The History of YTH Ministry: From Sunday School (1824) to the Student Volunteer Movement (1881) - Part 1/2

Here’s a look at the first 100 years or so of YTH Ministry. We will look at the modern history next week.

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The history of YTH ministry is a remarkable journey. And quite new actually. In some ways difficult to chronicle, but, exciting to research. One of the early known YTH leaders of the 20th century was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Many have seen him historically as the theologian and Nazi activist that he was. But, it is unmistakable that Bonhoeffer had a first love that many do not speak of much. And this love of YTH and children impacted the beginnings of YTH ministry as much as anything or anyone else.

But there are many other people, organizations, and movements that have shaped the history of YTH ministry. There would be no way to accomplish an exhaustive review of the history of YTH ministry in a chapter. It would require a whole book. And there are a few streams that I have chosen not to detail here because of the time and space issue. But, the people and movements in this first chapter are inarguably the early formulators of what we call YTH ministry today.

I believe the most influential moments that shaped YTH ministry in the last three centuries are pretty clear. I will try and place them in a timeline of happenings. But, because they bleed into each other quite a bit, forgive the inaccurate overlap in the order. Because so much was happening in a time frame of about 150 years from the late 1700’s into the mid 1960’s, it is almost impossible to create a readable timeline that looks like an accurate continuum.


The Sunday School Movement

 The Sunday School movement mostly began in America about 150+ years ago in the early to mid-1800's. The Church began aged-group emphasis to children and YTH for the training of young people in their Christian faith. Kind of the original 'small group' so prevalent in the modern Church today. But, at the same time in the Church, there was an emphasis upon Church growth and evangelism. And one of the newest ways to do this was to reach the children of the community.

I am using a compilation of articles gathered by students from Indiana Wesleyan University who were doing a Christian Education report for their class. It is a great read with citations and more than adequate academic work. My research found that most sources would agree with the work of these students. Using memoirs, interviews, and a widely accepted now out of print book by Lynn and Wright, these students have left us an exemplary timeline of Sunday School.

Many sources and articles agree that Robert Raikes is credited as the early father of the Sunday School concept in England about 1780s. Raikes was trying to keep children off the streets and so opened up a sabbaoth day of teaching the children of the inner city. This movement swelled to Philadelphia with the Quakers in 1790, New York in 1810, and throughout the West in the 1820’s before the original states were even added to the union. This movement began so quickly because of the great need of ministry to children. And the organization began.

 In America, the first national Sunday School began in 1824; its stated purpose was to organize, evangelize and civilize. The focus was intentionally evangelical, and so within the next 100 years the Sunday School had become the primary outreach arm of the church. The Sunday School organization now expanded to include all ages. Sunday School became a way for unbelievers to be introduced to, and then assimilated into, the life of the church. By the late 1800’s, Sunday School was looked to as the main hope for church growth, a view that continued until the mid-twentieth century.

 And so an effort called Sunday School began by bringing children into the Church from the surrounding communities to teach them life skills, reading and writing, and hygiene care. This became one of the earliest ideas to do outreach and evangelism in the Church and it became very effective. So many organizations today do social or welfare or humanitarian programs. But this is not a new idea for the Church. Many of the Churches in this time would take the concept of outreach called Sunday School to the streets and even on Saturdays to neighborhoods in the surrounding communities.

There is much more to it than this, but, the concept of Sunday School and the small group evolution is elementary to the development of YTH ministry. This concept is in the DNA and the culture of ministry to YTH. And we cannot neglect the historical evidence of graded and age-staged ministry to YTH and children. This part of YTH ministry history is one that cannot be skipped.

Alongside the Sunday School model in the 19th century, we saw another movement grow up at the same time. And this movement would become a forerunner type to the Sunday School movement. Especially with the external para-Church emphasis that this movement would bring.

Para-Church Organizations

A growing movement of sister organizations to the Church grew up alongside of the Church in the cities of America. And these para-Church organizations were called so because of the term para or beside. These organizations were led by the Y Organization (YMCA and YWCA, 1844). And the Y stirred the wave of many more para-Church organizations that would evolve in the coming years. Organizations like the Gospel Rescue Mission (1831), Boys and Girls Clubs (1860), Salvation Army (1865), Christian Endeavor (1880), and many others in the coming years like Youth For Christ, Campus Crusade, Young Life, and Teen Challenge would all become some of the first social justice-type movements in America.

 The term social justice can be traced as early as the 1780’s by the Jesuit priests and even more common by other social activists up to 1840’s. But the work of these para-Church organizations like the Y, Gospel Rescue Mission, Boys and Girls Clubs, and the Salvation Army are all credited with the work and ministry to the YTH on the streets and cities of Europe and America. What a heritage for YTH ministry. To be conscious of the responsibility of social justice everywhere.

 The Y and other para-ministries modeled to YTH ministry in the Church that relationships could be done in a different setting outside the Church and it created a public movement of Christianity and young people in the marketplace. Many organizations followed the Y culture and in the mid-1900's, one of the leading para-Church organizations that changed YTH ministry was Youth For Christ (YFC). And YFC and other campus organizations authored the beginning of campus and community outreach to YTH in their public schools and their homes. This model would take YTH ministry in the Church public and help it to become a player in the marketplace.

At the same time of these para-Church organizations, another grass-roots movement would take place. And it would become as influential as any YTH movement in American history.


The Student Volunteer Movement

Because of the amount of students and young people who were being born again in the 2nd Great Awakening, there was another movement that broke out right before the turn of the 20th century. It happened in the 1880’s – 1890’s and was stirred by the revivals but broke out specifically on the University and the College campus. At its core, the movement was about going into all the world and making disciples. It was a call upon a generation to Go. And it had a verse that became popular in every setting of the movement. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’” (Isaiah 6:8) This would become the clarion call upon a young generation that was given the name the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM).

There were many early figures in this movement, but, none of them more prominent than Robert Wilder and D.L. Moody.

Robert Wilder was the son of missionaries. His father, Royal Wilder, was a missionary to India about 1846-1877. After their missionary work, the family returned to live in Princeton, NJ. Robert was the youngest son and was impacted by the family’s missionary calling. And while a teenager, Robert had pledged to go back to India someday as a missionary.

Robert began his studies at Princeton in 1881. In 1883 he and other students attended a missionary conference in Hartford, CT. Inspired by this conference, Robert and his friends went back to Princeton and gathered students and started the Princeton Foreign Missionary Society (PFMS).

Here’s a quick review of what happened next.

“The students wrote a constitution, bylaws, and 40 students signed the charter that included a pledge: ‘We the undersigned declare ourselves willing and desirous, God permitting, to go to the un-evangelized portions of the world.’ This group would meet Sunday afternoons at Robert’s parents’ house, where Royal Wilder would share God’s word and his own missionary experiences in India.”

And the missionary fervor spread. Until another meeting took place just a couple of years after this and fueled this early SVM endeavor into a global movement. 

The Mount Hermon One Hundred

The second figure of this SVM was Dwight L. Moody, the most prominent evangelist of the era. When Moody decided to hold an invitation only student conference in the summer of 1886, more than 200 college students from all around the country came to Mount Hermon, Massachusetts. During this month long conference there were many professors and leaders who taught and spoke of the call to missions and taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth. But, early in this conference something unexpected occurred as the Spirit was moving in Massachusetts.

“The students would daily gather together with Moody for 6 am prayer meetings, a morning Bible study on the subject of the Second Coming of Christ, and games and sports in the afternoon. Despite Moody’s lack of any formal education, he captivated the hearts and minds of some of the best and the brightest college students with a vision of a Great Awakening in the hearts of college students to the revelation and beauty of Jesus.”

In the midst of this conference, the young Robert Wilder, now a recent graduate of Princeton, began to envision his fellow students with a dream to evangelize the world in their generation. Wilder spread his passion for a collegiate mission’s movement among the other students and the SVM went global. John R. Mott, the future leader of the Student Volunteer Movement, remembered, “You could hardly go anywhere without somebody crossing your path and presenting this great missionary message.”

And it was President James McCosh, then president of Princeton College (now Princeton University), who referred to the SVM in May of 1887 saying,

“Has any such offering of living men and women been presented in this age – in this country – or in any age, or any country, since the days of Pentecost?”


Do you see the influence of these early movements upon YTH ministry today? It is undeniable.

If we are going to turn the Church over to the next generation, we must place a greater emphasis upon resourcing, coaching, and training our YTH volunteer leaders and even the students who are in the Church. Obviously, it depends on the size, the philosophy, and the mission of each Church. But, we cannot deny the great need for a YTH ministry leadership emphasis in America at this time. The message of the Gospel is the perfect match for a generation who wants to do something grand for the welfare of humankind. There is too much at stake not to be preaching this message.

Jeff Grenell