Oldham, Joseph Houldsworth (1874-1969)

English pioneer of ecumenical mission and social concern


Born of Scottish parents in India, Oldham graduated from Oxford in 1894, then served with the Young Men’s Christian Association in India for three years before embarking on theological study in Edinburgh and Germany. In 1908 he was appointed organizing secretary for the epoch-making 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference, and he was subsequently named secretary of the conference’s continuation committee. Hopes for rapid advances in ecumenical cooperation among mission boards were set back by World War I, but the International Review of Missions, founded by Oldham in 1912, quickly became a most significant organ of research into missionary practice and theology on a world scale. He remained editor until 1927. With the return of peace, in order to consolidate the movement begun at Edinburgh, Oldham successfully proposed the formation of the International Missionary Council and became its secretary in 1921. During the 1920s he traveled widely and became especially concerned with the issues raised by colonial administrations in Africa, and with the educational needs of Africans. Christianity and the Race Problem (1924), his most substantial book, grew out of this interest.

Meanwhile, Oldham increasingly felt the challenge of the worldwide growth of secular culture. Himself a layperson (Anglican), he was convinced that the future of Christian mission would lie at the interface of faith and secular responsibility in public life. In the 1930s he pioneered the use of the small interdisciplinary study group as the means of research, not least in preparation for the 1937 Life and Work conference, “Church, Community and State,” at Oxford, for which he was chairman of the research committee. Thereafter, while closely involved in the negotiations leading to the formation of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Oldham’s interest focused more closely on the British scene.

During World War II, along with figures as diverse as Archbishop William Temple, T. S. Elliot, and John Ballie, he mobilized much new Christian thinking about the nature of modern Western society and Christian responsibility within it, particularly through the medium of his fortnightly Christian Newsletter. Out of this movement was born the Christian Frontier Council, one of the leading British postwar inspirations of lay responsibility in society. At the first assembly of the WCC in 1948, Oldham was made an honorary president of the council.

Keith Clements. “Oldham, Joseph Houldsworth,” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 505-6.

This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright © 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of Macmillan Reference USA, New York, NY. All rights reserved.



Oldham, Joseph Houldsworth. Christianity and the Race Problem. New York: George H. Doran and Company, 1924.  (Click to read title on archive.org)

_____. Church, Community and State: A World Issue. London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1940.

_____. Real Life is Meeting. Greenwich, CT: Seabury Press, 1953.

_____. The Resurrection of Christendom. London: The Sheldon Press; New York: The Macmillan Company, 1940.


Bliss, Kathleen. “J. H. Oldham.” In Mission Legacies: Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement, edited by Gerald H. Anderson et al. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994. Pp. 570-580.

Eddy, George Sherwood. Pathfinders of the World Missionary Crusade. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1945.

Lance, Martin W. “Joseph Houldsworth Oldham: His Thought and Its Development.” Ph.D. diss., University of St. Andrews, Scotland, 1968.

Rouse, Ruth and Stephen Charles Neill (eds.). A History of the Ecumenical Movement, 1517-1948. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954.

Description of content and structure of collection of Oldham’s letters and papers (and related materials) held at Edinburgh University New College Library; includes a brief biography.