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Series VIII: Conventions

Call Number: RG 42, Series VIII

Scope and Contents

The quadrennial conventions of the Student Volunteer Movement were the highpoints of its corporate existence. It was during these gatherings that the meaning and value of the Movement seemed most clear. The stated objectives of the first convention held in Cleveland in 1891 were 1) to allow for discussion of any problems facing the Movement; 2) to provide opportunities for student volunteers to meet with missions board secretaries and returned missionaries; 3) to enlighten missions board secretaries and others regarding the work of the Movement, and 4) to give new impetus to the missionary cause.(SVM Archives, Series VIII, Cleveland 1891, Convention report, p. 3.) The sixteen quadrennial conventions which followed Cleveland varied in their points of emphasis but essentially held to these four objectives.

The earliest quadrennial conventions were held in February or March, but, beginning with the Rochester gathering of 1909/1910, the pattern was established to hold the meetings shortly after Christmas, extending a day or two into the new year. Attendance at the conventions rose dramatically from 680 present at Cleveland in 1891 to 6890 present at Des Moines in 1919/ 1920. Reflecting the general fortunes of the Movement and national economic conditions, attendance then dropped steadily to slightly over 2000 at Indianapolis in 1935/1936, the last convention sponsored solely by the SVM. Beginning with Toronto in 1939, the conventions were sponsored by the SVM, the YMCA and YWCA, denominational student organizations and the Canadian Student Christian Movement. The conventions were progressively of a more consultative or educational nature, focusing on the problems of the general missions enterprise rather than on the work of the Student Volunteer Movement. The conventions were ostensibly student gatherings, but at Kansas City (1913/1914), for example, nearly one-third of the delegates present were not students.

The first convention at Cleveland in 1891 was the largest student conference to its time. More than any of the later gatherings, the first convention was a propaganda exercise for the Movement, an attempt to publicize its aims and work. By the third convention, again held at Cleveland in 1898, the Movement had established its reputation and could speak to wider issues; seven addresses on the program, for example, were devoted to the problem of financing the missionary enterprise. At the Nashville convention 1906, another issue came to the fore, the relationship of the missionary enterprise to international relations; addresses such as "The Relation of the Student Volunteer Movement to International Comity and Universal Peace" were on the program. Beginning with the Rochester convention of 1909/1910, gusts of the new trend in missions theory were felt; Sherwood Eddy's opening address was entitled "Is our Christianity Worth Propagating?" At Kansas City in 1913/1914, two Christian nationals, rather than Western missionaries, presented the needs of China and Japan at the convention.

The Des Moines convention of 1919/1920 was a watershed for the Movement. Many student delegates were dissatisfied with the dogmatic tone and narrow focus of the convention. As the Harvard University Crimson reported after the convention: "Men looked forward to a discussion of broad religious problems with their economic and political bearings. What they got for the most part from the speeches in the big Colosseum was narrow sectarian religion."("The Des Moines Convention", Harvard University Crimson, January 7,1920.) At the conventions which followed, measures were taken to meet the criticisms voiced at Des Moines, both in terms of the content of the message being presented and the format for presenting it. The Indianapolis convention of 1923/1924 is the first for which extensive files are available in the Student Volunteer Movement archives. Three major issues were addressed by the convention: industrial conditions overseas, race relations, and hopes for lasting international peace. After the presentation of these issues on the first day of the convention, fortynine discussion groups under student leadership were formed. The trend toward student leadership and participation was continued at Detroit in 1928 as thirty-three "colloquia" were formed, with adults serving in a "resource person" capacity only. The trend toward a broader conception of missions was also continued, as evidence by the reaction of one conservative Kentucky coed: "The reports of the convention that I have both read and heard indicate that the spirit of the recent Detroit Convention was not only modernistic and unscriptural but also Bolshevistic."(Quoted in Weyman C, Huckabee, "History and Significance of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions", p. 94.)

Despite these efforts toward a new style in the SVM conventions, criticisms similar to those heard at Des Moines persisted. Seminar leaders at the Indianapolis convention of 1935/1936 echoed familiar themes in evaluating the convention:

If the platform speakers could attend the seminars and could thus find out what the student needs are, their later platform addresses would be more helpful.

Platform addresses were by speakers marked by too much age and maturity.

Program was not so much above heads, nor under heads, but beside the heads of the students-did not come to grips with student needs.(SVM Archives, Series VIII, Indianapolis 1935/1936, "Evaluations and Criticisms.")

The 1939 convention at Toronto represented a radical departure from the patterns of the past. It was the first of the conventions to be held on a university campus rather than at a large city hotel or hall. The conference was billed as a consultative meeting with attendance limited to 500 students. It was jointly sponsored by the SVM, National Intercollegiate Council, Student Christian Movement of Canada, and Commission on University Work of the Council of Church Boards of Education. Students and campus study groups were asked to prepare papers in advance of the conference which were to serve as the basis of discussion for seminar groups. The 1943 Student Planning Conference on the World Mission of the Church held in Wooster, Ohio was similar to the Toronto conference.

With the Second World War having ended and American campuses being infused with new religious life, the massive SVM convention pattern of the past was revived at the University of Kansas in Lawrence in 1947/1948 and 1951/1952. The 15th Quadrennial Convention of the SVM, again sponsored in conjunction with other movements, was billed as the North American Student Conference on Christian Frontiers (FRONCON) and attracted over 2500 delegates. There were also echoes of former controversies over the relationship of the Church's world mission to international relations. After conference chairman Congressman Walter N. Judd of Minnesota voiced the opinion in his opening address that the United States government should send aid to the Chinese nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, a protest movement among the student delegates arose. A letter appearing in the Daily Froncon, the conference newspaper, included the statement: "As a group of students interested in the welfare of this conference, the undersigned wish to express concern over the note of international power politics that had been sounded here and with the apparent identification of the Christian Church with one side in such politics."("Tempest on Christian Front Over Judd Stand at Lawrence", Topeka Kansas Capital, December 31, 1947.) Student Volunteer Movement General Secretary Winburn Thomas's response to the controversy was: "This is a missionary conference and we have no desire to turn it into a political sounding board."(Ibid.)

There are over forty linear feet of records related to the quadrennial conventions in the SVM archives. The earlier conventions are documented primarily by scrapbooks containing newspaper clippings and reports. Extensive files for each conference beginning with Indianapolis 1923/1924 are divided according to topical categories. Of particular interest among these rough divisions are 1) the "budget and finance" categories which document how convention funds were


  • 1886-1964


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From the Collection:

The materials are open for research.

Language of Materials

From the Collection: English

Part of the Yale Divinity Library Repository

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