Though in most every external aspect the life of John R. Mott seemed to be that of a typical religious youth, Mott’s plans and ambitions were in fact resting on an internal religious conflict, as he related in his later life.
The talented and practical-minded Mott had great ambitions for a successful career in business or public life; and he felt somehow uneasy in the pervasive religious atmosphere of Upper Iowa University, which he attended during his freshman year.
Mott felt threatened because the claims of Christianity on his life and his work conflicted with his personal plans. “Let it be repeated,” he later wrote, “there are two views of one’s life. One is that a man’s life is his own, to do with as he please; the other that it belongs to another, and, in the case of the Christian, that the other to whom it belongs is Christ himself.
At first, although I bore the name of Christian, I held the former or selfish view.” In an effort to work his way free of religious entanglements, Mott had transferred to Cornell, which was reputed at the time to be a “godless institution.” But to his surprise, Mott was greeted upon arrival by a representative of the Cornell YMCA, and the friendship and assistance thus offered defeated Mott in his efforts to work free of religious entanglements.
This encounter, moreover, revivified the conflict he had unsuccessfully tried to run away from, for it brought Mott to realize that his discomfort was internal and had to be resolved accordingly.
When J.E.K. Studd came to speak at Cornell that November, Mott was still reluctant to expose himself to any influence which might upset his own plans for his life. Nevertheless, this famous English athlete was a powerful drawing card, and after some hesitation, Mott tardily entered the lecture room to hear Studd quoting, “Young man, seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not! Seek ye first the kingdom of God.”
These passages stuck like barbs in his mind, and his conflict worsened to the point where it became the focus of all his thoughts and he was unable to sleep. The following morning he spent in restless solitude among the breathtaking gorges which bejewel the Cornell campus; by 2:30 that afternoon he had mustered up enough courage to obtain an interview with Studd.
Studd encouraged Mott to ignore dogmatic assertions, but rather to investigate first-hand the original source material of Christian doctrine and belief, the New Testament. This meeting was, according to Mott’s biographer, “the decisive hour of Mott’s life.”
He met with Studd several more times during the latter’s week-long visit, and the two acquired a mutual admiration. The influence of Studd and of the students in the Cornell YMCA began to redirect the ambitions of the twenty-year old Mott, and he soon became actively involved in a prison ministry.
Within a month of Studd’s visit he was vice-president of the Cornell YMCA, and as a result of some careful study and thought over the Christmas recess, Mott decisively subjugated his will to that of his Lord. Thus evolved the commitment of a man who was to become perhaps the most remarkable missionary statesman in recent memory, who served among other capacities as the Chairman for over thirty years of the Student Volunteer Movement.
Timothy Wallstrom, The Creation of a Student Movement to Evangelize the World