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Published: August 9, 2011

John R. Mott (1865–1955)

Organizer and long-time leader of the STUDENT VOLUNTEER MOVEMENT FOR FOREIGN MISSIONS (SVM), which recruited thousands of American college students to serve as Christian missionaries in southeast Asia, China, Japan, Africa and Latin America. The student head of the Cornell University YMCA, Mott became the founding chairman of SVM in 1888. In 1900, he wrote the widely circulated The Evangelization of the World in This Generation, and by 1910 he had succeeded in organizing 2,000 SVM on-campus and off-campus study groups with 25,000 students.

Obsessed with Christianizing China, he wrote in 1911, “It is Western education that the Chinese are clamoring for, and will have. If the Church can give it to them, plus Christianity, they will take it; otherwise they will get it elsewhere, without Christianity—and that speedily.” His appeal sent American student missionaries swarming across China in the pre–World War I years. By 1925 they had enrolled some 250,000 Chinese primary school students, more than 25,000 high school students and nearly 5,000 college students in American-style missionary schools.

During World War I, Mott turned his attention to the organization of YMCA students and volunteers from college campuses to provide YMCA-type programs for Allied troops and for prisoner-of-war camps on both sides. The campus enthusiasm for SVM had peaked by then, however. Even in China, growing nationalistic demands for local control over educational institutions was discouraging recruitment of new student missionaries in the United States. Meanwhile, a general, war-inspired disillusionment swept across most U.S. college campuses, thus dissipating much of the enthusiasm for SVM. Mott stepped down as chairman in 1920 and spent the next 20 years promoting world ecumenism as chairman of the International Missionary Council. A prolific writer, he shared the Nobel Prize for peace in 1946.