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The student foreign missions fellowship over fifty-five years.

Students have been in the vanguard of the North American church's missionary outreach, spearheading each of three eras of missionary advance. Students, huddled in prayer in a haystack on Williams College campus in 1806, inaugurated the foreign missions history of the American church. Eighty years later, in 1886, the Mount Hermon Conference of college students led to the organization of the Student Volunteer Movement. The SVM sent thousands of missionary volunteers throughout the world, making missions central to the church's life at the close of the nineteenth century.

In his latest work, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, George M. Marsden reaffirms the place of missions in American Protestantism:

Missions, whether as evangelism at home or in efforts abroad, were the central Protestant crusades. American Protestants had been active in mission abroad since early in the century, but their enthusiasm burgeoned after 1890. Together with their British counterparts they were leading an advance of Christian mission so great that historian Kenneth Scott Latourette has called the period from 1815-1914 "the great century" of Christian missions. Certainly in America the period from 1890 to World War I was the golden age of Protestant missions.(1)

A third student missionary advance began as the war in the Pacific was concluding in 1945. A new generation of students began to rally their peers in a renewed missionary thrust to evangelize the world as they met, 575 strong, in a post-Christmas conference at the University of Toronto in 1946.(2) Forty-four years later, the numbers had swelled to 19,510. The students convened in the assembly hall of the University of Illinois, Urbana, from December 17, 1990, to January 1, 1991. They studied their Bibles en masse as Ajith Fernando of Sri Lanka, among others, led them in the theme "Jesus Christ: Lord of the Universe, Hope of the World," based on the Epistle to the Colossians.(3) Twenty-eight percent of the delegates were nonwhites, including 1,200 Korean-Americans. Forty-nine local churches provided seven hundred volunteers to assist in the massive task of providing for the delegates' needs.(4)

Nineteen hundred small groups provided for daily morning prayer and Bible study; these groups also met in evening sessions to discuss and integrate the day's events.(5) Students crowded out two hundred seminars as they sought information on the world mission of the church and their place in the total scheme of divine redemption in Christ.

Many delegates participated in a Saturday lunch-fast, netting more than $80,000 for hunger relief.(6) They also gave $216,000 in cash and $94,000 in "faith promises," a total of $310,000, to the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students for its program of worldwide student evangelization. The traditional New Year's Eve Communion service concluded Urbana 90 with 19,000 voices worshipping and praising Jesus Christ as Lord.(7)

An aggregate of 159,902 have attended the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship student missionary conventions at Urbana, Illinois, since the initial gathering in 1946 in Toronto. What is the impact on world missions after almost fifty years of Urbana conventions? The statistics of a survey conducted in 1988, based on randomly selected attendants at Urbana 84, suggest an answer.(8) Of the 15,000 decision makers, 2,400 (16 percent) indicated that they had begun long-term missionary service, or were making plans to do so; 1,800 (12 percent) had begun or were making plans to begin short-term service; 2,250 (15 percent) had completed or were making plans to spend a summer overseas in cross-cultural ministry; and 6,450 (43 percent) had begun or were making plans to begin some form of missionary service.

How did such a phenomenon develop? How does this third student missionary movement relate to the two previous student movements of 1806 and 1886? These questions bring us to the Student Foreign Missions Fellowship.

Roots of a New Evangelical Student Movement

The beginning of the Student Foreign Missions Fellowship (SFMF) parallels remarkably the dynamics of the student revivals of the earlier nineteenth-century student missionary movements. In 1936, the year of the founding of SFMF, Kenneth Scott Latourette observed in Missions Tomorrow, "Christian missions have ever been a minority movement ... breaking out in unexpected places" (emphasis added).(9) It was indeed a "minority" of fifty-three students who agreed in 1936 that it was God's timing to initiate a new student missionary movement. They came to this conviction in the course of two student summer conferences, one at Ben Lippen Conference Center, Asheville, North Carolina, and the other at American Keswick, Toms River, New Jersey.

Latourette himself observed the trends in 1936:

In many circles in which Evangelical conviction was once strong, an easy going liberalism now prevails with a kind of tolerance that is sprung up of skepticism as to the validity of its own inherited belief. Many among the clergy are seeking a social revolution as a substitute for the religious conviction for which their communions officially stand, but to which they as individuals can no longer ascribe. Unless new revivals reinvigorate it, it is doomed even in its own strongholds.(10)

The first sign of a resurgent evangelical fervor for evangelism and missions occurred in February 1936, during a special series of chapel services at Wheaton College, Illinois. Walter Wilson, medical doctor and founder of the Kamas City Bible College, substituted for a chapel speaker who was ill with the flu. As he concluded his message, Don Hillis, a missionary volunteer to India, raised a question from the audience: What should a student who loves Christ do to receive the fullness of the Spirit's power? In the hours that followed, students responded by confessing their sins and asking forgiveness of their peers, faculty, administration, and God.

The scheduled speaker for the week, Robert C. McQuilkin, founding president of Columbia Bible College and Biblical Seminary, recovered sufficiently from his illness to conclude the special services with a strong missionary emphasis. At the end of the week of meetings, scores of students stood in holy silence before God as they publicly committed themselves to missionary ministry overseas.(11)

These volunteers were aware of the theological liberalism that had overtaken the SVM. They were also in communication with other evangelical students on the campuses of Chicago-area colleges. They corresponded with the student missionary leaders at Columbia Bible College and sought the counsel of President McQuilkin as they contemplated the possibility of starting a new student missionary movement.

A number of SVM members, officers, and former participants were also seeking a return to the original emphasis of SVM. Louis Bowers, a Gettysburg Theological Seminary student and SVM officer in the Eastern Pennsylvania-New Jersey region, was committed to the ideals that marked the inception of the SVM. His correspondence with President McQuilkin expressed hope that the Oberlin (Ohio) Forum, scheduled for September 1936, would effect the desired change. His concern had been sharpened by a meeting of the SVM General Council where, as he wrote to McQuilken, the "delegates ... were significantly outnumbered by Senior Board Members, Members at Large, and the Administrative Council Members." He also noted that the number of SVM unions had dropped off greatly. Bowers hoped that McQuilkin might find it possible to be in attendance at the Oberlin Forum. He categorically asserted, "After Oberlin we have no loyalty except to Christ, and where he directs."(12)

Momentum increased at two student conferences in June of 1936. One was held at the Ben Lippen Conference Center on June 18, and a second was held ten days later at Keswick, New Jersey. The latter event was convened by Dudley Dennison, a Cornell University medical student. William Ruel, who had attended the SVM convention in Indianapolis earlier that year, reported in favor of trying to return SVM to its original basis. He admitted, however, that little hope existed for restoring its evangelical fervor and commitments. Harvey Borton, a senior counselor and close friend of Robert Wilder, one of the SVM founders, encouraged the students to proceed with their purpose to found a new movement. Mrs. Borton, earlier a traveling secretary for the SVM, spoke of her deep love of SVM but judged the situation hopeless and urged the students to move ahead. The Keswick group voted to form the Student Foreign Missions Fellowship and appointed Joe McCullough as acting general secretary.(13) Elizabeth Walker, later the wife of Kenneth G. Strachan of the Latin America Mission, and Jimmy Belote, later a missionary in Hong Kong and Asia secretary with the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, assisted in strong leadership.(14)

Finances to begin a new student movement were nonexistent in the mid-1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression. Therefore, the new student missionary thrust was a bare-bones student response to the "call of God" to world missions, literally trusting God for all needs, following the model of James Hudson Taylor of the China Inland Mission.

Ken Hood and Will Norton, Wheaton College graduates of the class of 1936, enrolled in the newly established Graduate School of Columbia Bible College. Hood and Norton had participated in the revival of 1936, and now they rallied to the missionary leadership of President McQuilkin at Columbia, where they also joined Joe McCullough as he led the newly founded SFMF. They visited neighboring colleges in South Carolina, the Midwest, and part of the eastern United States. Correspondence was maintained with Christian colleges and Bible institutes. Mainline seminaries and the university community had no interest whatever in an evangelical student missionary movement. The question, therefore, was, How could this minority student missionary band, born at the midpoint of the Great Depression, ever expect to fulfill its motto, "To stir the church to the pressing obligation of making Jesus Christ known"?

Not unlike the optimism of Latourette and John R. Mott, they affirmed the teaching of the apostle John: "This is the victory that has overcome the world, our faith" (1 John 5:4b). Faith was the key. But how to stir the church? To reach the greatest number of church members, it appeared that SFMF representatives would need to confront them at the numerous summer Bible conferences of that era. Thus, a student missionary team of five students was assembled from Columbia Bible College, Wheaton College, and Hampden-Sydney College to visit popular Bible conferences on the eastern seaboard, in Canada, and in the Midwest during the summer of 1938.

Student supporters and friends contributed $125 for one of the team members to purchase a four-door, 1930 Model A Ford for the trip. When the team started out in mid-June, only six meetings had been confirmed during a six-week period. However, when the trip concluded after covering three thousand miles, from Asheville, North Carolina, through New England to Toronto and Canadian Keswick, down to Winona Lake, Indiana, and west to Chicago, there had been only one night without a TABULAR DATA OMITTED meeting! In addition, all expenses were paid from offerings received, including the cost for each team member to return home. Prayer and faith were basic principles in the founding of SFMF, as it was in the founding of SVM fifty years earlier.

Each of the first six secretaries of SFMF, after one or two years of leadership, left for overseas missionary posts. Joe McCullough served in Bolivia and ultimately became general director of the Andes Evangelical Mission. His successor, Will Norton, went to the Belgian Congo with the Evangelical Free Church. Ken Hood was elected the first full-time secretary at the 1938 constitutional meeting, resigning in 1940 to prepare for a career with the Latin America Mission in Costa Rica. Neill Hawkins, Hood's successor, went to Brazil with Unevangelized Fields Mission. Peter Stamm III followed Hawkins and departed for eastern Belgian Congo with the Africa Inland Mission. Finally, Herbert Anderson expected to serve in China, but war in the Pacific intervened.

From the outset, SFMF was uniquely a student missionary movement, initiated, directed, and "supported" by students. In spite of hindrances relating to World War II and lack of continuing secretarial leadership, the movement developed slowly, challenging Christian campuses for missions. Annual meetings were led by student presidents such as Robert Evans (later founder and director of Greater Europe Mission) and Ralph Covell (missionary in China/Taiwan and later professor of missions at Denver Theological Seminary). The annual meetings provided continuing momentum and motivation for the several hundred students who attended.

With such an outflow of leaders going overseas, continuity of leadership was frequently at risk. At the same period of time, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF), another fledgling evangelical student movement, felt a need for a missions department to help achieve its stated goals for world evangelization.(15)

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

In 1934 Australian-born C. Stacey Woods assumed his duties as general secretary of IVCF in Toronto. Charles Troutman, who participated in the Wheaton College revival in 1936, had become Woods's assistant in Canada after he was graduated and later assisted with the oversight of the U.S. outreach of IVCF.

The Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU), founded in 1877, was the progenitor of IVCF. Since the early nineteenth-century and the forty-five year ministry of Charles Simeon at Holy Trinity, there had been a strong Bible-centered ministry to students at Cambridge. D.L. Moody ministered at Cambridge and Oxford in November 1882, resulting in the recruitment for overseas service of the "Cambridge Seven"--outstanding university athletes whose personal decisions to serve Christ overseas impacted the British student world.

At the invitation of D.L. Moody, Kynaston Studd, one of the Cambridge Seven, visited twenty American colleges and Moody's Mount Hermon Conference just before the rounding of the Student Volunteer Movement.(16) Clearly, a direct historic relationship exists through the Cambridge evangelistic ministry of D.L. Moody, the response of the Cambridge students, the Mount Hermon Conference, the founding of the Student Volunteer Movement, and subsequent establishment of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

The merger of the SFMF and IVCF occurred in November 1945. Will Norton had just returned from his first term in the Ubangi District of the Belgian Congo and accepted the invitation to serve as interim director of the new missions department until J. Christy Wilson, Jr., director-elect, arrived from Princeton Theological Seminary in January 1946.

Christy Wilson was the son of missionaries to Persia (Iran) who had actively participated in the SVM in their student days. Wilson's immediate priority was to plan a student missionary convention similar to the quadrennials of the SVM. With incredible vision and indomitable zeal, Wilson engineered the "first Urbana" at the University of Toronto, with Norton's assistance, December 27, 1946-January 1, 1947. Samuel M. Zwemer, "Apostle to Islam" and pioneer missionary to Arabia, provided continuity with the nineteenth-century SVM era as senior speaker at Toronto. Harold John Ockenga, minister of historic Park Street Church, Boston, represented the renewed evangelical voice of historic missions. Bakht Singh, a converted Sikh of India; Wilbur Smith, Presbyterian minister and head of the Pastors' Course at Moody Bible Institute; L.E. Maxwell, founding president of Prairie Bible Institute in Alberta; and President McQuilkin of Columbia Bible College addressed the 575 delegates from 151 colleges, universities, seminaries, and Bible institutes.(17)

The delegates related to fifty-two different denominations; representatives of fifty-six mission agencies were present to interact with students. Observers from the SVM and the Christian Student Movement (CSM) were greatly perturbed by the conservative theological expression of the convention. Afterward they met with Woods, warning him that they would oppose the movement in every possible way. Their critical report was circulated widely.(18)

After eighteen months of leadership, Christy Wilson resigned to pursue his doctoral studies at the University of Edinburgh en route to the Middle East in the service of Christ. His successor, T. Norton Sterrett, whose parents also had been missionaries to Persia, had completed his first term in India with the Union of Evangelical Students of India (UESI/IVCF). Sterrett directed the 1948 IVCF missionary convention, the first to be held at the University of Illinois in Urbana. Almost 1,300 students traveled that year to Urbana. When Sterrett later returned to India, Charles Troutman gave interim leadership to IVCF's missions department until Wesley Gufstason, one-time Evangelical Free Church missionary to China, arrived.(19)

Subsequent mission department directors were David Adeney of China Inland Mission, Erik Fife of North Africa Mission, David Howard of Latin America Mission, Reuben Brooks of Michigan State University, John Kyle of Wycliffe Bible Translators/Philippines, and Dan Harrison, also a Wycliffe missionary.

The process of working out positive relationships between the SFMF and IVCF was arduous. It took a positive turn when John Alexander, chair of the department of geography at the University of Wisconsin, resigned his academic post to become the new president of IVCF, and David Howard, the first SFMF staff member in 1951 and missionary to Colombia, became the missionary director of InterVarsity in 1968.(20)

The Alexander/Howard team infused a new dynamic into both movements. Some of the members of the former SFMF missions committee were integrated into the InterVarsity Corporation and Board of Directors. Overall, the SFMF helped to return the Bible to center stage in student world missions.

When David Howard later assumed the duties of the executive director of the World Evangelical Fellowship, John Kyle of Wycliffe Bible Translators/Philippines, succeeded him. By 1981 InterVarsity staff member Bob Fryling, as director of campus ministries, began the process of integrating missions more effectively into the total IVCF movement. A stronger ministry to international students under Terry Morrison's leadership linked international student groups in the United States to the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students.

As the dynamic missionary leadership of John R. Mott throughout the decades made him a natural leader among mainline denominations in the development of the ecumenical movement, so also David Howard's leadership as IVCF missions director enabled him to revitalize the dynamics of evangelical groups worldwide.

The majority of the missionary volunteers of the Urbana conventions have served with mission agencies relating to the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association (IFMA) and the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies, formerly the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association (EFMA). Follow-up materials from IVCF have been regularly sent to those who make decisions at Urbana to assist them in understanding God's will for their lives and world service with Christ.(21)

In cadence with the historic march following the 1806 Haystack Prayer Meeting, the 1886 Mount Hermon Student Conference and the SVM, the SFMF/IVCF and the Urbana conventions have continued to stir the church to press forward in its missionary outreach during the last half of the twentieth century.(22)


1. George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991), p. 23.

2. H. Wilbert Norton, To Stir the Church (Madison, Wis.: Student Foreign Missions Fellowship, 1986), p. 32.

3. Dan Harrison, in Urbana Update 6, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 3.

4. Ibid., p. 2. See also Wilbert Norton, "Mission in the United States: An Evangelical Perspective," International Review of Missions 63, no. 250 (April 1974): 192, for denominational representation at Urbana 1974; and "The Urbana Opportunity," in Urbana 90--Hope for Today's Students (Madison, Wis.: IVCF, 1990), for denominational representation at Urbana 1987.

5. Harrison, in Urbana Update, p. 3.

6. Ibid., p. 4.

7. Ibid., p. 3

8. "How Does God Use Urbana?" Fact Sheet (Madison, Wis.: IVCF, 1990).

9. Kenneth S. Latourette, Missions Tomorrow (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1936), pp. 128-29.

10. Ibid., p. 128.

11. Norton, To Stir the Church, pp. 7-8.

12. Ibid., pp. 13-14.

13. Ibid., p. 15.

14. Ibid., pp. 12-13.

15. At a 1936 student conference in Guelph, Ontario, the Canadian IVCF "committed itself to world involvement and responsibility in the cause of foreign missions |which was~ carried to the U.S. by the first student workers sent there from Canada." C. Stacey Woods, The Growth of a Work of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1978), pp. 127-28.

16. J. Edwin Orr, The Light of the Nations (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965), pp. 201-2. See also Woods, Growth, p. 15.

17. Norton, To Stir the Church, p. 32.

18. Woods, Growth, pp. 128-29.

19. Norton, To Stir the Church, p. 35.

20. Ibid.

21. "Urbana Options," Fact Sheet (Madison, Wis.: IVCF, 1991).

22. Norton, To Stir the Church, pp. 43-49.

H. Wilbert Norton, Sr., is Director of the Doctor of Missiology Program at the Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi. He began his missionary service with the Evangelical Free Church of America in 1940 as rounding director of the Bible Institute of the Ubangi (now Goyongo Seminary in Zaire). He subsequently rounded the missions program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and at the Graduate School of Wheaton College, serving these institutions as president and dean, respectively. After retirement in 1980 he was founding principal of Jos ECWA Theological Seminary (SIM, International) in Nigeria and also director of CAMEO (Committee to Assist Ministry Education Overseas).
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Author:Norton, H. Wilbert, Sr.
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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