What John R. Mott Taught Me About Unity in Christ's Mission

I was surprised, when the recent announcement of President Obama's winning the Nobel Peace Prize, prompted the famous atheist Christopher Hitchens to attack the selection of two previous Nobel Peace Prize winners that he particularly disdains: Mother Theresa and John R. Mott. I doubt that few who actually read Hitchens' article, where a photo of Mott appeared in a popular news magazine, had any idea who Mott was.

Johnrmott01 John R. Mott (1865–1955) lived an extraordinary life. What amazes me is not that so few people know anything about him but that so few serious Christians even know his name. much less anything about his life as a Christian leader. If any one individual could be said to personify the modern ecumenical movement, with a proper emphasis upon Christ and mission, it would be John R. Mott. Oliver Tomkins says, “In him converge uniquely the varied strands of which the ecumenical movement is woven” (Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, page 703).

As a student at Cornell University, after a childhood in Iowa, Mott became a committed follower of Jesus Christ as Lord. His “evangelical conversion” experience took place after he heard J.E.K. Studd, of the Cambridge Seven, speak. The Cambridge Seven were English undergraduate athletes who gave their lives to foreign mission service. (The modern equivalent would be having young men like Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy walk away from the football following their graduation and becoming worldwide speakers/recruiters for foreign mission service!) Mott heard a message, through these men, that prompted him to dedicate his life to foreign mission service. He signed the famous Student Volunteer Declaration. His first job was as a traveling secretary for the student YMCA. In 1895 he participated in a great international gathering for missions in Sweden. Out of this meeting the World’s Student Christian Federation (WSCF) was born.

John Mott sought to reach the world through students. He served the WSCF for thirty-three years, first as general secretary and then as chairman. All of his future achievements, including his winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his work during World War I, owe their foundation to this work. The world missionary conference in Edinburgh, in 1910, was chaired by a 45 year-old John Mott. My friend Dr. Lon Allison, the director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, says Mott was part Billy Graham, part Jimmy Carter, part Mother Theresa and part Bill Bright. That is quite a statement but one that has a lot of truth to commend it to us.

Mott wrote: “Those who devote themselves to this high mission must have a reverential regard for the past, coupled with an unclouded vision and wise foresight that pierce the coming day. Firm must be their belief in . . . the God who is able and eager to do new things.”

Mott was unique among all visionary thinkers in his time because he did have a “reverential regard for the past” as well as “an unclouded vision [for] the coming day.” He was rooted in the past but foreword thinking in his actions for mission and ecumenism. His life was rooted in the truth that “in Christ there is no East or West.”

Mott’s grandson, Andrew Mott, says his grandfather “embraced and celebrated change in a way which is especially inspiring today, when there is so much fear of the ways that our countries are changing—our economies, our politics, our beliefs are all shifting at a bewildering pace and in directions we often resists.” (Foreword, John R. Mott: That the World Might Believe, ed. Lon Allison. EMIS: Billy Graham Center, Wheaton, IL).

Mott’s grandson adds that his illustrious grandfather often said, “Old things are passing away. All things may become new. Not by magic, nor by wishful thinking, but by self-sacrifice and the will to bring them about in the name of Jesus Christ.”

You can readily understand why John R. Mott is a role model for me. He taught me the principle I call missional-ecumenism and he lived it out for nearly 90 years. No one had a stronger sense of Christ’s mission, and great need for Christian unity, than John R. Mott. Andre Mott says he made it “routine for people to come together across all kinds of boundaries.” This is one of my highest values in life. I learned it from John 17 but I saw it modeled best when I came to know John R. Mott.