The SVM and Robert Wilder
by Dr. Dan Pierce, Princeton UBF
"He said to them, `Go into all the world and preach the good news to all
creation.'' --- Mark 16:15
"We can do it, if we will''
The story of student missionary activity in America well-dates Robert Wilder
and the ``Student Volunteer Movement'' and can be traced back to 1810 and
Williams College in Massachusetts, to what is known as the ``Haystack
Movement.'' At that time America had not yet sent her first missionary to a
land. Much of America itself had not yet been pioneered, much less the rest
world. Four students led by Samuel Mills decided to go out into a field to
missions around the world. As a storm arose, the students sought refuge
large haystack, but continued to pray with a decision to serve missions.
motto for the group was ``We can do it, if we will.'' Soon the ``Society of
was established for this purpose. The group moved the next year to Andover
seminary carrying with them the original documents of the ``Society of
There they continued to foster and nourish a sincere interest in missions,
establishing ``The Society of Inquiry on the Subject of Missions.''
The ``Haystack Movement'' also led to the formation of societies on other
campuses with the explicit purpose of world mission. Princeton students, for
example, formed a group in 1814 and kept close contact with Andover students.
Clearly, a movement of God had begun in the hearts of American students.
Students were happy to write letters to missionaries, such as to the
William Carey serving in Serampore, India. The students yearned to know
it like to be a missionary?'' They invited missionaries to come to their
speak. They collected funds for missions. They prayed, they prepared, and
they went. America became a missionary sending nation starting with students.
the 372 members of the ``Society'' at Andover seminary, 217 entered the
mission field. Royal Wilder, the father of Robert Wilder was one of the
students called to the mission field of India.
Robert Wilder, was born in Kolhapur, India in 1863 where he lived for the
fourteen years of his life. His father, Royal Wilder, was an American
who sailed for India in 1846 and later pioneered Kolhapur, India. After
of serving India, Royal Wilder, suffering from ill health, was forced to
The family took up residence in Princeton, but the mission field was always
hearts. Royal Wilder founded and edited the periodical, The Missionary Review
the World. Grace, his daughter, went off to Mt. Holyoke, a women's seminary
Massachusetts, and Robert began his studies at Princeton.
Willing and Desirous
At Princeton, Wilder studied hard and excelled in Greek and philosophy. But
was God's calling, not school study, that moved his heart. He met with
students regularly to study the Bible and to pray for missions. At the
his Junior year he attended a conference of the ``Interseminary Alliance''
inspired to challenge fellow students to pray for a revival at Princeton and
interest in missions. That same fall semester Wilder and his friends
``Princeton Foreign Mission Society'' on the campus. This society took a bold
stance on missions with a clear purpose to be raised as missionaries in
Latin and Greek and football practice. To quote from the society's
"… any student of the College who is a professing Christian may become a
by subscribing to the following covenant: We, the undersigned, declare
willing and desirous, God permitting, to go to the unevangelized portions
Robert's sister Grace had started a girl's student group while at Mt. Holyoke
similar declaration, ``We hold ourselves willing and desirous to
do the Lord's work wherever He may call us, even if it be in a foreign
Mt. Holyoke thirty four girls signed their names.
The Princeton group met Sunday afternoons at the Wilder's home. And while
they met in one room, Robert's sister prayed for them in another. In his
year, Robert and his sister Grace met regularly and prayed for a wide-spread
missionary movement in the colleges and universities of America. They boldly
prayed that one thousand would be sent out. Then, in the Summer of 1886, D.
Moody, the famous Bible teacher, in conjunction with the (then Bible
YMCA organized a one month summer Bible conference for college students at
Mt. Hermon in New York. Before Robert left for the conference, his sister
prophesied that there would be one hundred student volunteers for the foreign
field enlisted at the conference.
The Meeting of the Ten Nations
The conference was attended by 251 students and Wilder immediately took the
initiative to create an interest circle for foreign missions. Foreign
missions had not
originally been planned as an important part of the program, but Wilder made
that ``World Mission'' was going to be highlighted. D.\ L. Moody was not that
knowledgeable about missions and Robert Wilder tried to persuade him to have
world mission night where 10 students would share about foreign mission.
wasn't sure if it was safe to let students take charge, but after consulting
other organizers he granted permission to Wilder.
Wilder found some foreign students, an American Indian, several
studying in America, and including himself, ``The Meeting of the Ten
held with representatives from Japan, Persia, Native America, Siam, Germany,
Armenia, Denmark, Norway, China, and of course India. Wilder's testimony
focused on Mark 16:15, ``Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to
creature.'' ``The Meeting of the Ten Nations'' had an enormous impact on the
students and in the next several days of the conference after much soul
a total of exactly 100 students made the pledge to serve foreign mission.
Wesley once said, ``Give me a hundred men who fear nothing but God, hate
nothing but sin and are determined to know nothing among men but Jesus Christ
and Him crucified, and I will set the world on fire with them.'' God had
exactly 100 men at Mt. Hermon that summer. The ``Student Volunteer Movement
for Foreign Missions'' or the SVM was on its way.
"… this generation.''
Four representatives were chosen from the 100 for the task of traveling
throughout the US and Canada to visit as many campuses as possible. Three of
them later found excellent excuses for not going and the movement might have
ended. Robert Wilder, the fourth member of the team, the only one from
also had a problem: his father was dying! With his failing health, Royal
needed Robert's help to edit The Missionary Review. After two days of silence
father called for Robert and said ``Son, let the dead bury their dead. Go
preach the kingdom.'' Wilder enlisted his Princeton college friend John
who had just begun study at Union Seminary in New York. Forman, a man of
prayer, decided to postpone his studies and travel with Wilder.
The burden of visiting campuses was great and to quote Wilder's own words,
``… the strain was so heavy that I collapsed completely and the doctors said
give up the tour or run the risk of a permanent breakdown. Forman and I took
to the Lord and were confident that He wanted me to continue the tour….'' It
a fruitful year and many student groups were organized. During that first
Samuel Zwemer, the great missionary to the Moslems, and Samuel Moffett, the
great shepherd for Korea, as well as Robert Speer, the great
all joined. When Wilder caught him, Speer was a brilliant student at
was one of three students receiving the highest honors that century. He was
important member of the football team, editor of the student newspaper, and
involved in half a dozen other activities. In addition, his father was a
successful lawyer who fully expected his son to follow. When Speer was asked
a friend, ``What will your father say to this?'' Speer replied, ``I could not
when will you decide?'' (Incidently, the Robert Speer Library at Princeton
excellent collection on world missions.) During that first year 162 campuses
visited and the names of 2106 volunteers were secured, 500 of whom were
These volunteers pledged to support missionaries both in prayer and
In addition, they began receiving training with the aim of going out as
missionaries. The students not only pledged themselves, but they challenged
American churches to have mission. Many churches repented of their long
standing sin of denying the world mission command of Jesus. This resulted in
what is known as the ``Forward Movement'' of the churches. In order to awaken
people to the missionary cause the reading of the lives of missionaries
popularized. When tens of thousands of business men read Blaikie's ``Personal
of David Livingstone'' and the ``Life of John G. Paton, Missionary to the New
Hebrides'' they cried ``Oh Lord!'' and gave their support.
The SVM held their first conference in 1891, from February 26 to March 1, in
Cleveland. One hundred fifty-one educational institutions were represented,
including 580 student delegates, 31 returned foreign missionaries, and 32
representatives of missionary societies. Wilder was 27 years old when this
conference took place and by that time 320 student volunteers had already
the mission field. The watchword of the SVM was, ``The Evangelization of the
World in this Generation'' which became a banner over their meetings. It was
bold proclamation that became the distinguishing mark of the SVM. At the
conference, Robert Wilder gave a message entitled ``The Bible and Missions.''
stressed that the foundation of mission work is Bible study. J. Campbell
lecture, ``Ten Lessons on the Bible and Missions,'' Robert Speer's, ``Prayer
Missions'', Grace Wilder's, ``Shall I Go? --- Thoughts for Girls'' and others
powerful and moving. The SVM conferences became a great success with
students and were held every four years for 76 years.
That summer Wilder traveled to England on his way to India. In England the
SVM became an international movement (excepting of course Canada which had
been involved from the start). Again Wilder visited campuses, starting at
Cambridge, then Oxford, then in London. Then after one and a half years of
working in England, he obeyed his pledge, his covenant with God, and set off
India the nation of his birth. Upon Royal Wilder's death Robert's sister
their mother also returned to India.
At the second SVM conference held in 1894 in Detroit 1082 attended. Great
missionaries such as the Rev. J. Hudson Taylor of the Chinese Inland Mission
delivered addresses. During the meeting a cable from Robert Wilder was
and read aloud, saying simply, ``India needs now one thousand Spirit-filled
volunteers.'' The challenge to obey the world mission command was certainly
present. At the next conference in 1898, 1598 student delegates, visiting
missionaries, various other delegates, and Wilder himself attended for a
2221. Wilder had been urged to come back to America and encourage the
students. At the conference, Wilder gave a message entitled ``Our Equipment
Power,'' where he discussed the necessity of spiritual power to do the work
God. Wilder urged students to prove Christ is risen and living today by being
Spirit-filled. He said, ``The early Christians turned the world upside down
they themselves were first turned upside down by the power of the Holy
Wilder then spent the next two years laboring on American campuses and in
Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. In Scandinavia, one professor spoke up
to persecute at a meeting, saying ``To speak of `the Evangelization of the
this generation' was not humble.'' Wilder, however, never compromised the
watchword of the movement. After two years of campus work, he again returned
to India. He continued, however, to make trips to Europe including Germany to
meet with student groups and to organize conferences. Finally due to poor
he left India for the last time and returned to Europe. It should be
by the time Wilder left, the student volunteers to India were already many
hundreds, if not thousands.
The Next Generation
Before 1925 the SVM is considered to have provided the volunteers from
which one half to two thirds of North American Missionaries were sent
Conservative estimates are that
the SVM was responsible for sending out over 20,500 missionaries by 1948,
being sent in the early years. The movement suffered decline however, during
First World War, the roaring twenties, the great depression, and the Second
War. During these years the movements watchword ``The Evangelization of the
World in this Generation'' was severely attacked as being too presumptuous.
the 1932 SVM conference, the watchword, which had been the movement's
crowning glory was conspicuous by its absence. To quote a critical synopsis
the 1936 meeting, ``The mass of delegates had little or no knowledge of the
and spiritual things. They had evidently not studied the Bible in their
churches or in colleges and universities. They lacked the background and
foundations for the appreciation of missionary themes…. The audience was the
mission field rather than the missionary force.''
Wilder never gave up his efforts to maintain the SVM as mission centered.
Movement leaders, however, could no longer embrace evangelizing the world as
primary theme. It was during these turbulent times that Robert Wilder was
rest in 1938, at age 75. In his last years of life, Wilder wrote, ``The Great
Commission'' and ``Christ and The Student World.'' The first chapter of
the Student World'' is entitled ``The Fight For Character.'' To Wilder, man's
problem is a sin problem that begins in his thought world. Sin blocks the way
pure heart. Wilder quoted, ``Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall
From his message at that first SVM conference in 1891 entitled ``The Bible
Missions,'' to his books at the end of his life, he stressed Bible study as
foundation. Wilder used Jesus' teaching ``Give us this day our daily bread.''
describe the basic need for nourishment of the Word of God. He hoped that
students would see the structure of the Bible and the point of the Bible best
revealed through Jesus' world mission command.
In following years, the SVM was continually transformed. Fewer and fewer
students signed the pledge to go to the foreign mission field. In 1959 the
merged with the ``United Student Christian Movement'' and the ``Interseminary
Movement'' to form the ``National Student Christian Federation.'' In 1966 a
alliance with the ``Roman Catholic Newman Student Federation'' and other
to form the ``University Christian Movement'' occurred. The ``University
Movement'' soon voted itself out of existence.
World Mission Generations
The SVM left its mark on Korea a century ago. One of the first to sign ``the
pledge'' or as Wilder called it, ``the covenant'' was Samuel Moffett. In 1889,
Samuel Moffett was the first of the student volunteers to sail for Korea. In
1893 he moved to Pyeng Yang which is now in North Korea. He was founder of the
Pyeng Yang Church and her shepherd for 17 years. To the Koreans he was known
as ``sun-che-cha'' (prophet). The years of Korean pioneering were difficult,
but American students were in constant prayer and hundreds prepared and went
to Korea. Sam Moffett established the Korean Union College and the Presbyterian
Theological Seminary. The first graduating class of the seminary and the establishment
of the Korean Presbyterian Church occurred in Pyeng Yang in 1907, It was just
before this, in January 1907 after a series of intense Bible meetings that what
is called the ``Korean Pentecost'' occurred in Pyeng Yang. God sent his Mighty
Spirit and Korean people cried out to God in repentance and were given spiritual
power. Researching the SVM at the Speer library, I happened to meet an elderly
man, Samuel Moffett, the son of Samuel Moffett, missionary to Korea. Born in
Korea, Sam was a second-generation missionary to Korea and later, a missionary
to China before retiring to Princeton. He is now Emeritus Professor of Missions
at the seminary. He was very encouraged that I had been researching the SVM
and was well aware of UBF and its mission. He asked me to say hello to his good
friend from earlier days, Sarah Barry. Then he took me over to a side window
and pointed out, saying, ``that's his house, over there, where Robert Wilder
prayed, 12 Stockton Street.'' Mrs. Moffett was very proud to tell me about her
son, little Sam, who is a missionary in Thailand. We parted with her words of
encouragement, ``all the power to you!'' While in Chicago for the recent weddings,
my wife Missionary Birgit was talking with Missionary Sarah Barry, the co-founder
of ``University Bible Fellowship'' about Robert Wilder. To our surprise Missionary
Sarah said that she had signed the pledge to become a foreign missionary. After
several years in Korea, Missionary Sarah and Missionary Samuel Lee established
UBF in 1961. Just as the SVM was disappearing, UBF was appearing! Royal Wilder,
Robert and Grace Wilder and three Samuel Moffetts, not to mention our very own
Sarah Barry, all accepted God's call to ``Evangelize the World in this generation''
as their duty and honor. God used Sarah Barry as a torch bearer of world mission
for her generation. Should we not also be willing and desirous to enter a covenant
relationship with God for the sake of this generation?
One Word: ``Evangelize the World in this Generation''
- Robert P. Wilder, ``The Great Commission,'' Oliphants LTD., 1936.
- Robert P. Wilder, ``Christ and the Student World,'' F. H. Revell Co., New
- Robert P. Wilder, ``Among India's Students,'' F. H. Revell Co., New York.
- ``Historical Sketches of the Indian Missions,'' Allahabad Mission Press.
- Wish} Luther D. Wishard, ``The Student Challenge to the Churches,'' F. H.
Revell Co., New York. 1899.
- ``The Intercollegian,'' International Committee of the Y.M.C.A., Vol.
- F. A. Keller, ed., ``The Student Volunteer,'' Official Organ of the SVMFM.
Vol. 1, February 1893. Vol. 2, May 1894.
- Maxwood Moorhead, ed., ``The Student Missionary Enterprise, Addresses and
Discussions of the Second International Convention of the Student Volunteer
Movement for Foreign Missions,'' F. H. Revell Co., New York. 1894.
- ``The Student Missionary Appeal, Addresses at the Third International
Convention of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions,'' SVMFM
Press, New York. 1889.
- David M. Howard, ``Student Power in World Evangelism,'' Intervarsity
Press, Downers Grove, Illinois. 1979.
- Nathan D. Showalter, ``The End of a Crusade --- The Student Volunteer
Movement for Foreign Missions and the Great War,'' D. Th. Thesis, Harvard
- Daniel G. Reid, ed., ``Dictionary of Christianity in America,''
Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois. 1990.
- David B. Calhoun, ``Princeton Seminary, Volume 1: Faith and Learning,''
Banner of Truth, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. 1994.
- William Newton Blair, ``The Korean Pentecost,'' The Board of Foreign
Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, New York. 1910.