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It began with prayer

A brief history of the OICCU

'God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord' (1 Corinthians 1.9, ESV).

2004 sees the celebration of the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union's 125th anniversary. On May 8, DV, we shall be welcoming J.I. Packer and Andrew Goddard to encourage and challenge us from God's Word in a celebration to be held in St. Aldate's main building. It is our hope that former members of the OICCU will be keen to join us.

Surge in confidence

The OICCU itself was founded in 1879 - a time when evangelicalism was experiencing something of a surge in confidence, not least as a result of the formation of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union. However, it is possible to trace the origins of the OICCU back to 1867, the year when the Daily Prayer Meeting began in the rooms of Arthur Cleveland Downer at Brasenose College. He, and an undergraduate at Exeter College, had been moved to meet to pray for the evangelistic meetings which were being held for the residents of Oxford in the old Town Hall. Thus the distinguishing characteristic of the OICCU, which dictates its work, was evident at its very roots: the priority of evangelism under the sovereignty of God.

At first, the OICCU had 30 members in a university of about 2,000. However, lack of numerical strength has never been a barrier to God's providence (Deuteronomy 7.6-7). Indeed, under God the OICCU began to attract a larger membership, and by 1895 membership had grown to about 150. Nevertheless, the success of a university Christian Union is not best judged by numbers but by faithfulness to the Bible's command to preach the gospel; and one of the first events that the OICCU supported was the Moody and Sankey mission in the Town Hall in 1882, organised by the Rector of St. Aldate's, Alfred Christopher. The OICCU was, however, engaged in its own evangelism quite independently; for example, the open air evangelistic preaching at 5.00 pm on Sundays at the Martyrs' Memorial. In the shadow of those forefathers who had died for their commitment to evangelical doctrine in the English Reformation, members of OICCU preached the gospel boldly until 1932. In recent years this witness has experienced a renaissance, and today on Saturday afternoons a handful of OICCU members are often to be seen on Cornmarket giving clear gospel talks.

Inspiration of Scripture

However, by the turn of the century, theological debate about the inspiration of Holy Scripture led some to follow the Greeks to whom the apostle Paul referred (1 Corinthians 1.22 ff.) in questioning the simplicity of the gospel message, and doubting the centrality of Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2.2). The OICCU was vulnerable partly because many of the ministers on whom they had come to rely became unavailable: for example, Chavasse left Oxford in 1900 to succeed the splendid Bishop J.C. Ryle at Liverpool. In Oxford, the threat of Anglo-Catholicism was always looming over the OICCU, and the compromise with the movement led to a situation whereby an OICCU official in 1910 could say openly: 'I am an evangelical in spirit, but Tractarian in doctrine'. It was left to the First World War to put a stop to this worrying drift.

In 1940, Martyn Lloyd-Jones came from Westminster Chapel in London to lead the OICCU mission. That a man with such a great reputation as a clear Bible expositor should be invited to lead the mission at a time when such an evangelical ministry was comparatively rare is a credit to the OICCU of the time. Also in 1940, John Carpenter came to St. Ebbe's to exercise a strong Bible-teaching ministry, and he was frequently asked to give the OICCU Bible Reading. In a period of war and concomitant political instability, the OICCU was able to rest on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2.20). Conversions followed, notably that of a young scholar at Corpus Christi College, James Packer, who would become known as an outstanding evangelical theologian and author. Moreover, Packer, along with Raymond Johnston of The Queen's College, would become a stalwart of the OICCU library, where the rich Reformed theology of the 16th- and 17th-century Protestant divines would be imbibed.

Evangelism continued to dictate the OICCU's agenda. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Hugh Gough (Bishop of Barking) led the mission of 1951, John Stott led the missions of 1954 and 1957, and Dick Lucas led the mission in 1960. It is difficult to get a feel for the number of folk who came to Christ in this period, except anecdotally, but it is known that the movement was significant. Of course, where so much evangelism is taking place there is always opposition. If some sought, like those Greeks in Corinth, worldly wisdom, there were emerging those who demanded signs (1 Corinthians 1.22) and the neo-Pentecostal movement began to reach Oxford towards the end of the 1960s. The objective Reformed evangelicalism of the OICCU's heydays was being challenged; but the OICCU proved able to unite its members under the UCCF Doctrinal Basis for the work of evangelism.

Faithful preaching

While methods and incidentals are constantly changing, the gospel does not. Meetings are, in some ways, unimportant, as is their time and venue; at present, the OICCU Bible Reading takes place on a Wednesday evening in St. Aldate's main building, while the central evangelistic Bible talk happens on a Friday lunchtime in the Oxford Union. None of this matters, as long as the aim of the OICCU to explain the gospel in Oxford University is realised. The last two missions, led by Rico Tice and Daf Meirion Jones, have been significant only because the gospel is being faithfully preached. And because the gospel is still being faithfully preached, undergraduates in Oxford are still turning 'to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come' (1 Thessalonians 1.9-10, ESV).

Liam Beadle