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The roots of our movement are with students at the University of Cambridge, England in 1877. There, a group of Christian students began to meet together, in spite of the disapproval of some University officials, to pray, to study the Bible and to witness to fellow students. Soon, similar groups sprang up on other campuses. Eventually, they formed the British Inter-Varsity. (Hence our name, inter – meaning between, varsity – the British term for college level students.)
From the very beginning they had a strong concern to take the gospel to those all over the world who had never heard it – a concern that continues in InterVarsity today. Evangelism and discipleship are hallmarks of InterVarsity's campus ministry.
In response to a plea for help, British InterVarsity sent Howard Guinness, a medical school graduate and vice-chairman of the British movement, to Canada in 1928. Students helped raise the money to provide one-way passage to Canada. Between bouts of seasickness, Guinness led his cabin mate to Christ during the crossing, As God supplied the funds, he slowly worked his way across Canada, starting up and assisting evangelical student groups.
By 1937 the Canadians began to hear requests for help from students in the United States as independent evangelical student groups began springing up. In 1938 Stacey Woods, the Canadian InterVarsity director, met with students on the University of Michigan campus. As an immediate result of that visit, students formed the first InterVarsity chapter in the United States.
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA dates our official beginning to our incorporation, which took place in November, 1941, after starting with three staff on loan from Canada and Stacey Woods leading both the U.S. and Canadian movements.
In 1947 InterVarsity USA became a founding member of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, a federation of national Christian student movements. The other charter members are Australia, Britain, Canada, China, France, Holland, New Zealand, Norway, and Switzerland. (To see which of more than 150 countries are currently members of IFES go to www.ifesworld.org)
The beginning of IFES followed shortly after Toronto in 1946 hosted the first of InterVarsity’s triennial student missions conferences, which began the tradition of calling every student generation to consider global missions. The Urbana conferences, as they came to be called, were held on the campus of the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign for more than a half century, before eventually moving to St. Louis in 2006.
InterVarsity’s commitment to multiethnic ministry began early. In 1945 a staff member invited several Black students to a Bible study at the home of a Trustee. As a result of an ensuing incident, the Board passed a resolution forbidding racial segregation at InterVarsity events and calling for unity in the Body of Christ.
InterVarsity Press was founded in 1947 to supply quality literature suitable for the campus. IVP book tables became a part of almost every InterVarsity event, highlighting the importance of the discipleship of the mind.
By 1950, at the end of our first decade of ministry, there were 35 staff serving students in 499 InterVarsity chapters across the country.
John Alexander became president during the turbulent sixties and led the ministry to a new level of maturity that continued through the decade of the seventies. In 1969 InterVarsity moved the national office from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin. By the early seventies there were more than 200 field staff.
InterVarsity weathered a series of leadership changes in the eighties, but continued to expand staff and outreach. The leadership of Stephen Hayner from 1988 to 2001 gave InterVarsity another period of stability through the nineties. Alec Hill became president in 2001, and laid the foundation for a period of growth and expansion that continues as his legacy. This has come through a renewed focus on evangelism to match InterVarsity’s strengths in discipleship.
Today, there are more than 1000 InterVarsity staff serving more than 40,000 students and faculty nationwide. In addition we produce training materials, camps, books, and media tools which serve both church and campus. Our work touches every kind of student including graduate students and faculty. We are seeking to build witnessing communities on the campus which are bold, broad and ethnically diverse.