InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA dates our official beginning to November 14, 1941. We operated with three staff on loan from InterVarsity Canada, with Stacey Woods leading both the US and Canadian movements.
The University of Cambridge, England
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, study the Bible, and share their faith with fellow students. Soon similar groups sprang up on other campuses. Eventually, they formed the British Inter-Varsity. Hence our name—inter meaning “between,” and 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 to drive InterVarsity today.
British Inter-Varsity 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 Guinness with one-way passage to Canada. Between bouts of seasickness, Guinness led his cabinmate 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 US 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 US.
InterVarsity/USA History by the Decade
InterVarsity continued to grow through World War II. As male staff workers entered the armed services, gifted women took over the staffing of large areas in both Canada and the US. Men who were assigned to college campuses for military officers training began chapters on those campuses or got involved in chapters that already existed. InterVarsity’s work was promoted through a quarterly publication called HIS Magazine, which began in 1941. Robert Finley, an NCAA boxing champion from the University of Virginia, was hired as InterVarsity’s first evangelist in 1945. By 1946, when World War II was over, InterVarsity had 18 staff and chapters on 277 campuses across the country.
Toronto hosted the first of InterVarsity’s triennial student missions conferences in 1946, 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 at Urbana-Champaign for more than half a century, before eventually moving to St. Louis in 2006.
In 1947, British student movement leaders, the leaders of InterVarsity, and representatives of Christian student movements from eight other countries gathered at Harvard University:
. . . to bring together the existing free movements which possess the same doctrinal basis and evangelical outlook and to give the utmost possible assistance to evangelical students who desire to take the gospel of Christ to the universities of the world.
Also in 1947, InterVarsity Press was founded to publish quality Christian 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.
InterVarsity’s commitment to multiethnic ministry was also established early on. 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.
By 1950, at the end of our first decade of ministry, there were 35 staff serving students in 499 InterVarsity chapters across the country.
We began our second decade with a year of evangelism. During the 1950–1951 academic year, 58 campus missions were held. Speakers, such as Billy Graham and John Stott, presented a series of lectures that shared the gospel in relevant, engaging ways.
We also began to develop our own camps and retreat centers to train students in Bible study and discipleship. Campus by the Sea was the first in 1951, located on Santa Catalina island off the coast of southern California. In 1952, we added Hudson House in New York, and then Bear Trap Ranch in the mountains of Colorado in 1953. In 1954, we began to develop Cedar Campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on the shore of Lake Huron, as a summer training facility.
New approaches to prayer and Bible study helped nurture the faith of college students during this decade. Former missionary Rosalind Rinker helped students learn how to pray in more natural, conversational ways (and eventually wrote Prayer: Conversing With God, later named as one of the most influential books of the 20th century). She and Paul Byer began to mimeograph pages of Scripture, which allowed students to mark their Bible study observations with colored pencils, a practice that continues in InterVarsity today.
1960s & 1970s
John Alexander became president during the turbulent sixties and led the ministry to a new level of maturity that continued through 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.
Bob Baylis began the student exchanges in 1967. He took InterVarsity students to Europe. They stayed with local host families, studied church history, and fellowshipped with students in various countries. Forty years later, hundreds of students from the US participate in dozens of mission projects around the world, from inner city slums in Asian cities to student camps in Eastern Europe. All of these projects pair US students with students from the local IFES movement as together they share the love of Jesus with those who may not have heard of him.
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.
In 1981, Terry Morrison developed a more organized relationship between InterVarsity and other IFES national movements with the establishment of the InterVarsity Link program. Today, over 65 US InterVarsity staff work with IFES movements around the world, training and encouraging national staff and students to proclaim the gospel.
2000s and Beyond
Today, Tom Lin is InterVarsity’s president, and there are more than 1,000 InterVarsity staff serving more than 40,000 students and faculty on 600-plus campuses nationwide. In addition, we produce training materials, camps, books, and media tools that serve both churches and campuses. Our work touches every kind of student, including graduate students, as well as faculty. We are seeking to build witnessing communities on the campus that are bold, broad, and ethnically diverse.