Who was Grace Wilder?
by Maryam Jamison
The Student Volunteer Movement was, perhaps, history's greatest mobilization movement. 100,000 college students were raised up to give themselves to "The Evangelization of The World in This Generation" during the short life of the Movement. It was able to recruit one out of every 35 college students to the foreign field. The story goes something like this:
Around 1886 there arose in the hearts of a few Christian leaders the desire to see Christian college students harnessed into a force, discipled in godliness and mobilized to the nations. A man by the name of Luther Wishard was the instigator of the vision and his plan was to host a summer training project. D.L. Moody was on the docket to speak for four weeks to 251 individually selected college students from 89 colleges. The students, as a rule, were to be men in their freshman or sophomore year. An exception was made to this latter rule in order to have the attendance of Robert Wilder, a senior at Princeton and known missions zealot. During the conference, held in Mount Hermon, Massachusetts, the Holy Spirit began to move on the young men's hearts and soon there was a large group of students committing themselves to a career in missions. Wilder kept track of their numbers by writing this declaration, "We, the undersigned, declare ourselves willing and desirous, God permitting, to go to the unevangelized portions of the world" and allowing men, as God so moved them, to add their name to the list. On the final day of the conference, Wilder, along with each man who'd signed his declaration held a prayer of consecration. Wilder counted them. The group had grown to one hundred men devoted to World Evangelization. They came to be known as the Mount Herman 100. The decision was made to try and sustain this move of God by sending delegates back to the campuses to influence other students with a vision for the nations. Robert Wilder was chosen and thus marks the beginning of the Student Volunteer Movement.
The story that is not often heard, however, is that of Robert's sister, Grace Wilder. The reason her story is not often heard is because she was one of those most precious of the Lord's gems whose only contentment was to be hidden that He might receive more praise.
Grace's parents, Rev. Royal G. and Eliza Jane sailed to India as missionaries in 1846. They procrastinated their departure from India for years despite the impending threat of an Indian revolt. Only when Royal came down with cholera did he consent to abandon his missionary purpose and return to America. The mutiny broke out the very next day. The life of Grace Wilder was spared as she was born in 1861, shortly after their arrival in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Grace grew up in an environment where missionary zeal was instilled as part of the normal Christian life. She attended Mt. Holyoke College, an institute for women which was known for its influencing and training young women for the mission field. It has been said by a former student that Mt. Holyoke was a "missionary factory"! It is true that in its beginning years from 1837 to 1887, 178 graduates served in the foreign fields. Grace was one of those. And she certainly played her part in encouraging and training the young women to go. In fact, Grace held a Bible study on campus and the girls' watchcry was "we hold ourselves willing and desirous to go wherever the Lord may call us, even if it be in the foreign land."
One of her greatest investments of spiritual energy though was in her younger brother, Robert. Her strong conviction about the urgent call of Christ to make disciples among all nations proved time again to be a stronghold for Robert. And even stronger than her missionary fervor, was her commitment to prayer. During Robert's college years at Princeton his desire was to awaken in his fellow classmates a spiritual revival and, more specifically, a missions interest. This led Robert to start a missionary society that met at his parents' home. Faithfully and humbly in the secret of the next room, Grace labored to bring the men before the Lord in prayer. It was these meetings that would later provide the structure for the Student Volunteer Movement.
Robert was a senior when he received his invitation to attend the Conference at Mt. Hermon. By this time, his father was in very ill health and burdened with the job of publishing a monthly missions magazine known as The Missionary Review. Without Robert's assistance at home the Review and his father's health were sure to fail miserably. It was an incredible pressing need that almost kept Robert from attending the Conference. Were it not for the urging of his sister who saw clearly that Mt. Hermon might be God's answer to their prayers for laborers, Robert may have missed his opportunity to be His instrument. In the Addresses and Papers of John R. Mott, Volume I, the author states,
"She discerned that conditions were going to be furnished at Mount Hermon that might make possible the generation of a great movement, and she laid upon her brother and upon some of the other Princeton men who were to attend the conference, the burden of prayer and expectation, and charged them before God to persevere in prayer and effort that this Mount Hermon gathering might not close without the inauguration of a missionary movement that in some sense would be worthy of the wonderful situation then confronting the Church on the foreign field."
Grace also stepped in to produce The Missionary Review and care for her ailing father in Robert's stead, freeing him up fully. It is recorded that the year prior to the Conference Robert and Grace met nightly to pray for a stirring of missionary conviction across the campuses of the United States and her specific prayer during the Conference was that the small band of committed men would grow in number to 100; the exact number that were recruited (Tatlow, The Story of the Student Christian Movement). The fruit of her prayers reveal her intimate life of prayer and ultimate contribution to the Great Commission. In the closing remarks of her pastor on the occasion of Grace's death he states,
"I am privileged to mention what is known to but very few, namely, Miss Wilder's relation to the Student Volunteer Movement. This movement started in connection with the Northfield Student Movement. In the years 1884-86 she and her brother, Robert, while at Princeton spent many a night in prayer to God for a great missionary awakening in the colleges, and asked God for…volunteers for the mission field. At the Mt. Hermon Conference in 1886 one hundred students signed the volunteer pledge…and out of this beginning grew a movement, which today is so widely affecting the whole missionary propaganda. Others are receiving the praise for this movement. We should not forget that God redeemed His promise of answering prayer, and this was the faithful and effectual prayer of Miss Wilder and her brother, which, humanly speaking, began this work.
In the year following the Conference it was presented to Robert that he might be the Traveling Secretary to college campuses being the herald for those who could not attend and stirring the Volunteers to perseverance. Now, facing the demands of an extremely strenuous year of constant travel, he had to consider his own grueling battle of several years with poor health. Not only that but his year-long absence would most likely mean that he would never see his father again; the doctors were giving his father six months. Grace was one of his few faithful supporters in his conviction to undertake this work and their correspondence through the next year proved an incredible encouragement to him.
Not so long after this climax of events did Grace sail for the foreign field herself. In 1887, she was twenty-six years old, Grace and her widowed mother set off for Islampur, India. Not only did she give her committed labor and eventually her life for the salvation of the Indian people, but she also constantly offered herself to the care of her mother. Grace died in India in 1911 at fifty years old. She stands as an example of the quiet confidence that comes in knowing and being aligned with the will of God. Her short life, though known by few, reflects the image of One who, hidden and meek came to seek and to save the lost and who beseeched the Father out of supreme love for Him to allow the advance of His Kingdom. John Mott once said, "I have seen so many unknown, humble missionaries working in quiet places who have held their lives in such close relationship to God that He has been able by His Holy Spirit to break through these lives and extend His influence in a way far beyond our comprehension." Miss Grace Wilder was one such as these. Her absolute surrender to and joy in her Father's work are summed up in this small poem that she herself penned: