John Raleigh Mott was born May 25, 1865 in Livingston Manor, NY. He was the third child, and only son, of four children born to John and Elmira Mott. While still in his youth, his parents moved from New York to Postville, Iowa. Mott became a believer at a young age, and was active in the local Methodist Episcopal Church. At age 16, he enrolled at Upper Iowa University, which was a small Methodist preparatory school and college in Fayette, Iowa. He was very enthusiastic about history and literature, and was even a prize winning debater and orator. He became a charter member of the YMCA, which at the time was an international organization committed to Christian evangelism. In 1885, he transferred to Cornell University, and studied political science and history. In his eyes, he had two options to pursue, law or his father’s business. It was there at Cornell University that Mott’s life would be changed forever.
J.K. Studd, brother of C.T. Studd, was invited to come to America by D.L. Moody and leaders of the YMCA to speak at college campuses and share with them a missionary message. On January 14, 1886, he spoke at Cornell University. Mott was late getting to the meeting, and when we arrived he heard J.K. Studd say from the pulpit, “Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not. Seek ye first the kingdom of God.” That night Mott could not sleep as he pondered in his mind and heart those words. Later he found Studd for a private conversation. As one writer observed, “That encounter changed his life – and the world.”
Though missions was heavily emphasized, Mott did commit himself to missions until that summer. In the summer of 1886, Mott represented Cornell University’s YMCA at the first interdenominational, international Christian student conference ever held. The conference was host to 251 college-aged men from 89 colleges and universities. This conference was in Mount Hermon, Massachusetts on the Northfield College conference grounds. It was a four week conference held by D.L Moody. On the final day of the conference, Robert Wilder, a mission’s enthusiast from Princeton, gave a missionary challenge and an aggressive appeal for personal commitment. That day 100 men signed the “Princeton Pledge” which read, “We hold ourselves willing and desirous to do the Lord’s work wherever He may call us, even if it be in the foreign lands.” These men became known as the “Mount Hermon Hundred.” Among the 100 men was none other that John R. Mott. That meeting was the beginning of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, which was not officially organized until 1888. Mott lead the SVM for more than thirty years.
The rallying cry of this movement was “The evangelization of the world in this generation.” As leader and organizer of the SVM, Mott had a huge task before him if they were to see there motto fulfilled. He felt that the best way to fulfill this motto was to mobilize thousands of college students to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. He attempted to do what organized religion had not been able to do, and that was to join students from all different denominational backgrounds to one joint purpose: taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. He never lived overseas as a long-term missionary, but he traveled the world in an effort to connect with missionaries and national students in each country he visited. He sought to develop a world-wide network of unified missionary activity. This being his goal, he helped organize the World Student Christian Federation, an international organization that grew under his leadership to include societies in some 3,000 schools.
In 1900, he published a book entitled The Evangelization of the World in this Generation, which served as challenge to many young men and women of his day. In 1910, he organized the Edinburgh Missionary Conference. This was perhaps the highlight of Mott’s career as a missionary statesmen. At this ten day conference were 1,355 delegates representing 160 mission agencies and societies. This was the first interdenominational missionary conference of its kind. He was instrumental in forming the World Council of Churches, which he believed could strengthen the influence of Christianity in the world.
Mott was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946. The biographical sketch about him said this of his accomplishments:
“The sum of Mott’s work makes an impressive record: he wrote sixteen books in his chosen field; crossed the Atlantic over one hundred times and the Pacific fourteen times, averaging thirty-four days on the ocean per year for fifty years; delivered thousands of speeches; chaired innumerable conferences. Among the honorary awards which he received are: decorations from China, Czechoslovakia, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Jerusalem, Poland, Portugal, Siam, Sweden, and the United States; six honorary degrees from the universities of Brown, Edinburgh, Princeton, Toronto, Yale, and Upper Iowa; and an honorary degree from the Russian Orthodox Church of Paris.”
Dr. Mott married Leila Ada White in 1891, and together they had two daughters and two sons. He died at his home in Orlando, FL January 31, 1955 at the age of 89. A great way to sum up his life would be to say that John R. Mott did not seeketh great things for himself. He sought first the kingdom of God. Church historian Kenneth Latourette described John as one of the outstanding leaders in the entire history of Christianity.
Tucker, Ruth. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983.