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A Vision to Encompass the World

Dr. Jay Gary tells the fascinating story of how students in North America first caught a vision to reach their fellow students worldwide with the Gospel and help complete the Great Commission. Focusing on the period from 1895 to 1925, Gary traces the role of the YMCA/YWCA and their vision to reach every student in every college, by launching national Christian student movements in every country.

Like the students of a hundred years ago, the students of today now live in the closing years of another century. Will they rise to the challenge as the generation before them did? Read the story of how a whole generation of students dared to reach their world for Christ.

The First Word
So Paul…had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord. –Acts 19:9-10

Almost 2000 years ago, the Apostle Paul launched a work among university students at Ephesus and found it to be a strategic link in evangelizing all of Asia Minor. Fifteen hundred years later, it was the Society of Jesuits who founded a chain of universities, from Ireland to Japan as a means to reach the world.

In our time, the task remains the same. As the campus is reached today, the world is won tomorrow.

This booklet retells the story of how a whole generation caught the vision to launch a national campus ministry in every country, to the end that every college have a campus movement to reach every student with the gospel.

The Inception of a Dream
Do not despise the day of small beginnings.–Zechariah 4:10

The year was 1806. The month, August. The place, Williams College, Massachusetts.  A group of five students, two sophomores and three freshman, committed themselves to pray for revival among their fellow students.

Each week they met south of the college, in a meadow near the banks of the Hoosack River. One day, scarcely had they begun, when thunder clouds appeared in the western sky. Fearing a heavy storm, the group ran towards the campus, but the storm proved to be only a shower. The students, noting the rapid disappearance of the storm clouds, took shelter next to a haystack and continued their meeting.

Their leader, Samuel Mills, turned the discussion towards their obligation to reach the world. At that time there were no foreign missionary societies in North America and no student Christian movement worldwide. Mills proposed that they challenge the American Church to obey the Great Commission by giving their lives to God for foreign missionary service. Mills gave them a challenge, “We can do this if we will. Come, let us make it a subject of prayer under the haystack while the dark clouds are going and the clear sky is coming.”

The prayers and effort of this group led to the formation of the first missionary society in America by 1810 and to the first student Christian movement across the campuses of America. Soon, these small “Society of the Brethren” groups spread to other campuses. Yet Mill’s dream of an intercollegiate student Christian movement was an idea born ahead of its time.

At that time there were but twenty-five colleges in the country, with only a few enrolling more than one hundred students. With no telegraph, no railroad service, and infrequent mail delivery, the chance of Christian students keeping in touch with each other on different campuses faced impossible odds. Yet throughout the 19th century, the “Haystack Prayer Meeting” and the marble globe monument erected at that site in 1856, came to symbolize the dream and vision for a major movement of students going overseas from the campuses of America.

The Birth of an Intercollegiate Movement
The reason I left you…was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town. –Titus 1:5

By 1856, student Young Men’s Christian Associations (YMCA) began appearing on U.S. campuses. In 1877, the YMCA formally organized a college division and appointed the first campus staff member, named Luther Wishard, to direct the work of the YMCA in the higher education institutions of the U.S. At that time the YMCA was ministering to more than 8,000 students in campus groups, on more than 50 of the 350 college institutions throughout the U.S. From 1877 to 1884, Wishard singlehandedly guided this student movement by an emphasis on prayer, bible study, and evangelism.

During the winter of 1878, Luther Wishard heard for the first time the story of Samuel Mills and the College Societies which led to the birth of the American Missionary Movement. Within a short time, he traveled to Williams College. There in an effort to carry on the heritage handed down from the Mill’s group, Wishard knelt in the snow at the Haystack Monument and made an unreserved surrender to the great leader of those early volunteers, praying, “I am willing to go anywhere at any time to do anything for Jesus.” Returning to his ministry with students, Wishard was covered with shame that the YMCA movement had not adopted an aggressive emphasis on the Great Commission.

Believing that the time was now ripe for students to be sent worldwide in large numbers Wishard wrote:

Let the students in these closing years of the century consummate what our fellow students in the earlier part of the century attempted. Let us engraft a missionary department upon this Intercollegiate Movement. We are their lineal spiritual descendants and successors; what they had begun it is ours to complete. They had willed, but our wills must now be brought into the plan to consumate their daring purpose.

Even though Wishard keenly desired to go overseas, he became convinced that for the present time, he could make a greater impact by remaining in the United States to bring about a movement of students going overseas and thus reproduce himself many times over.

The Awakening at Mt. Hermon
Your troops will be willing on your day of battle…your young men will come to you like the dew. –Psalm 110:3

Not until the summer of 1886 did Wishard’s prayer for a missionary awakening come to the student world. That summer, with the help of D.L. Moody, he planned the first summer bible conference ever held for students on the grounds of a boy’s school at Mt. Hermon, Massachusetts. This conference lasted 26 days and was attended by 250 men from more than 96 colleges.

Although Moody did not plan to include an emphasis on the Great Commission, within 10 days he was persuaded to schedule a missionary program on two Friday evenings. At the second Friday evening, students presented the spiritual needs of 10 nations. Those in the audience were deeply moved and hushed as they heard about lost souls in China, India, Persia and Japan. The meeting closed, but many students prayed into the night, surrendering themselves to the lordship of Christ.

One who dedicated his life that night was John Mott, soon to be a junior at Cornell University that year. He described the mood of the conference in a letter to his parents:

The Holy Spirit is working here with mighty power. He has brought about the greatest missionary revival the world has ever known. Up to this noon, over 80 of the students have consecrated themselves to foreign missionary work and I know by Sunday night they will number 100. It thrills me through and through to record this fact. Here I have received a far richer anointing of the Spirit than I dared to ask for before I came.

By the last day of the conference, a total of 99 students had signed a missionary declaration. As they knelt in Crossley Hall during a farewell meeting, one more person opened the door and slipped in, filling the ranks of what came to be known as the Mt. Hermon 100.

The following school year more than 2,100 men and women volunteered for missionary service. By 1888, the missionary surge that started at Mt. Hermon became formally organized as the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (SVM), serving the campus department of the YMCA and the YWCA.

The SVM united YMCA/YWCA students into local prayer and study groups for missions. Over the next 30 years they conducted scores of conventions and published hundreds of missions pamphlets and textbooks. For one brief moment before World War I there was among the students and churches of the world, as one volunteer said, the “feeling that we were one team, working for one world, under one Captain.” Historians estimate that by the 1940’s more than 20,500 students who had signed the declaration reached the field.

Trail Blazing among Student Worldwide
It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known.  –Romans 15:20

Three years before the eventful summer at Mt. Hermon, Wishard began encouraging students who were soon to sail as missionaries to adapt the American methods of student work to the campuses overseas. Within a short while, Wishard was receiving correspondence from his former YMCA students about the formation of student associations overseas. Speaking at a conference in 1884, Wishard reported,
At Tungchow College near Peking there is a band of students whose work, were it known, would be an inspiration to the entire college world. Prayer meetings and Bible classes are maintained, individual evangelism is done in college and much preaching is carried on in the street chapels. A meeting is held every month to study the progress and pray for the spread of the Kingdom of Christianity throughout the world. Out of their bitter poverty these Chinese students are taking a hand in the evangelization of Africa by educating a boy in a school in Zululand at their own expense.

That fall, Wishard wrote a pamphlet on the Intercollegiate YMCA which pictured the building of a world-wide movement. He wrote: “The movement spread from Princeton College to the two hundred other colleges, from America to Ceylon. It will continue to spread until the students in the missionary colleges in the Orient and the Dark Continent are united with the students of America in one world-wide movement of Christ for the students of the world and the students of the world for Christ.”

By 1888, Wishard knew that the European universities, and those of Great Britain in particular, were not inclined to reproduce the YMCA pattern in their colleges. They were, however, eager to learn from the American experience and to encourage the development of a Christian movement as indigenous to their national university situation as was the Student YMCA to the American colleges. That December Wishard and his wife commenced a tour to colleges overseas. The tour consumed forty-five months, over thirty-one of which was devoted to Japan, China, Malaysia, Siam, Burma, Ceylon, India, Arabia, Syria, Persia, Turkey and Cyprus.

He addressed thousands of students publicly, interviewed a thousand missionaries personally and spoke with scores of business and government officials about whether the time was ripe for the establishment of evangelistic movements among students. By doing this, Wishard prioritized the needs for student workers and prepared the way for American staff to follow. Upon the conclusion of Wishard’s tour, he returned to the States to form the Foreign Department of the YMCA and YWCA,which over the next 50 years, sent up to 400 workers overseas to pioneer movements among students.

While Wishard was touring the universities of Asia and the Middle East, an American by the name of James Reynolds, based in Paris, was helping to pioneer the work in Europe. In 1891, Reynolds wrote: “Is not the time ripe for strengthening these movements by a more permanent, substantial union of the Christian forces in the universities of different countries that we may profit by one another’s mutual experience and help one another?”

Wishard blazed trails, Reynolds offered proposals, but it was John R. Mott who was to provide the organizational spark. From 1888 to 1894, Mott picked up where Wishard had left off in developing the U.S. student movement. With this local and national experience behind him, Mott began to form a worldwide movement of Christian students.

The Students of the World for Christ
I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places…in the kingdom of heaven. –Matthew 8:11

In 1895, Mott was commissioned by the American Intercollegiate YMCA to enter into negotiations with national student movements overseas regarding an international student worldwide organization. During the first three weeks of August, Mott and his wife visited the British, German, and Scandinavian Summer Student Conferences, receiving affirmations of what was beginning to be called “the federation plan.”

Then on August 17th, Mott gathered five other representatives of student movements at the Swedish Castle of Vadstena, on the shores of Lake Vettern. Besides Mott, there was an American, an Englishman, one German, one Swede and one Norwegian. Over the course of thirty-six hours, and after much prayer and discussion they formed the “World Student Christian Federation.”

The founding members of the Federation included the American Intercollegiate Young Men’s Christian Association, the British College Christian Union, the German Students’ Alliance, the Scandinavian University Christian Movement, and the Student Christian Movement in Mission Lands. The objectives of the Federation were expressed as follows:

1. To unite student Christian movements or organizations throughout the world.
2. To collect information regarding the religious conditions of the students in all lands.
3. To promote the following lines of activity:
a) To lead students to become disciples of Jesus Christ as only Savior and as God.
b) To deepen the spiritual life of students.
c) To enlist students in the work of extending the Kingdom of Christ throughout the whole world.

To Mott, the Federation was “nothing less than the uniting of the Christian forces of all universities and colleges in the great work of winning the students of the world for Christ, of building them up in Him, and of sending them out into the world to work for Him.”

Previous efforts by Wishard had been confined largely to trying to effect such a union in the name of and through the agency of the YMCA, now Mott felt that “it would be better to encourage Christian students in each country to develop national Christian movements of their own, adapted in name, organization and activity to their own particular genius and character, and then to link these together in some simple and yet effective federation.”

Immediately following this meeting at Vadstena, Mott, who was barely over thirty years old, started on a twenty months’ tour among the students of Europe and Asia–a journey which involved a total of 60,000 miles. In the process, Mott led more than 300 students to volunteer for full time Christian work, organized 70 new Student Christian Associations on campuses, formed five new national student Christian movements. Thousands of Buddhist, Hindus, Moslems, skeptics and agnostics flocked to the student evangelistic meetings addressed by Mott, with more than five hundred students accepting Jesus Christ as their personal savior.

In the year 1900, Mott wrote a report summarizing the progress of student ministry around the world. He stated: “These five years constitute the most eventful and significant period in the religious history of the student world.” He gave a worldwide report containing these statistics:

1895 1900
Student Christian Associations 900 1,400
Number of Students as Members 45,000 65,000
Movements Allied w/ Federation 10 15
Student YMCA Staff 38 101
Student YMCA Buildings 21 39
National Student Conferences 10 20
Participants 2,600 5,200
Pamphlets & Books 50 200
Circulation of National Periodicals 6,000 20,000
Bible Study Classes 11,000 25,000
Mission Study Classes 2,000 5,000
National SVM Departments 2 100

The Winds of Change
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
-Hebrews 11:39-40

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, the Federation continued to pioneer new works among the universities of the world. By personal visits, correspondence, and national conferences it covered the student map on all six continents. Much of its history and advance can be told by tracing its world conferences and general committee meetings held every two to four years. In contrast to its work today, the World Student Christian Federation was openly evangelical in its orientation and outreach well into the 1920’s.

From the start it initiated a “universal day of prayer for students,” which became a rallying point for intercession and evangelism on universities worldwide each year. It made marked strides in emphasizing ministry to women and internationals, as well as in including national student movements of countries predominantly from Roman Catholic or ancient Eastern Church traditions. As World War I came, the Federation found itself raising money for “student refugees” in the universities of Europe.

Up until the time of World War I, the Federation was, to all intent and purposes, the only international student organization. Without a doubt, there is no way to explain the emergence of the International Missionary Council in the 1910’s and the World Council of Churches in the 1940’s apart from the origin of the Federation.

By the 1930’s, new forces were coming into play on the universities around the world. Christian denominations increased their effort to place university chaplains on campuses. Also new movements such as the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF), began to emerge, often using many of the same principles that the student YMCA-YWCA pioneered.

The Student and World Connection Today
As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work.  –John 9:4

Almost a hundred years have passed since the YMCA swept onto the scene of intercollegiate life worldwide. By the 1940’s, the College Division of the YMCA-YWCA gradually ceased to play a significant role in the life of college students. In looking at student movements of history, the danger is often to romanticize about the past and seek ways to recapture those moments. Kenneth S. Latourette, a former Student Volunteer and Yale professor knew better than to always be looking over his shoulder. In 1936, he concluded the book, Missions Tomorrow with this prophetic statement about the movement of God’s Spirit: “We believe that He will break forth again, even though it may be in most unexpected quarters. We believe that souls will be found to respond to God and that tomorrow as yesterday, new movements will demonstrate his power.” Little did he realize at the time, that in God’s design, other movements like The Navigators, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and Campus Crusade for Christ were about to emerge onto the universities to call a new generation of college students to follow Christ into the world.

By 1946, InterVarsity formed its own worldwide student federation, called the “International Fellowship of Evangelical Students” (IFES). Over the next thirty years, the IFES emerged as a leading Christian student internationale, with more than 90 national member movements and with staff pioneering in more than 30 countries.

During this same period of time, Campus Crusade for Christ also emerged as a global movement. In 1951, it began with the goal to “win the campus for Christ today, reach the world for Christ tomorrow.” Within a short period of time, God began to raise up leaders to reach students overseas. Nationals from Korea, Pakistan, Mexico, and Finland began to ask for training to reach their campuses and country for Christ. By the early 1980’s, the movement involved more than 100,000 college students in a 100 countries worldwide and plans were being made in reference to the year 2000 to establish campus ministries on 8,000 remaining major universities worldwide.

Today, the worldwide efforts of denominations and para-church groups to reach students worldwide totally outstrip anything in comparison with what the YMCA saw or even envisioned. Now we stand on the brink of a new century of campus ministry. Yet if history is to teach us anything, it is this, that world encompassing vision which comes to a student movement only lasts for a season, making the stewardship of it all that more sacred.


-Latourette, Kenneth Scott. World Service: A History of the Foreign Work and World Service of the Young Men’s Christian Associations of the U.S. and Canada, New York: Association Press, 1957.
-Mott, John. Strategic Points in the World’s Conquest, New York: Revell, 1897.
-Mott, John. Addresses and Papers of John R. Mott, Vol. 2, “The World’s Student Christian Federation,” New York: Association Press, 1946.
-Rouse, Ruth. The World’s Student Christian Federation, London: S.C.M. Press Ltd., 1948.
-Shedd, Clarence. Two Centuries of Student Christian Movements, New York: Association Press, 1934.

Questions for Study and Reflection

1. How did students first spark the beginning of campus ministry in America? What was their vision? What lessons can you draw today from their example?

2. What most impressed you about Luther Wishard, the first campus staff appointed in the U.S.? What qualities did he have that others should emulate?

3. What was the vision behind the World Student Christian Federation? What impact did it have on the student world before World War I?

4. What similarities exist between the Christian Student Movement of the last century and the major campus ministries today, such as Campus Crusade for Christ or InterVarsity? What differences?

5. As a result of this study, what commitments do you feel God is leading you to make in order to:
-build your world vision?
-pray for a student awakening today?
-reach out to students overseas?

Editor’s note: This paper was first published in 1987 as a Vision Study Booklet of the Worldwide Student NetWork, a department of the U.S. Campus Ministry, Campus Crusade for Christ.

Author: Dr. Jay Gary is president of, a foresight consulting group. Over the past twenty years he has helped non-profits, foundations, civic leaders, and strategic alliances to create more promise filled futures. He also teaches strategic foresight, innovation and leadership at the graduate level and through professional development courses.

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