriously lacking.... We still need a Mission Education Movement." (30) NWMC has had a unique history of addressing that challenge. Future challenges grow out of the two distinctives noted earlier.

First, how can the "primary object" of NWMC continue to be "the deepening of the missionary spirit" in a time of competing interests? MEM declined over several decades in part because it changed from focused "missionary education" to the broadest meaning of "education." NWMC will need to develop an authentic grasp of the pressing missiological questions such as the missional church conversation and the short-term mission culture, where Third Wave Mission (as identified by Robert Schreiter) promises to be the future pathway for congregations. (31) Can NWMC nurture a robust missiology among local church leaders?

Second, how does NWMC focus on youth and young adults in an intergenerational context? Many youth organizations are in decline, and social media animates the culture in ways unimagined by NWMC's founders. Can the extended family culture engage the moralistic-therapeutic deism of this generation? (32) How can the focus remain on the "girl of eighteen" and the "young preacher" without isolating them from other generations?

At the 2014 NWMC a conversation took place among leaders of a trilateral partnership between churches in the Sudan/South Sudan, Malawi, and the United States. It was noted that important adaptive missional decisions have come due, for the church in the West has found itself challenged in the past century by dramatic changes in Christianity of a magnitude unseen since the first century. The church's center of gravity has changed, and so has that of mission: the most challenging mission field is now to be found in the West, requiring a reorienting of the ecumenical movement within a new multicultural moment. It was within this context that the trilateral conversation referred to took place. Historical Western-driven missionary sending has now been reordered as "mission from everywhere to everywhere." If we really believe what we are saying about commitment to partnership, perhaps NWMC should also be addressing the present fundamental problems of the church in the West. This conversation at NWMC is a beginning and, if we are serious about it, the discussion will be going much deeper. The NWMC can have an important role in the "missionary education" work ahead. This is truly a proper function of the body of Christ and would seem to be an agenda worthy of the New Wilmington Mission Conference as it celebrates 110 years in service. (33)

David Dawson, a retired Presbyterian Church (USA) regional executive, lives in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.


(1.) Charles Forman, "A History of Foreign Mission Theory in America," in American Missions in Bicentennial Perspective, ed. R. Pierce Beaver (South Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 1977), 83.

(2.) Samuel Billings Capen, "Laymen's Missionary Movement" (address to the LMM, January 9, 1907), 11.

(3.) Missionary Review of the World (MRW), 1906, p. 601; 1907, pp. 17-18; 1911, p. 540; 1933, p. 208; 1934, p. 229. In terms of today's dollar, giving per person in 1932 was twice the level of giving per person today.

(4.) Mrs. Frank Hoyman, "The Beginning of the New Wilmington Missionary Conference," Anna A. Milligan Papers, n.d., NWMC Archives, New Wilmington, Pa.; Marion Fairman, Remember What We Have Received (New Wilmington: NWMC, 1980), 2-5.

(5.) Robert G. Ferguson, "The First Mission Study Convention, New Wilmington, August 17-27, 1906," United Presbyterian (UP), August 30, 1906, p. 9; "The New Wilmington Conference," Women's Missionary Magazine of the United Presbyterian Church (WMM), Women's General Missionary Society, Xenia, Ohio, 1911, pp. 145-46.

(6.) "Silver Bay Conference for Young People," UP, May 24, 1906, p. 15; The United Presbyterian Missionary Conference, New Wilmington, Pa., August 17-26, 1906, pp. 13-14.

(7.) "Young People's Conferences," MRW, vol. 27, no. 5, 1904, p. 400.

(8.) Charles V. Vickrey, The Young People's Missionary Movement (New York: YPMM, 1906), 32; Morris W. Ehnes, "The Campaign for World-Wide Mission Study: The Recent Growth of Mission Study among Young People," MRW, January 1908, pp. 18-22 and 381.

(9.) "Young People's Missionary Movement," WMM, February, 1908, p. 247; MRW, 320-22, 413.

(10.) Samuel McCrea Cavert, The American Churches in the Ecumenical Movement, 1900-1968 (New York: Association Press, 1968), 39, 76.

(11.) "After the School of Missions--What?," MRW, 1933, p. 216; "The Missionary Challenge to Students," MRW, 1933, pp. 236-37.

(12.) "Missionary Education at Blairstown," MRW, 1933, p. 394.

(13.) See

(14.) Julia Lake Kellersberger was Institute Hour speaker on an unprecedented four occasions in the years 1942-1952; see Fairman, Remember What We Have Received, 96.

(15.) "Missionary Personalities at New Wilmington," Christian Union Herald (CUH), July 25, 1936, pp. 13-14.

(16.) Dana L. Robert states, "One is amazed at how simultaneously optimistic and self-critical they were.... Authors of the study books were painfully aware that western Christian nations did not themselves measure up to Christian ideals" ("The Mission Education Movement and the Rise of World Christianity, 1902-2002" [paper presented at Centennial Celebration of the Mission Education Movement, NCCCUSA General Assembly, November 14, 2002]).

(17.) Mrs. H. C. Campbell, "Conference on Foreign Boards at New Wilmington," WMM, 1914, p. 109; Fairman, Remember What We Have Received, 18-21.

(18.) NWMC Board Minutes, August 17, 1910; MEM Minutes, February 19, 1918, Folder 7, Box 6, RG 20, Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, Pa. By this date, the MEM board consisted of mission board secretaries, mostly male.

(19.) Fairman, Remember What We Have Received, 41.

(20.) "New Wilmington--A Missionary Conference," CUH, July 11, 1936, pp. 15-16.

(21.) "New Wilmington to Celebrate Centennial at July Meeting: Missionaries to Be Commissioned," Presbyterian Outlook, May 2, 2005, p. 17.

(22.) Fairman, Remember What We Have Received, 62.

(23.) W. H. McPeak, CUH, September 19, 1936, p. 1; Fairman, Remember What We Have Received, 123.

(24.) NWMC Board of Manager Minutes, November 2, 1997, NWMC Archives.

(25.) Donald Black, letter to David Dawson, October 4, 1998, located in author's files.

(26.) Fairman, Remember What We Have Received, 15-16, 48-51; Donald Black, "Conference Experience," undated reflection, NWMC Archives, New Wilmington, Pa.

(27.) See David Dawson, "Counting the Cost: Statistics and What They May Tell Us," in A History of Presbyterian Missions, 1944-2004, ed. Scott W. Sunquist and Caroline N. Becker (Louisville, Ky.: Geneva Press, 2008), 36-57.

(28.) See Paul A. Corcoran, "They Still Call Them Missionaries," Presbyterian Outlook, September 8-15, 1986, p. 5.

(29.) See

(30.) Robert, "Mission Education Movement."

(31.) Robert J. Schreiter, "Third Wave Mission: Cultural, Missiological, and Theological Dimensions," Missiology 43, no. 1 (2015): 5-16.

(32.) Christian Smith, with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2005).

(33.) This paragraph draws on conversations the author had with Andrew F. Walls and other Sudan Mission Partnership participants, July 22, 2014, NWMC.
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Author:Dawson, David
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Article Type:Conference news
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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