Uncle Tom’s Cabin first appeared in 1852 in serial form and was later published as a book, setting sales records. Its emotional portrayal of the suffering of black slaves in the south captured the attention of the country. A decade later, during the early days of the Civil War, the book’s author, Harriett Beecher Stowe, had occasion to meet Abraham Lincoln. The president is reported to have said to her, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War.” While Lincoln’s comment was certainly hyperbole, it is sometimes true that a book or publication has enormous historical impact.
In 1886 Arthur Tappan Pierson, a pastor and Bible teacher, wrote a book that had global influence. The Crisis of Missions called for the church to obey the Great Commission Jesus gave His disciples, and attempt to evangelize the world’s population in a generation.
Pierson was motivated to write this book, at least in part, by a theological shift in his own mind. Pierson’s focus on literal and systematic Bible study had led him away from the postmillennial eschatology of his Presbyterian background. Instead, he embraced a premillennial view of Christ’s return and the attendant doctrine of imminence. Pierson believed strongly that this conviction that Jesus may appear at any moment should inspire the saints to make haste in reaching the world with the gospel.
The Crisis of Missions not only portrayed the need and the obligation of reaching the world with the gospel, it also described in detail what Pierson perceived as providential opportunity that prior generations of believers lacked. Pierson recognized that in the latter half of the 19th century nations and cultures that had been closed to the gospel were now opening. Previously unreachable African, Asian, and even Islamic countries were becoming accessible to Christian missionaries. If God was providing opportunity for His people, the Church should avail itself of it.
The Crisis in Missions received a surprisingly strong reception in the United States and Great Britain, and it was translated into French and Dutch.
Sometimes it is difficult to discern between cause and effect. As well, sometimes concurrent events are just that – coincident. However, Pierson’s book brought him numerous invitations to speak on the subject of world evangelism. Evangelist D.L. Moody invited A.T. Pierson to speak at his 1886 summer conference in Northfield, Massachusetts. At this conference, one hundred young men publicly dedicated themselves to serve as foreign missionaries. This was the beginning in America of what became known as the Student Volunteer Movement. In less than three decades, five thousand student volunteers from the United States went to foreign nations as missionaries. However, the SVM was not limited to the United States. It became a dynamic missionary youth movement in Canada, Great Britain, and Scandinavia as well.
As is true with every great movement, the SVM gradually declined. However, its influence continues to this day. Over sixty different missionary training schools, Bible Institutes, and Bible colleges were started as part of the SVM. After more than a century, several of these are still training young people for Christian service. A few mission agencies that sprang out of the SVM still promote the spread of the gospel. Churches planted during this time still exist. While A.T. Pierson’s great aim of “the evangelization of the world in this generation” was not achieved, there was “fruit that remains” from the movement inspired by his vision.
Biographer Dana Robert wrote, “With his fingers on the pulse of the student generation and his eyes on God’s providential workings through the spirit of the age, A.T. Pierson helped launch the greatest wave of missionary enthusiasm in American history.”
A.T. Pierson and his generation have passed. The crisis in missions persists. We need to heed the call and strive to evangelize the world in our generation.