Heroes of the Christian Faith: John R. Mott

by Lon Allison

(Editor’s note: This is the 1st post in a series on Heroes of the Christian Faith.)

heroes of the faith, John R. MottI bet you’ve never heard of John Mott. I hadn’t either until my mentor Leighton Ford brought him up in an evangelism lecture one day at North Park Seminary in Chicago. As I recall, the discussion went something like this:

“Did you know there was a 20th-century evangelist who turned down the offer to be both the U.S. Ambassador to China and the President of Princeton University because he said he had a higher calling? He also won a Nobel Peace Prize. Do you know who he was?”

I didn’t. No one in the class did.

It was John Mott.

Guess who Billy Graham told me was his hero of faith as a young man? You guessed it—John R. Mott.

Mott was an evangelist-leader with profound capacities in both arenas. Born in Iowa in 1865 and educated at Cornell, he had a business degree. His faith as a child was cultivated by his faithful parents, but like many nurtured in a Christian home, his faith was real but not necessarily fervent.

That changed at Cornell, where Mott heard famous Christian athlete JEK Studd declare, “Seek ye great things for yourself? Seek them not. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God.” Mott then found his way to a Christian retreat in Mount Hermon, New York, where Dwight Moody had drawn together 250 leading Christian students from Ivy League colleges to challenge them to serve Christ wholeheartedly in the cities of America. From that meeting, the Mount Hermon 100 pledged to not only serve Christ wholeheartedly in America, but to take the gospel to the whole world.

Mott would begin an evangelistic ministry under the leadership of the Student Volunteer Movement and later with the YMCA. His abilities led him to lead the International YMCA, the Student Volunteer Movement, and six other ministries simultaneously. He was truly an evangelism leader, meaning that he multiplied not only believers, but leaders. In 1910, he chaired the famous Edinburgh Global Missionary Conference. At that time, Mott and his fellow missionary leaders coined a phrase that is still used today: “The evangelization of the world in this generation.” What an audacious goal and vision in a world that traveled by ship from nation to nation.

As I studied Mott’s life in the last decade, I was convinced of four compelling commitments that drove Mott to the age of 90.

  1. Spiritual formation. His devotional habits of prayer and scripture reading were disciplined and fruitful. He flourished in his life in Christ. During his leadership journey he took two months off every summer after non-stop global travel for ten months to reflect, pray, and be with his family in their cabin in the woods.
  2. An unswerving belief that all people needed to be born again to new life found only in Jesus Christ. Near the end of his life, he addressed the World Council of Churches knowing that the organization he had helped found was moving away from the central belief in the new birth. He simply said to them, “While life lasts, I am an evangelist.”
  3. A deep commitment to student mobilization. The university students of the world were best poised with health and optimism to take the gospel to the world.
  4. A belief in the unity among all churches who believed in Christ. In an era of denominational and national pride, he argued relentlessly for one Church taking the one Gospel to the whole world.

I hope I can say, like Mott that “while life lasts, I am an evangelist.”

lon-allisonLon Allison (@lonallison) is pastor of teaching and outreach at Wheaton Bible Church in West Chicago, Illinois. Previously, he served as executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.