Chapter 15 - The Northfield Conference and the Student Volunteers

Table of Contents

Various Bible Conferences - The Pre- Eminence of Northfleld - The Beginnings and the Growth of the Conference The Student Volunteers - Missionary Interest Awakened.

This is a day in which God is using in a very remarkable way what is known as the Bible Conference. In many parts of the country there are annual summer gatherings of Christian people for the study of God's Word. The number is rapidly increasing, and the growth of some of these conferences is really remarkable. In a sense, at least, the Northfield Conference which came out of the heart and the deep study of D. L. Moody, is responsible for them all.


There has been annually, until within the past two years, a gathering of earnest, active Christians at Niagara, on the Lake, and some of the most widely known Bible students in the country have gathered there to consult together concerning the things of the Kingdom. The teaching at this conference has been largely along dispensation lines, and the prominent truth presented in all their services has been the return of the Lord, while the majority of the teachers at Northfield have not only accepted, but strongly advocated the truth known as the "blessed hope". Still Mr. Moody had one characteristic which impressed itself on all his associates. He would not exalt one truth at the expense of another, and so Northfield has not been known as the place where any particular line of truth was promulgated. If any exception could be taken to this statement it would be in favor of those truths which contribute to the deepening of the spiritual life.

Another widely known Bible Conference, which is certainly in existence because of the influence of Northfield, is the Winona gathering at Winona Lake, Ind. For five years the Christians of the Middle and Western states in increasing numbers have gathered there for the same kind of work that was done at Northfield. Mr. Moody has ever contributed to the effectiveness of the Conference by sending such speakers as the Rev. G. H. C. MacGregor, the Rev. G. Campbell Morgan, the Rev. F. B. Meyer, and the Rev. J. G. Cunningham. The gathering has increased from thirty-five, the first year, to more than 1,500 at the last annual meeting. I desire personally to say that Winona owes to Mr. Moody more than it can ever repay.


One of the most celebrated conferences abroad is that which meets in the early summer at Keswick, a town of Cumberland, England, on the south bank of the Greta, twenty-four miles from Carlisle. The first convention was held in July, 1875, and was only for the purpose of experiencing a fuller spiritual life. It has been thought by many that the Keswick movement stood for the promotion of the doctrine of "sinless perfection". This is most untrue. It does stand for the very highest type of Christian living, and in every way stands for the exaltation and manifestation of Christ in the life. There are six successive stages that ought to be indicated in connection with Keswick, for they have widely influenced the Northfield teachers, especially those from abroad. They are named in the order of their importance.

1. The definite and immediate abandonment of every known sin or hindrance to holy living.

2. The abandonment and renunciation by faith of the self-life, or the life, that centers in self-indulgence and self-dependence.

3. The immediate surrender of the will in loving and complete obedience to the will of God, separation for the purpose of consecration.

4. The infilling of the Holy Spirit, or the claiming of the believer's shave in the Spirit's Pentecostal gift of power for service.

5. The revelation of Christ as an indwelling presence in the believer's soul and daily life, and as his actual Master and Lord.

6. Beyond these there is always a sixth and last stage of teaching the privileges and victories implied in this higher or deeper life, such as the rest life of faith, power over sin, passion for souls, conscious fellowship with God, growing possession of promises, and prevailing prayer and intercession.


The basis of all this teaching is, as is very apparent, the conviction that the average Christian life is too often grievously destitute of real spiritual power and is essentially carnal; and that it is the duty and privilege of every child of God to enter at once into newness of life, and to walk henceforth in the power of Christ's resurrection.

But Northfield is pre-eminently, in the judgment of many people, the most important gathering of Bible students in this country, if not in the world. Thousands of lives have been transformed, by the power of the Conference, and one of the most notable gatherings in its history was that of last year when the entire Presbytery of New York met and were assigned to quarters in Weston Hall, attended regularly the services, and came back literally filled with the Spirit of God, the result being that the whole city of New York has seemed to feel the touch of the power that rested upon them and there is scarcely a Presbyterian Church in the city that has not had remarkably large additions as either a direct or indirect result of this last summer Conference.

However much Mr. Moody's friends may have to say of him in meetings in other places, it is certainly true that he was at his best in Northfield at the Conference. There was no more interested listener in all the audience than he. He was quick to notice the impression the speakers made upon the people, and while he was never what could be called a flatterer, yet when those whom he had invited to be present helped the people he was the first one to express his appreciation. As a rule he was at all the gatherings.


A description of the Northfield Conferences necessitates referring once again to the Round Top services, one of which is described in another chapter. These meetings were held in the evening, at the sunset time, and the influence upon all who gathered there was simply profound. I question if there is any work that Mr. Moody was engaged in throughout the world in which he was more interested than the Northfield Conference, a brief story of which ought to be given.

The Northfield Conferences began in 1880. Early in September the buildings of the Seminary were thronged with three hundred visitors. Among those who came was a delegation from Great Britain. The first conference continued for ten days. The spirit of the meeting was largely devotional, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit being largely dwelt upon; and the result was very impressive. There was at that time no large auditorium in which the various meetings could be conducted, so a large tent was pitched behind Last Hall, and there the exercises were held. The culmination of the conference was Pentecostal in its power, and the spiritual refreshing which came at that time to many believers is still manifest in whatever they do.

In October, 1881, the second convocation began, continuing through the month. The Rev. Dr. Andrew Bonar, of Glasgow, Scotland, was the principal speaker, and among the others who participated were Dr. George F. Pentecost, Dr. A. J. Gordon, Dr. James H. Brooks, Dr. E. P. Goodwin, Mr. George C. Needham, and Major Whittle, besides many others whose names have since come to be especially associated with Northfield work. There was great variety in the services. The spirit of the second conference was less devotional than the first, but was given more to doctrinal and practical study, Most of the meetings were held in East Hall, but in the afternoons the conference met in the Congregational Church of the village, and occasionally in the open air. The interest deepened throughout the month.


Shortly after this Mr. Moody went to England, and in his absence no summer conferences were held at Northfield for three years, and it was not until August, 1885, that the third convocation was held. Mr. J. E. K. Studd of Cambridge University, England, gave a fine impetus to the meeting, and Mr. John B. Gough delivered during this month one of his last addresses. Dr. A. T. Pierson and Dr. A. J. Gordon also helped to make the meetings signal in their influence.

And so, year after year, the Northfield Conferences have grown in interest and attendance. The new buildings which, from time to time, have been erected for the educational work of the Seminary have much increased the facilities of entertainment for visitors, and the new auditorium makes it possible to assemble a great throng under cover. Still there are many who think that the open-air services have been more stimulating and helpful than any of the others. The speakers have been drawn, as formerly, from the best, and it is a privilege indeed to receive through association with such men the best fruits of their own experiences. It has always seemed to me that the genius of Mr. Moody shone more in his management of the summer conferences than in any other detail of his York, and his earnestness and his devotion were ever so impressed on all the services that no one could go away from a meeting without carrying with him a blessing Mr. Moody's educational ideals, which in their practical forms are visible to the visitor to the conferences in the noble buildings which crown the Northfield hills, were epitomized in the work of the summer conferences.


Some time in the spring of 1886, with his customary foresight and intuition in regard to what might advance the Kingdom of Christ, Mr. Moody called to his Sidle Mr. L. D. Wishard, then college secretary of the International Committee of the Young Men's Christian Associations of the United States and Canada. As a result of the conference between these two men, Mr. Moody invited each of the College Young Men's Christian Associations of the country to send, a delegate to spend a month at Mt. Hermon in July of the same year, to study the Bible and methods of Christian work adapted to college students. This invitation was accepted by 250 students, from about ninety different college associations. The meetings continued from July 7th to August 2nd. The program of each day was as follows From eight o'clock in the morning the men considered informally for an hour some phase of College Association work. At ten o'clock all met and listened to addresses from noted speakers from abroad. Some time was also given to those who desired to ask practical questions, and these were answered by Mr. Moody in his usual clear, direct manner. In these meetings, as elsewhere, Mr. Moody was able to exercise his wonderful ability to associate with himself a corps of prominent Bible scholars and teachers.

A large number of Christian students were present who had decided to devote their lives to the work in foreign missions. These naturally met together in a common fellowship, and their earnestness and devotion made from the outset a deep impression on all. Their appeals on behalf of the claims of missionary work on educated Christian young men also made a profound impression, and many students were then and there led to express a willingness and a desire to enter upon work in the foreign field.


The interest awakened was fostered by two young men, Messrs. Wilder and Foreman, who were led speedily to devote a portion of their time as students to deepening and widening this work among the students of the colleges not represented at Mt. Hermon. This in brief, then, is how the Student Volunteer movement was born; it came into being in connection with the first Christian Student Conference ever held at Mt. Hermon, where Mr Moody's school for boys and young men is situated.

Like many another thing for which Mr. Moody opened the way, if he did not actually originate it, the Student Volunteer movement has grown almost beyond comprehension. It assumed organization in 1888, and has become a recognized factor and power in the missionary life of the Church throughout the world, as possibly no other single movement. Briefly stated, the four-fold purpose of the organization is First, to awaken and foster among all the Christian students of the United States and Canada, intelligent and active interest in foreign missions. Second, to enroll a sufficient number of properly qualified student volunteers to meet the successive demands of the various missionary Boards of North America. Third, to help all such as pledge themselves to foreign missionary work to prepare for their life work, and to increase the co-operation of these young workers in developing the missionary life of home churches. Fourth, to lay an equal burden of responsibility on all students who are to remain as ministers and lay workers at home, that they may actively promote missionary enterprise by intelligent advocacy, gifts and prayers.

The Volunteer movement is not a missionary board. It never has sent out and never will send out a missionary, for it is simply a recruiting station. As in so many other ways, the wisdom of Mr. Moody in calling to his side such men as L. D. Wishard, C. K. Ober and John R. Mott, of the International Committee of the Young Men's Christian Association, was soon manifest in the progress of the movement, and these men have had much to do with the rapid increase of the work during these last years.


Some conception may be gained of the prodigious strides which the organization has made when it is known that it already has made itself felt in more than 1,000 institutions of learning. Then it should be remembered that in many of these, perhaps more notably in state, professional and independent institutions, the subject of foreign missions was dealt with for the first time when the representatives of the student volunteers began to extend their efforts. It is safe to assert that where one student gave this subject careful consideration before the movement began, scores and scores have felt and thoughtfully considered the claims of the world-wide missions since and through the ministry of this work. It is said that the student attitude of many colleges, both denominational and state, has completely changed, and certain it is that no other subject has ever taken such a deep hold on the convictions of college men, or has called forth from them such unselfish devotion.

There are on the roll of the movement at this time about 4,000 students. Of this number about one-third are women and two-thirds are men. Forty-eight denominations are represented. Nearly 1,200 of the volunteers have already gone to the foreign field. The number of students who now are planning to become foreign missionaries is five times as great in the colleges of the land, and twice as great in the seminaries, as it was before this movement started. The Student Volunteers have also afforded substantial aid in assisting to raise money, for whereas the colleges formerly gave about $5,000 a year to foreign missionary work, they now give more than $40,000.


It must be plain to any thoughtful person that the reflex influence of this movement in the institutions of learning themselves is simply incalculable. For every student who has offered himself to go abroad, certainly one or more have been influenced to take up a more aggressive Christian life at home. Development in Bible study and in personal work for the salvation of their fellows on the part of the students, as a secondary influence of this movement is without any doubt one of the great evangelistic tendencies of the century. At least indirectly, it may be traced to Mr. Moody.

One of the most wonderful things about the Student Volunteer influence has been its effect upon the students of other lands. Ten years ago the organization for the United States and Canada was the only student movement in the world, employing the volunteer methods, but now there are student volunteers in Great Britain, Scandinavian countries, Germany, France, Australasia, South Africa, China, India and Ceylon. All the organizations express their indebtedness to the American branch for the helpful and practical influence it exerted in the formative periods of the work. It is exceedingly significant that even the students of mission lands have joined hands with the students of Christian lands in a determined effort to preach the Gospel to all mankind.

In August, 1895, there was formed in the historic Vadstena Castle, on the shores of Lake Vettern, in Sweden, a World's Student Christian Federation. There were present official representatives from America, Great Britain, Germany, Scandinavia, and Mission lands. Mr. John R. Mott, in his "Strategic Points in the World's Conquest," says, " Never since the Wartburg sheltered the great German Reformer, while he was translating the Bible for the common people, has a mediaeval castle served a purpose fraught with greater blessing to all mankind."


Since the formation of this federation it has been entered by the representatives of five other countries, India, Ceylon, South Africa, China and Japan, so that practically all the countries, having anything like a student volunteer movement, are now banded together.

The first convention of the World's Student Christian Federation was held in the United States, in July, 1897, in conjunction with the annual conference of the American and Canadian Intercollegiate Young Men's Christian Association, at Northfield. In addition to the 600 students who had come together from 136 universities and colleges, there were present students and Christian workers from twenty-five other nations or races. Special meetings were held on Round Top, the spot which is now especially consecrated to Mr. Moody's memory. Round Top is not less sacred because it is the place where more students have dedicated their lives to the extension of Christ's religion than any other place in the world. Says Mr. Mott, "Day after day at sunset, the hundreds of delegates from the ends of the earth met on this sacred mountain to lift their eyes and look far beyond the beautiful Connecticut valley and the distant green mountains upon the great harvest fields of the world, and linger and listen to burning messages from their fellow students, telling of the triumphs of Christ among their own people, and the need of more men in the regions beyond."


The Federation delegates attended not only the large special meetings over which Mr. Moody presided, but also the conferences for the discussion of methods. One afternoon a pilgrimage was made to Mt. Hermon, which, as the reader will remember, is several miles from Northfield on the other side of the river The groves and hills and river banks about Mt. Hermon are sacred, for it was here that the Student Volunteer movement came into existence in 1886. Some who had attended that first wonderful meeting were present to recount the experiences of those first days of blessed surrender. Before. the delegates left Mt. Hermon, Mr. Moody called them together for the consecrating of the ground that had been set apart as a site for a chapel. In a representative meeting this plot was dedicated to God's service. Then the delegates offered prayer in twenty-one different languages, and yet there was no confusion of tongues, for all were brought together in their common love of the Master.

What will be the result of this movement we can only conjecture, for it is yet in its infancy, but it is significant to note that already it has brought together Christian students in all the world as never before. It has made the various student movements acquainted with one another. It has organized six great national student movements, and has facilitated the organization of two others. The last conference of the Federation was held in Eisenach, at the foot of the famous Wartburg, in Germany, and was attended by students from twenty-four countries. Nearly 400 years ago, in the castle which still crowns that storied mountain, a monk made a consecration of his talents which blessed the world as it had not been blessed before for many centuries. When Martin Luther came down from that sacred hill he brought with him a Bible for the people. The perverseness of the generation did not lead him to dash his tablets to the ground as he descended, but instead they went out through the land and gave men almost for the first time an insight into the true teachings of our Lord. How fitting it is that on this spot, hallowed by the memory of the great reformer, the flower of the young men of to-day should pledge themselves to devote their lives to carrying to all the quarters of the globe the blessed Gospel!

Back to Table of Contents