John R. Mott, WSCF Founder

John Raleigh Mott.jpg
John R. Mott, founder of the WSCF

As we get ready for the WSCF General Assembly this week, its first in-person meeting since before the pandemic, it is good to learn something about the long and venerable history of this great organisation.  Quite remarkably, WSCF founder John Mott won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946, in a time of massive global tumult and disruption as the western nations shifted focus from the war against fascism to the Cold War against the Soviet Union. 

There must have been many candidates for the Peace Prize as the world emerged from such bloody and stupid fighting, carnage and genocide.  To give this uniquely celebrated and distinguished honour to a man who focused on how the beliefs of university students can affect world politics demonstrates a remarkable insight and vision from the Nobel Committee.

Mott’s most famous book, published in 1900, was The Evangelisation of the World in this Generation. It presents a theory of Christianity that was motivating and inspiring for the missionary movement of his time but is now considered obsolete.  Advocating “the sublime purpose of enthroning Jesus Christ as King among all nations and races of men”, Mott’s key goal was religious conversion of people from their ancestral faiths to an acceptance of Christianity as the sole truth.  Even granting that Mott included women in his concept of “all men”, his entire concept of proselytising in order to win souls for Christ is now widely seen as quaint, rude, ignorant and offensive.  And yet Mott was able to integrate this dubious goal with a high intellectual purpose that has in large measure stood the test of time, through his rational principle that knowledge must go before acceptance, that we need a coherent understanding before we can properly assent to any proposition. 

As we today apply the moral lens of questioning all our assumptions against evidence and logic, it is clear that many claims that Mott regarded as knowledge are better understood as culturally conditioned beliefs, open to challenge and dispute.  Alleged facts about Jesus Christ may still retain a power to transform the world, but only as imaginative poetic symbols of a moral vision, not as literal reports of miraculous events in history. Mott sets out the principles that faith must be intelligible and systematic.  These approaches today involve a rigorous critique of supernatural claims that Christian missionaries of Mott’s day never thought to challenge. Accepting this shift of interpretation to a critical rather than a dogmatic approach can help the church to enter constructive dialogue with a wide range of partners. A modern critical approach can address suspicions that Christianity has an arrogant agenda to replace the diverse cultural heritage of other societies with conformity to a western colonial model.

This more humble and constructive approach is reflected in Mott’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, where he pits the constructive forces of the world against the destructive, in ways that retain a strong and vital validity.  Mott calls for wise, unselfish, and determined guides to wage war against ignorance, poverty, disease, strife, and sin.  This is a high moral vision of planetary transformation, where the story of Jesus Christ as the perfect man offers great inspiration, regardless of how much of the Gospel story is historically true.  In a remarkably astute comment, Mott says in his speech the fostering of right international relations faces many subtle and baffling misunderstandings, with resultant strife and working at cross-purposes.

Addressing these basic problems require that people change their motives and dispositions.  The problem, Mott told his Nobel audience in Oslo, is that alarming divisive forces of economic imperialism, commercial exploitation and the unjust use of natural resources have been accomplishing deadly work on an overwhelmingly extensive scale.  Recognising the powerful material and political barriers to the needed psychological and spiritual changes, he says the battle between construction and destruction requires us to restudy, rethink, restate, revise and, where necessary, revolutionize programs and plans.  Just acting on a perspective that is not fully thought through cannot succeed. 

Creative leadership is about new ideas, about spiritual discovery, about the culture of the soul, a vision that in Mott’s phrase sees what the crowd does not see, taking in a wider sweep.  With guiding principles that are trusted like the North Star, we can find the real secret of leadership in bewildering conditions.  In a world where separation and competition are growing, Mott poses the challenge that the future greatness and influence of a nation can be measured by its ability to cooperate with other nations.  Security comes through relationships, not through barriers.

The visionary insight from John Mott that peace is all about cooperation places dialogue, respect and human dignity at the focus of security.  These ideas seem simple but in fact they are difficult, and as a result are neglected by the isolating forces that dominate our culture today.  The calling of the WSCF is to bring young people together in a spirit of enquiry and sharing. This opens the direct challenge of how we can cooperate in practice.  Building constructive relationships is where the framework of WSCF is so essential, helping people to see that their concerns are widely supported, and that together we can transform the world to realise the high ideals of love, justice, peace and truth.

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