The roots of an international movement
The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) celebrated its 175th anniversary recently. The WEA is the global organization that includes as members national alliances in more than 140 countries. It represents more than 600 million evangelical Christians around the world. It is quite a legacy for an organization that started with humble beginnings, but a big idea.
The WEA began in England in 1846, a time of great missionary fervour fed in part by the Second Great Awakening (1791–1842), which had fuelled a desire for Christian fellowship across the boundaries of church and geography, especially in the British Isles and the U.S.
It was also an era of great social change. Darwin was developing his evolutionary theories. Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto in 1848. France, Germany and Italy all experienced revolutions in 1848. Amid these changes Christians increasingly felt the need to work together.
The watershed London gathering that launched the WEA lasted for 13 days in 1846. It was the culmination of a series of British meetings going back to 1843. Representatives came from England, Scotland, Ire land, Wales, Sweden, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the U.S. and Canada, totalling 800–1,000 Christian leaders representing 53 bodies of Christians.
Between 1846 and 1955 branches were also established in France, Germany, Canada, the U.S., Sweden, India, Turkey, Spain and Portugal. Delegates from these and other countries met at General Conferences focusing on Christian fellowship and unity in London (1851), Paris (1855), Berlin (1857), Geneva (1861), Amsterdam (1867), New York (1873), Basel (1879), Copenhagen (1884) and Florence (1891). They established an official magazine titled Evangelical Christendom.
Those participating in the Evangelical Alliance emphasized the proclamation and expansion of the gospel, and in 1861 established the long-lasting Universal Week of Prayer. They also engaged in advocacy from the beginning, advocating for religious liberty ("the succour of the oppressed") in Europe, Russia, Turkey, Persia, Japan, Madagascar, Brazil and Peru.
Jack Dain and John Stott drafted a new, threefold purpose – the furtherance of the gospel, the defence and confirmation of the gospel, and the fellowship in the gospel.
From its beginnings until 1951, the momentum for the Alliance was primarily British with uneven support in Europe and the U.S. Two world wars decimated hopes for greater unity in the world, but there was also a new era of globalization – 51 nations in 1945 signed the UN Charter, and in 1951 the UN headquarters opened in New York. The World Council of Churches was founded in 1948.
In 1951 an International Convention of Evangelicals – 91 men and women from 21 nations – met in the Netherlands to re-envision the old Evangelical Alliance into a global fellowship. Jack Dain and John Stott from the U.K. drafted a new, threefold purpose – the furtherance of the gospel, the defence and confirmation of the gospel, and the fellowship in the gospel. To reflect the new purposes, it was renamed the World Evangelical Fellowship.
There was renewed enthusiasm for a truly global evangelical fellowship. Between 1951 and 1985, the WEF grew and seemingly thrived. Its headquarters was moved to Singapore. In 1992 Jun Vencer, the first majority world leader, was appointed. He opened additional offices in Manila and in the U.S. However, the organization chronically suffered from lack of funds. In 2001 the WEF was renamed the World Evangelical Alliance, but it had no leader and little funding.
A new era began in 2005 when Canadian Geoff Tunnicliffe became international director. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada invited the WEA to move its administration and financial functions to Toronto, and provided vital financial and administrative support.
The current secretary general of the WEA is Thomas Schirrmacher, based in Germany. Canadians continue to take leading roles, including in peace and reconciliation, refugees, prayer, missions and fundraising.
Since July 2020 I have been the director of the global advocacy department. I provide strategic oversight of the WEA advocacy offices to the UN in New York, Geneva and Bonn. It is exciting to lead a team responding to the big issues of our times at an international level.
The WEA continues to be a big idea. Canadians continue to play significant roles in fulfilling its big mission.
was the EFC’s general legal counsel from 1999 to 2003 and director of law and public policy from 2003 to 2006. She is now the WEA’s director, global advocacy, and is based in Ottawa when not travelling for the WEA. Read more at