Robert Speer is a man that has been described as ‘the incarnation of the spirit of the Student Volunteer Movement’. As a student at Princeton University, he signed the Princeton Pledge (“I purpose, God willing, to become a foreign missionary”) becoming one of the first volunteers of the SVM. After graduating college, He served as the traveling secretary of the SVM for only a year. During that short year he signed up over a thousand volunteers for the foreign field. He also served forty-six years as the Secretary of the Board of Foreign Mission in the Presbyterian Church.
He was born in Pennsylvania, in 1867. He was the son of a lawyer and two-term U.S. Congressman. He was brought up in a strong Presbyterian denomination which he was devoted to his entire life. He went to college at Andover and Princeton University, where he held the office of class president for two terms. During his sophomore year at Princeton, he was challenged by the preaching of Robert Wilder to commit his life to the lost world. He became a powerful presence in the SVM, especially during the year as traveling secretary. He went on to make major contributions to his denomination in their world mission emphasis and vision.
After the year with the SVM, he returned to Princeton for seminary training. During his time there, the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Mission offered him their highest position. Although he was reluctant at first, he finally accepted. He was concerned of his telling so many students to suffer hardships in the foreign fields and then he himself stay home. However, he was challenged to stay by the potential influence of his position could hold in moving the church toward more world vision and influence more people to go.
While serving for so many years in the Presbyterian Church, he is most remembered for his stand on evangelization in the shadow of a growing emphasis on social activity overseas. He said that the “supreme and determining aim of missions is religious. I had rather plant one seed of the life of Christ under the crust of heathen life than cover that whole crust over with veneer of our social habits on the vestiture of Western civilization.” (A Man Sent from God, Wheeler.)
Speer also wrote many books and pamphlets on missions and issues in the church including The Finality of Jesus Christ, Servants of the King, and Living in Ancient Times. He retired from his position with the Board after 46 years and spent the next decade traveling speaking on college campuses and conferences. He never wavered from the emphasis and passion he placed on foreign missions. He spoke, challenging Christians to take seriously Christ’s command to “Go ye, making disciples of all nations”, until the very end of his life. Three weeks before he died of Leukemia in 1947, he kept a speaking engagement although being unable to stand. Robert Speer has been said to be “one of the great missionary statesmen of this century.”
From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, Tucker