Robert Wilder: Missionary Recruiter


Robert P. Wilder (1863-1938) was born of missionary parents in India. His early education was in the local native school. He accepted Christ, became a church member at about 10, and resolved to become a missionary.

His parents returned to America, and he studied at Princeton. There he took the lead in organizing the Princeton Foreign Mission Society and became its first secretary. After graduation from Princeton, he attended the College Students' Summer School D.L. Moody conducted at Mt. Hermon, Mass., in 1886. There he "persistently promoted foreign missions" and 100 students declared their intention to go to the field.

From these beginnings, the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (SVM) emerged with Wilder as its virtual founder. Over the next year Wilder visited many colleges and universities all over the country, enlisting hundreds of missionary volunteers.

In 1887 he attended Union Theological Seminary for further preparation. The next year he was again the traveling secretary for the Movement; John R. Mott became the first chairman.

In 1891 Wilder left for India under the Presbyterian board, but he spent more than a year in Europe, helping to organize the Student Volunteer Missionary Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

He met Helene Olsson; a year later they were married and left for India, where he worked diligently among students.

His many travels would have qualified him for frequent-flier miles in today's economy. From 1897-1899 he spent time in America on behalf of the World's Student Christian Federation. He returned yet again to India, but in 1902 suffered a nervous breakdown. Then he went to Norway, where he and his family lived for several years. He toured Europe on behalf of foreign missions and in 1916 moved back to America, working among youth in Montclair, N.J.

In 1929 he established a new home in Cairo, Egypt, "to visit among the students and missionaries of the Near East," but in 1933 his health failed, so he returned to Norway for the rest of his life.

In the post-World War I era (and much to Wilder's dismay), the SVM was sadly caught up in the tide of liberalism and began to drift away from Scripture and missionary zeal in favor of a social gospel. This ultimately led to its decline and disbanding in the 1960s. Still the impact of the thousands of missionaries it recruited during its faithful decades reverberates around the world.

Wilder's example of missions in the "backfield" of logistics, mobilization, and prayer should encourage all of us to recognize our unique gifts and roles in reaching the nations for Christ.  His long record of promoting foreign missions and enlisting a multitude of vo1unters for the field eminently qualified him for a "well done, thou good and faithful servant" (Matt. 25:21).

Bernard R. DeRemer chronicled the lives of dozens of heroes of the faith in more than a decade of writing for Pulpit Helps Magazine. He continues to serve in this capacity as a volunteer contributor to Disciple. He lives in West Liberty, Ohio.

References: Who Was Who in Church History, by Elgin S. Moyer; 1962. Wikipedia, "Student Volunteer Movement",

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