When more than 15,000 Christian students from North American universities and Bible colleges gather at the University of Illinois in Urbana late this month (December 26–January 1), the Church as a whole may view their gathering as just another one of those “freakish” youth jamborees that in the end accomplish very little. But the Urbana Student Missionary Conference signifies that there is a tide of spiritual energy among the Christian students of this country that could change the course of history.

It was not like this among students before. Those who remember the anemic efforts among students in the early thirties, when the Church was locked in its battle with liberalism, can testify to the great lack of spiritual concern on campuses.

As early as 1806, students concerned about missions held a prayer meeting in a haystack on the campus of Williams College (Massachusetts). A few years later they applied to the churches to send them as missionaries. But no mission structure existed to help them. In 1810, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was established to send the first student missionary volunteers to Asia. Eighty years later, at D. L. Moody’s Mount Hermon Conference Center, students laid the foundations of the Student Volunteer Movement for foreign missions. This organization sparked the sending of thousands of missionaries by the churches at the close of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. But theological liberalism depleted the missionary zeal of the churches in the depression years, and the Student Volunteer Movement became oriented toward the social gospel.

A spiritual revival occurred on the campus of Wheaton College in 1936. This was followed by ...

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