From Cambridge to the world

From Cambridge to the world
Paul Cook Paul Cook held various pastorates in the UK, and was one of the editors of Christian Hymns. He was married to Faith, the author of many books, until his death in 2020.
01 November, 2002 5 min read

The story of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU) is a cautionary tale — well told and documented by Oliver Barclay and Bob Horn to mark its 125th anniversary.

This is an important book, and one which all ministers and church officers would do well to read. Our churches need to realise that young people going up to university should no longer be urged unreservedly to join the university Christian Union.

They would do better by joining a local Evangelical church, and only link themselves with the Christian Union if it adheres to the fundamentals of the gospel and promotes holy living.


The evangelical witness of CICCU, and particularly its earlier missionary vision, has been much used by God through the years. Many, both in this country and overseas, trace the beginnings of their Christian lives to its testimony.

However, throughout its history it has been predominantly Anglican and middle-class in outlook. Furthermore, in its early days, it lacked doctrine and was decidedly Arminian in character.

Much of its inspiration was drawn from the Higher Christian Life Movement and the D. L. Moody Cambridge mission of 1882. The authors admit that ‘theological depth was not a notable feature of CICCU in this period’ (p.57) — or, we might add, in any period.

This ill-prepared it for the challenges which arose later within the Student Christian Movement (SCM) of which CICCU became part when it was formed in 1898.

From the beginning, SCM was an ecumenical hotchpotch with no clear basis of faith, with Evangelicals and liberals working together. Gradually the effects of the Higher Critical Movement undermined commitment to the authority of Scripture, and tensions developed within SCM.

What C. H. Spurgeon had anticipated at least 20 years earlier came to pass, but Evangelicals were ill-equipped to meet the challenge. What the CICCU faced within the SCM was only a small part of a much bigger ‘downgrade’ movement which was affecting the life of churches in most denominations.


Though detailed and comprehensive in its treatment of CICCU, this book suffers from an element of myopia in this respect. The bold stand eventually taken by the CICCU in withdrawing from SCM cannot be considered in isolation. It is odd that a history of CICCU can be written without reference to what was going on in the churches at that time.

Although the CICCU leaders at the beginning of the twentieth century were not theologically aware, they were nevertheless prayerful ‘Bible men’. They could see that collaboration with those who denied the fundamentals of Scripture was wrong and impeded their witness.

Thus, in 1910, CICCU disaffiliated from SCM. This marked the beginning of a process which brought about the creation of the Inter Varsity Fellowship of Evangelical Unions (IVF) in 1928.

However, what this book fails to address is why such a withdrawal should be regarded as commendable and biblically faithful in a student context, yet not appropriate in the church situation.

We are informed that five of the General Committee of 1911 became bishops and that ‘that generation in the CICCU included some who became outstanding evangelical Church of England leaders of the 1930s and 1940s’ (pp. 81ff).

But we are not told why this is thought to be admirable, when it involved exactly the same inclusivist compromise as the one from which CICCU had broken free at Cambridge.

Contending for the faith

The inter-war period of the twenties and thirties was bleak, evangelically speaking. The rich doctrinal emphases of men like Spurgeon and Ryle had given way in most Evangelical churches to an unthinking evangelicalism of a semi-pelagian character.

To its great credit, CICCU clarified its position in contrast to SCM and called for a full commitment of its members to Jesus Christ as God and Saviour. They contended for the doctrine of Scripture and its authority, and reaffirmed faith in the deity of Christ and his substitutionary atonement.

In 1928, Dr Douglas Johnson was appointed secretary of IVF and continued in that position until 1964, exercising great influence in the maintenance of evangelical truth. He wrote an excellent book entitled Contending for the Faith (IVP 1979), being a History of the Evangelical Movement in the Universities and Colleges.

It is surprising that the authors make no reference to Dr Johnson’s book, and one wonders why this is. In the reviewer’s opinion, Douglas Johnson provides a much better treatment of the university Christian Unions and of the fuller context in which the story of CICCU should be set.

The simple gospel

Evangelicalism had developed an anti-intellectual and anti-doctrinal stance in this inter-war period. Intellectual enquiry was associated with liberalism, and Evangelicals tended to be suspicious of biblical scholarship.

In the thirties, the ‘Bash Campers’ (led by Rev. E. J. H. Nash) contributed a steady stream of freshers to CICCU who emphasised ‘the simple gospel’. This was partly why many thinking people wrote off CICCU as ‘school boy religion which would fade out in due time’ (p.127).

The somewhat simplistic mentality of CICCU did not help its witness, and exposed it to the influence of movements such as Frank Buchman’s ‘Oxford Group’ (Moral Rearmament).

However, the post-war period from 1945 onwards proved to be a time of growth and evangelical consolidation for CICCU. Many of the undergraduates were now mature men who had fought in the war.

Donald G. Barnhouse’s mission of 1946 was much blessed of God, as was John Stott’s mission in 1952. These missions were followed in 1955 by Billy Graham’s mission, which brought the CICCU to the height of its influence.


But, as is often the case, the vibrant evangelicalism of the fifties and sixties contained seeds of decline. The prosperity of the CUs within the universities meant that the SCM groups were no longer the force they had once been, and most of their meetings were discontinued.

Some of their former adherents were attracted to the humanist societies which sprung up in the late 50s and early 60s. But other religiously inclined students of a ritualistic and liberal outlook drifted into the CUs, weakening their clear-cut witness.

CICCU was no exception, and by the late-sixties its evangelical vigour had declined. The fringe element increased, and the distinction between the Christian and the worldling became blurred.

Bob Horn, who contributes three perceptive chapters, comments: ‘To some, all this suggested parallels with what happened when the Student Christian Movement moved away from its gospel focus towards broader views’ (p.167 ff).

Referring to the situation which caused CICCU to separate from SCM, he further observes: ‘The CICCU was ever willing to face a drop in numbers if that were the price of not compromising God’s priorities for the gospel. It may have to face that decision again’ (p.216).

Christian life

Whereas the crisis of the early days was over the nature of the gospel, today it is over the nature of the Christian life — though, of course, the two things are related. The moral relativism of a post-modern society has invaded an increasing number of university Christian Unions, and CICCU has not been unaffected.

The authors’ conclusion, therefore, comes as no surprise. ‘It will take renewed focus on the non-negotiable truths’, they write, ‘to preserve that [Evangelical] unity, so that the gospel that Cambridge and the world so desperately needs may be clearly presented and the vision kept bright of presenting Christ’s claims to every student’ (p.213).

From Cambridge to the World; 125 Years of Student Witness, by Oliver R. Barclay and Robert M. Horn, is published by IVP at £6.99 (pp. 256, ISBN 0-85111-499-7).

Paul Cook held various pastorates in the UK, and was one of the editors of Christian Hymns. He was married to Faith, the author of many books, until his death in 2020.
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