The social and religious milieu of the late nineteenth century was favorable in nearly all ways for the birth and growth of a movement such as the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions. It was a time of dominance and prestige for Western civilization. Imperialistic expansion was condoned as an altruistic response to increased knowledge of the non-Western world. The rising nationalism of the era provided important motivation for the foreign missionary enterprise, for the success of American civilization was attributed to its Christian basis. Protestant foreign missionaries were heroes and heroines for the American public; and, as Robert Handy has noted, "Though they strove as Christians to keep the priority on spiritual religion and to be aware of the difference between faith and culture, it was not difficult in the spirit of those times to lose the distinction and to see Christian civilization as a main outcome of faith, if not its chief outcome." Historian of Christianity Kenneth Scott Latourette's comment that "one of the distinctive tokens of the Christianity and especially of the Protestantism of the United States was the fashion in which it conformed to the ethos of the country," was surely borne out in the early days of the Student Volunteer Movement. The spirit of pre-War American culture was one of expansionism and activism with an orientation toward business and enterprise. The extensive financial records and correspondence of the Volunteer Movement illustrate a congruence in style between business enterprise and the missions enterprise. American culture's shift toward scientific positivism during this era was reflected in the Student Volunteer Movement's emphasis on elaborate statistical evidence of its work.
Practical aspects of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century also contributed to the rapid growth of Protestant missions. Travel to far corners of the earth was possible as never before because of improved transportation and communication. The world scene was largely free from wars. It was a time of increasing Protestant wealth; Christian tycoons under attack for their enormous profits were more than happy to contribute large sums for the support of the foreign missionary enterprise.
With a perspective sharpened by knowledge of post-War events, historians of American religion have pointed to underlying conflicts and discrepancies which belied the idealistic confidence of the pre-War era. Economic turmoil, urbanization, the rise of historical criticism and evolutionary theory, the issue of liberalism versus revivalism --- all these potentially disruptive elements lay beneath the assured facade of pre-War American Protestantism. Sydney Ahlstrom has attributed the foreign missions boom of the era to the churches' desire to avoid confrontation on these issues: "crusades of diverse sorts were organized, in part, it would seem, to heal or hide the disunity of the churches." Robert Handy has seen the mission enterprise as an extension of the voluntaryism of the 1830s --- a means for cooperative Protestant action in society without confrontation on particular denominational differences. Handy, like Ahlstrom, has pointed to the dangers which were inherent in sublimation of theological and social controversy under activist crusades: "The possibility of a greater sense of self-criticism, which might have come out of a more open confrontation of the parties, was largely suppressed, in considerable measure because of the necessities of the missionary consensus." .
This, then, was the milieu into which the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions was born in July 1886. Its emergence at a summer student conference held on the campus of the Mount Hermon School in Northfield, Massachusetts had all the drama of a theatrical play, and its story was told countless times over the decades of the Movement's existence. The drama of the scene will not be destroyed, however, by consideration of the historical antecedents of the Movement.
In his work, Two Centuries of Student Christian Movements, Clarence Shedd traced the existence of student Christian societies back to the early years of the eighteenth century. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, he found, a foreign missions emphasis was prevalent in the student societies and fully three-quarters of them were called Societies of Missionary Inquiry. In 1877, a student department of the Young Men's Christian Association was formed to direct efforts more specifically toward Christian work on college and university campuses. Luther D. Wishard, the first collegiate secretary of the YMCA, had a great personal interest in foreign missions, and his influence did much to orient the student YMCA in that direction. On the theological seminary scene, efforts were underway by 1879 to form "some permanent system of inter-seminary correspondence on the subject of missions." To this end, the Inter-Seminary Missionary Alliance was established in 1880 and had annual conventions until 1898 when its work was merged with that of the Student Volunteer Movement and intercollegiate YMCA.