A Life of Proclamation, Pioneering, and Peacemaking

by Rod White, Circle of Hope, Philadelphia, PA

John R. Mott died on January 31, 1955 after a long life of proclamation, pioneering, and peacemaking.

He is one of the members of the church we don’t want to forget. Influential ancestors are inspiring if one remembers “comparisons are odious.” We have a great congregation of faithful people to whom we feel connected who have gone before us at our site: Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body.

John R. Mott, in particular, would be a hard ancestor to keep up with. From the 1880s until his death, Mott was involved in nearly every interdenominational organization, promoting Christian unity during times of severe religious division.

Mott did not see himself as a theologian, yet American Protestantism tried to involve him in the fundamentalist vs. liberal debates of the early twentieth century. In response, he spoke of two tracks within the gospel on which the locomotive of the church runs: social problems and individual concerns, with only one Christ who lived, died, and rose who is both the Savior of the individual and has the power to change the social environment. This conviction provided the guide rails of his spirituality, which fueled his devotion to making “Jesus Christ known, trusted, loved, and obeyed, in the whole range of one’s individual life and in all relationships.”

In 1886, as a member of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) at Cornell U. in New York, Mott was led to make a “life-investment decision” by C. T. Studd and his brother, the renowned cricket-players-turned-evangelists. He was struck by Studd’s admonition, “Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not. Seek ye first the kingdom of God.” He never lost his focus. When he became the head of the YMCA, he brought together American Jews, Catholics, and Protestants for religious work among American soldiers during WW1. He also organized relief work for prisoners of war during both world wars. Through his efforts, the broadest international and inclusive religious organization was formed, the World Council of Churches.

Although he was neither a clergyman nor theologian, J.R. Mott became one of the most influential Protestant figures in the world. When he was still a student, he believed that young people could change society. He helped promote foreign missions among them by founding the Student Volunteer Movementand World Student Christian Federation. By his death, over 20,000 twentysomethings counted him as the one who called them into service.

Mott was also a counselor of international affairs during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. He once spoke to three United States presidents in one day (Taft, Coolidge, and Wilson). He served on President Wilson’s peace commissions to Mexico (1916) and Russia (1917), and for his diplomacy received the American Distinguished Service medal. He worked tirelessly for prisoners of war and orphanage mission work. He declined an offer by Wilson to become the ambassador to China. But he is best remembered for his efforts toward Christian unity across denominational divides. He was the principal organizer of the International Missionary Council and, as previously mentioned, the World Council of Churches. Due to his ecumenical efforts and peacemaking, he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946.

In his eighties, Mott reflected, “God desires that we rise above ourselves and our petty ecclesiastical concern until we are united even as Christ prayed. This unity must not be affirmed only at the end of the world but immediately, so that all will recognize the power of the gospel.”

Amazing guy, right? What more shall we do together to change the world with Jesus?