John Raleigh Mott was often called "the most influential religious leader of the 20th century," yet for decades, he seemed largely forgotten. In recent years, however, many are looking again to this respected visionary as a model for high-integrity, high-impact leadership.
Born in New York in 1865 around the end of the Civil War, Mott was raised in Iowa by God-fearing parents. He heard the gospel first and often in his home at their family altar. Later, as a college student at Cornell, he committed his life to Christ under the ministry of J.E.K. Studd, brother of famous missionary C.T. Studd. Mott slipped into a meeting just in time to hear Studd issue this challenge: "Young man, seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not. Seek ye first the kingdom of God!" Mott took the call personally.
In 1886, he attended the Mount Hermon Christian Student Conference in Northfield, Massachusetts, sponsored by evangelist D.L. Moody. Among the 251 students from 89 colleges, Mott was one of 100 to sign the "Princeton Pledge," which stated, "It is my purpose, if God permit, to become a foreign missionary."
Mott lived out that pledge as an integral representative for the newly founded Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) as well as the World Student Christian Federation. Soon Mott was acclaimed as his era's greatest missionary statesman.
Mott presided over the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, the first truly international missions conference. His influence gave high visibility to the Student Volunteer Movement that launched thousands of young missionaries, including many from Ivy League schools. Mott's most far-reaching book was World Evangelization in This Generation. The title of the book, which was published in 1901, helped popularize this watchword of the Student Volunteer Movement. Mott also excelled as a fundraiser, garnering some $300 million for Christian projects worldwide.
His call to total discipleship resonated with youth. From his own youth to old age, he consistently challenged young people: "In view of the constraining memories of the cross of Christ and the love wherewith He has loved us, let us rise and resolve, at whatever cost of self-denial, that, live or die, we shall live or die for the evangelization of the world in our day."
Mott's missions strategy was decades ahead of its time. He championed developing national leadership and mobilizing youth for the Great Commission. "No extensive field has ever been thoroughly evangelized but by its own sons," he boldly stated. Throughout his life, he remained an ardent advocate for young people in ministry. "The worldwide proclamation of the gospel awaits accomplishment by a generation which shall have the obedience, courage and determination to attempt the task," he said.
Discipline and reliance on God's Spirit were hallmarks. Mott's life was anchored in daily time with God, which yielded "superhuman guidance and power." He saw this practice of "the Morning Watch" as "the single greatest asset to personal spiritual development." Mott called the Holy Spirit "the great missioner," contending that "only as He dominates the work and workers can we hope for success in the undertaking to carry the knowledge of Christ to all people." Mott viewed difficulties as reminders that "create profound distrust in human plans and energy and drive us to God. ... Until we find some difficulty which is too hard for the Almighty God, we have no right to be discouraged."
Ardently evangelistic, Mott affirmed, "The pervading purpose of the Christian church should be that of leading people to commit their lives to Christ as their Savior and Lord." He epitomized colossal vision, anointing and stature, all guided by eternity's values. Basil Matthews observed: "We have in him a man with a great idea incessantly at work on a world scale."
Mott served as chairman of several influential missions councils, including the International Missionary Council and the Council of Missionaries to Muslims. In 1948, he helped form the World Council of Churches, believing a united Christian witness was vital for effective world evangelization.
Mott remained a Methodist layman, declining ordination. Yet his sage counsel was sought by prelates, industry giants and heads of state. In 1946, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in reconciling individuals, churches and nations.
Although he traveled tirelessly (close to 2 million miles, mostly by train or ship), Mott was a devoted family man. Leila, his wife of 62 years, often traveled with him.
We stand on the shoulders of visionaries like John R. Mott, who died Jan. 31, 1955. A confidant to kings, presidents and business moguls, he viewed himself foremost as a witness for Christ. "While life lasts," Mott said, "I am an evangelist."
David Shibley has researched extensively John R. Mott's personal papers, which are archived at Yale Divinity School. Shibley is founder and world representative for Global Advance, a ministry that equips thousands of leaders each year to fulfill Christ's Great Commission.
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