Missions and Ecumenism: John R. Mott

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.”

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.”


Timeline

1865 John Mott born in Livingston, New York

1886 Dedicates his life to Christian service while at Cornell University; attends D.L. Moody’s Northfield Conference and volunteers for the mission field

1888 Becomes college secretary of the YMCA

1895 Helps found World Student Christian Association

1908 Federal Council of Churches adopts “The Social Creed of the Churches” to promote the social gospel

1910 Mott chairs Edinburgh Missionary Conference

1917 Participates in a U.S. diplomatic mission to Russia

1926 Becomes president of the World Alliance of YMCAs

1941 American Council of Churches formed as a response to the more mainline Federal Council of Churches (later known as the National Council of Churches)

1943 First meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals

1946 Mott shares Nobel Peace Prize

1948 Named honorary chairman of the first meeting of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam

1955 Mott dies


You Are There

When he himself addresses an assembly, [he] knits and kindles the craggy tender face; the voice vibrates with fierce emphases and stresses. . . . The single words seem literally to fall from his lips (the trite expression is for once justified), finished off with a deliberation that never slurs one final consonant, but on the contrary gives that consonant the duty of driving its word home. And as for the sentences also—the conclusion of each, instead of dropping in tone, increases to a sort of defiant sforzando, which, when his earnestness is at its height, can be terrific.

—A participant’s description of John Mott’s chairmanship at the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference

For more information on this topic, see:

Nobel Laureates: Biography of John Raleigh Mott
 http://www.nobel.se/peace/laureates/1946/mott-bio.html

Encyclopedia Britannica
 http://www.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/idxref/4/0,5716,301292,00.html

By Mark Galli

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #65 in 2000]

Mark Galli was editor of Christian History.
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