“There is no place like the university for the sharpening and expansion of Christian faith” – Charles Troutman, IVF General Secretary.
The Inter Varsity Fellowship in Australia, now known as the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students, has its roots in Cambridge. The development of evangelical activism among university students can even be traced back to the influential preacher Charles Simeon*. The Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union was formed in 1877, and in 1911-12 its president was Howard Mowll, later to become Archbishop of Sydney and a great supporter of student evangelism**. Mowll was also the first president of IVF in Australia. The CICCU and several other groups banded together to form the British Inter Varsity Fellowship of Evangelical Unions in 1928.
Two years later, the vice chair Howard Guinness, of the famous brewing family, arrived in Australia and visited both Melbourne and Sydney Universities. This visit was the catalyst for the formation of the Sydney University Evangelical Union, and in 1936 several unions formed the Australian Inter Varsity Fellowship. Guinness also helped to establish the Crusader Union in Australia. His address to the first public meeting of the SUEU was called “Men, women and God.” The EU Graduates fund set up a program in his honour: a two-year intensive evangelism apprenticeship. He returned to Australia in 1949 and served as Rector of St Barnabas Broadway.
Missionary doctor and author of the Jungle Doctor books Paul White was also very much involved in the early years of IVF, serving as General Secretary from 1943, after having returned from Tanzania due to his wife’s ill health.
The IVF was involved in the 1946 tour of Australia by Lt-Gen Sir William Dobbie and his wife Sybil. Dobbie served in the Boer War and both world wars, being most renowned for his role as Governor of Malta during WW2.
In 1958, John Stott, then Rector of All Souls Langham Place, came to Australia and conducted missions at Sydney and Melbourne Universities. At this time, the IVF was also gearing up for one of the largest evangelistic events ever held in Australia – the 1959 Billy Graham crusade.
“In this effort,” says an internal IVF memo, “the gospel will be proclaimed with the authority of the Scriptures by a man who holds a theological position in keeping with our own.”
The most significant contribution that the IVF made to the crusades were the volunteer counsellors. They followed up people who had made commitments or reaffirmations of faith during the crusades.
In 1973 the IVF decided to update its name to the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students. They currently have over 50 member groups on campuses around the country.
The IVF’s relationship with its rival or parallel body, the Australian Student Christian Movement, is documented to some extent in a small series of correspondence from the late 1940s and 1950s. The CICCU and the Sydney University EU had both disaffiliated themselves from the SCM due to doctrinal disagreements. The SCM was considered too theologically liberal and ‘stressed the right aim but forgot its basis.’
The Samuel Marsden Archives has recently acquired the papers of the Inter Varsity Fellowship, which appear to have been in the custody of Sydney University archives and then were transferred to the Centre for the Study of Australian Christianity. The collection is primarily made up of the papers of successive General Secretaries who were based at the IVF head office in Sydney. The majority of the papers is correspondence with the large number of member groups (Evangelical Unions at universities and colleges around the country), international IVF bodies, conference committees and travelling staff workers. The IVF also established departments based on academic field or profession, such as the Theological Students’ Fellowship, the Research Scientists’ Christian Fellowship and the Christian Medical Fellowship. Since the Samuel Marsden Archives also contains the AFES papers from 1973 until the late 1980s, the addition of the IVF papers means that we now have a significant resource covering half a century of student evangelism in Australia.
* Lake, Meredith. Proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord: a history of the Sydney University Evangelical Union. Sydney: EU Graduates’ Fund, 2005. p. 10.
**ibid. p. 13.