Student Volunteer Movement
One of the most ambitious and influential student voluntary associations to promote world missions, the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM), founded in 1888, claimed to have enrolled more than 20,000 North American college students as evangelical Protestant missionaries before its demise in the 1960s.
In the summer of 1886, the itinerant revivalist DWIGHT L. MOODY, recently returned from a preaching tour of the schools that are now part of the Ivy League, convened a monthlong conference of the Intercollegiate YMCA at the Mount Hermon Academy in Northfield, Massachusetts. In the course of the meeting, Moody led 100 students, the “Mount Hermon Hundred,” to take the pledge to become foreign missionaries. Over the next few years, various supporters carried the pledge to other colleges and universities. In 1888, the SVM was formally organized to direct student energies toward foreign mission service. The movement appointed JOHN R. MOTT, a Methodist leader of the YMCA, as its first president and Robert E. Speer, a Presbyterian supporter of missions, as traveling secretary.
Taking as its watchword “the evangelization of the world in this generation,” the society sought to organize students at all major American universities. The movement also spread abroad quickly, leading to the establishment of the British Student Volunteer Missionary Union (1892) and the World Student Christian Federation (1895). Self-consciously interdenominational and evangelical, the SVM based its appeal on the authority of Scripture, particularly the “Great Commission” of Jesus Christ that was interpreted as calling individuals to “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel.” In its many mission books and study programs, the movement emphasized the importance of personal conversion and holiness and the salvation of individual souls as the avenue to social regeneration.
At the same time, the movement also had an anti-intellectual dimension that incited spiritual passions and encouraged students to take their pledge as an act of faith. The SVM connected the spiritual conquest of the globe, as indicated by the organization's watchword, to popular American patriotism. Leaders such as Mottmade extensive use of militant rhetoric, envisioning himself as a global commander-in-chief, encouraging the image of Page 960 | Top of Articlethe SVM as a military camp in training, and lending an added sense of urgency to the cause. The SVM thus drew upon popular late 19th-century conceptions of American superiority and MANIFEST DESTINY to further its religious goals and convince students to take the pledge. Through its long series of large conventions, or “Quadrennials,” held every four years beginning in 1891, the SVM vowed to reach every generation of college students with its message.
The effects of the SVM at home were perhaps even more significant than its work abroad. The movement's organizational strategies produced and trained many talented leaders in world missions who raised money, published widely, and promoted the ideal of overseas Christian service during the firsthalf of the 20th century. Mott, Speer, Arthur T. Pierson, Kenneth Latourette, and other leaders wrote widely influential texts about world missions, helped to establish missionary collections at colleges and universities, endowed mission chairs and lectureships, founded Bible institutes and colleges, and created supporting organizations to raise funds for foreign missions, including the Laymen's Missionary Movement (1906). All these efforts directly aided the growth of financial giving to the missionary cause, which climbed steeply from $9 million in 1906 to $45 million in 1924.
The SVM fell into rapid decline after 1920 due to a lessening of popular interest in foreign missions as well as to organizational and leadership problems. In 1959, it merged with two other student societies to form the National Student Christian Federation and in 1966 became part of the University Christian Movement, which disbanded in 1969.
Ben Harder, “The Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions and Its Contribution to 20th century Missions,” Missiology 8 (1980): 141–154; Michael Parker, The Kingdom of Character: The Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (1886–1926) (Lanham, Md.: American Society of Missiology and University Press of America, 1998).