Christian History Home > Issue 65 > Missions and Ecumenism: John R. Mott
Missions and Ecumenism: John R. Mott
Evangelist and ecumenist
As John Mott stood before the now famous 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference, he said, "It is a startling and solemnizing fact that even as late as the twentieth century, the Great Command of Jesus Christ to carry the Gospel to all mankind is still so largely unfulfilled. … The church is confronted today, as in no preceding generation, with a literally worldwide opportunity to make Christ known."
It was evangelistic passion that made Mott his generation's most popular evangelist to university students and the promoter of the emerging ecumenical movement.
The New-York-born-and-Iowa-raised Mott was nurtured in a devout Methodist home. He was led into "a reasonable and vital faith" at Cornell University after hearing and speaking personally with C. T. Studd, the renowned cricket-player-turned-evangelist (and one of the "Cambridge Seven" who later worked with Hudson Taylor in China). Mott was struck by Studd's admonition, "Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not. Seek ye first the kingdom of God." That same year, at the 1886 Northfield (Massachusetts) Student Conference led by Dwight Moody, Mott stepped up and became one of the 100 men who volunteered for foreign missions.
"The evangelization of the world in this generation" —John R. Mott
Mott's destiny, however, lay not in foreign missions but in evangelizing college students and inspiring others to foreign mission work. He became college secretary of the YMCA in 1888, when the organization was consciously evangelical and aggressively evangelistic. That same year, he helped organize the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (SVM), a branch of the YMCA and YWCA. By the time he spoke at SVM's 1951 convention, over 20,000 volunteers had gone to mission fields through its efforts.
Mott's energies could not be bound by one or even two such organizations, no matter their scope. In 1895 he helped found the World Student Christian Association and traveled some 2 million miles to further the federation's dream: to "unite in spirit as never before the students of the world," and so hasten the fulfillment of Jesus' prayer, "that all may be one." On every continent he visited, he established immediate rapport with students and church leaders, who flocked to hear him speak. His reputation for irenic yet impassioned appeal for dedication to the kingdom of God grew; heads of state sympathic to his mission honored him upon arrival and consulted him in private.
In 1893 he helped found the Foreign Missions Conference of North America, and in 1910, he helped pull together and chair the massive Edinburgh Missionary Conference—its 1,200 delegates represented 160 mission boards or societies.
All these movements, and a few more with which Mott was involved, eventually blossomed at the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam in 1948. Mott was not only officially named honorary president at the inaugural session, he has since earned the informal title of "father of the ecumenical movement."
By the time Mott was 32, he was called "Protestantism's leading statesman," at 58, the "father of the young people of the world," and at age 81, in 1946, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In an era when liberals and fundamentalists debated fiercely, Mott took a middle view: "Evangelism without social work is deficient; social work without evangelism is impotent."
Still, evangelism was his first love. The title of his bestselling 1900 book is The Evangelization of the World in This Generation, and in his last public appearance, he said, "While life lasts, I am an evangelist."
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