Speer, Robert Elliott (1867-1947)
Presbyterian mission administrator
Speer was born in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, graduated from Princeton University, and itinerated as a recruiter for the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM), from 1889-1890. He left Princeton Theological Seminary in his middle year (1891) to accept a call as secretary of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions and served in that capacity until his retirement in 1937. As a key administrator and strategist for one of the largest denominational mission agencies in America, Speer established himself as a visible and respected leader of the Protestant missionary advance in the early nineteenth century. He was active in several missions and ecumenical organizations, including the SVM, the Foreign Missions Conference of North America, the Federal Council of Churches, the International Missionary Council, and the Committee on Cooperation in Latin America. In 1927 he was elected moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Through his wide-ranging endeavors, he contributed significantly to a Protestant consensus, which prevailed through World War I, about the nature and purpose of the missionary enterprise. He then defended it in 1920s and 1930s by resisting both the liberal tilt of the Laymen’s Foreign Mission Inquiry and fundamentalist attempts, led by J. Gresham Machen, to purge the Presbyterian Board of allegedly unorthodox missionaries.
Speer’s missiology reflected many of the principles of Rufus Anderson. He emphasized the primary evangelistic aim of foreign missions, the necessity of developing indigenous local churches with native pastors, and the basic distinction between the proclamation of the gospel and the spread of civilization. In later years he reiterated his conviction about the uniqueness of Christ and the superiority of Christianity to other religions. Although not a theologian, he consistently set forth an evangelical and Christocentric conception of the missionary task.
Speer’s compelling oratory is manifested in many of his published address and sermons. He also wrote numerous articles, pamphlets, and books. His major works of missiological significance include Missionary Principles and Practice (1902), The Gospel and the New World (1919), The Church and Missions (1926), The Unfinished Task of Foreign Missions (1926), The Finality of Jesus Christ (1933), and “Re-Thinking Missions’ Examined (1933). His willingness to tackle controversial social problems is evident in Of One Blood (1924) and Some Living Issues (1930). He also authored several missionary biographies, Bible studies, and books on practical dimensions of Christian living.
James A. Patterson, “Speer, Robert Elliott,” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 633.
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.
Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions. The Call, Qualifications and Preparation of Candidates for Foreign Missionary Service: Papers by Missionaries and other Authorities. New York: Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, 1901. [Includes 2 articles by Robert E. Speer]
Speer, Robert E. The Light of the World: A Brief Comparative Study of Christianity and Non Christian Religions. West Medford, MA.: Central Committee of the United Study of Missions, 1911.
_____. Young Men who Overcame. New York: Revell, 1905.
Speer, Robert E. Missions and Politics in Asia. Studies of the Spirit of the Eastern Peoples, the Present Making of History in Asia, and the Part therein of Christian Missions. New York: Revell, 1898.
_____. Missionary Principles and Practice: A Discussion of Christian Missions and of Some Criticisms Upon Them. New York: Revell, 1902.
_____. Missions and Modern History: A Study of the Missionary Aspect of Some Great Movement of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Revell, 1904.
_____. The Marks of a Man: the Essential of Christian Character. The Merrick Lectures for 1906-1907 delivered at the Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio, December 6-10, 1906. Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1907.
_____. Christianity and the Nations. New York: Revell, 1910.
_____. The Gospel and the New World. New York: Revell, 1919.
_____. Of One Blood: A Short Study of the Race Problem. New York: Council of Women for Home Missions and Missionary Education Movement of the United States and Canada, 1924.
_____. The Church and Missions. London: J. Clarke & Co., Ltd., 1926.
_____. The Finality of Jesus Christ. New York: Revell, 1933.
_____. “Re-Thinking Missions” Examined: An Attempt at a Just Review of the Report of the Appraisal Commission of the Laymen’s Foreign Mission Inquiry. New York: Revell, 1933.
Goodpasture, H. McKennie. “Robert E. Speer.” In Mission Legacies: Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement, edited by Gerald H. Anderson et al. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994. Pp. 563-569.
Wheeler, William Reginald. A Man Sent from God: A Biography of Robert Speer. Westwood, N. J.: Revell, 1956.
“Robert E. Speer.” In Wheeler, W. Reginald. A Man Sent From God, A Biography of Robert E. Speer. Westwood, NJ: Revell, 1956.