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Francis Edward Clark

By Jason Lanker


Francis E. Clark (12 September 1851 – 26 May 1927) is considered by many to be the founder of modern youth ministry. Concerned with the disconnection of young adults from his congregation, he created a segregated prayer ministry which he called the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor (Y.P.S.C.E). Armed with an “iron-clad” pledge, a weekly newsletter and the incessant travels of its founder, the society grew to be a worldwide organization boasting more than 4 million members by the time of his death at the age of 75. 


The Early Years

Francis Edward Clark was born on September 12th 1851 in the frontier town of Aylmer, Quebec. The son of Charles C. Symmes and Lydia Fletcher Clark, Francis would become a complete orphan by the age of seven. After a sudden outbreak of cholera claimed the life of his father in 1854, typhoid would take his 17 year old brother in ’58, and his mother would succumb to the weight of a heavy heart, in the spring of that next year. Francis was sent, by request, to live with his mother’s favorite brother, the Rev. Edward Warren Clark, from whom Francis would take his surname. His uncle was the pastor of several Congregational churches around the New England area, as well as chaplain to the Massachusettes Senate and Harvard’s Overseer for an unusual two consecutive terms (Clark, 1922, p.34). His adopted mother, a direct descendant of Cotton Mather and several other Puritan leaders, held within her the rigid standards of her forbearers, but with a “face and character (that) all felt the beauty of the Lord (Clark, 1922, p.34). 

After serving in several churches around the Boston area, his adopted father finally settled the family in Claremont, New Hampshire. Abnormal for the time, Clark would choose to join with this body of believers, at the age of 13 although “No evangelist or season of religious excitement had brought me to a decision, but religious training and conviction” (Clark, 1922, p. 39). Francis spent his childhood years primarily engaged in educational pursuits, eventually attending the famed Kimball Union Academy. In the Fall of 1869 he entered the hallowed halls of Dartmouth, only 30 miles from where his adopted parents were still ministering.  Not only was the President a regular guest in his parent’s home, but Asa Dodge Smith’s passionate prayer that he might enter the ministry, proved highly influential in his eventual ordination. What seems to have had the greatest impact on him, though, were the times of prayer. Despite having compulsory chapel and church attendance, half of the class participated in weekly prayer meetings, as he would write later, “according to the present Christian Endeavor custom” (Clark, 1922, p.47).

Foundations of the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor

In 1873, he enrolled at Andover Theological Seminary, after months of personal debate between pursuing an advanced degree in journalism or the ministry. In the end, his consternation appears unwarranted, as his prolific writing served as the primary means through which he served as the President of Christian Endeavor. While attending the Congregationalist seminary he came under the teaching of Dr. Edwards Park.  At this time Parks was the leading thinker in New England theology- holding to most of the ancient orthodox and Calvinistic elements of the faith, but denying total depravity (Kuklick, 1985, p. 192). Thus, like the theology of his famed teacher, the Society of Christian Endeavor would continually focus more on addressing the social implications of sin and how Endeavorers could be “redeemed” so that the individual could be set free from the culture of sin (Clark, 1925, p.693-698).

After graduating in the spring, Clark married Harriett Elizabeth Abbott on October 3rd, 1876 at the age of 25. That same year he also became the pastor of Williston Congregational Church in Portland, Maine. Although the church was only a four-year-old church plant, its suburb location quickly attracted many parishioners, growing from 50 to nearly 400 during his seven years there. Near the middle of his tenure, Clark began to see that the youth of the church, those approximately 13 to 30, were generally not engaged within the life of the church (Chaplin, 1902, p. 71; Clark, 1895, p.71-74). Clark did not agree with the prevailing practice of his day where “the distinctively religious thought was subordinated to the amusement idea” as the means of attracting youth to the church (Clark, 1895, p. 47). So Clark and his wife started multiple youth ‘groups’. Yet, neither the debating club, missions club, or Sunday-school prayer meetings, produced the desired connections. Then after months of sermons aimed toward membership, and a decidedly moving Week of Prayer, Clark finally began to see an increased desire and participation by the youth in the weekly prayer meetings (Clark, 1895, 66-70). He decided to solidify what was happening by creating the Williston Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor. At their first meeting in February of 1881, 57 young people signed their commitment to a weekly prayer meeting, as well as a monthly consecration and testimony meeting. Although it was relatively unheard of, Clark reasoned that the formation of a segregated youth society was essential to the spiritual vitality of these youth. This was because simply integrating them into the current prayer meetings of the church would assuredly remove all spiritual passion that that had been aroused (Clark, 1895, p. 66-70). He also believed that this kind of structure provided youth with a chance at immediate service that would not be open to them within the larger church structure. Clark wanted more for his youth and it is why he concluded, “Should they add simply to the numerical strength of the church by placing their names on the roll without adding to its spiritual vitality?” (Clark, 1895, p. 54). 

The Growth of the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor

Many did not agree with Clark and his methods, and as the concepts and organization of Christian Endeavor began to spread so did the dissenters (Clark, 1895, p. 94-97). The most common objections related to Society’s ultimate connection with the church. It was considered by many “a parasite that would suck the life blood of the church, . . .deplored (as) a ‘little church within the church . . . and, new-fangled societies outside of the church which were invented to do the very thing for which the church was established” (Clark, 1895, p. 95). Seemingly unfazed, Clark not only began to write more prolifically about the Society, he also began to travel more broadly in order to expand the ministry of the Society. It worked, and before the decade was up Christian Endeavor could be found on almost every continent across the globe and number nearly half a million members (Clark, 1895, p. 276). Clark attributes the ‘overnight’ success of the society to “thousands of young people’s prayer meetings (that) were already in existence”, but makes it clear, that he believes that it was through his creation of an “iron-clad” pledge and unique organizational structure, that the Society of Christian Endeavor ultimately succeeded (Clark, 1922, p. 84-85).

Due to the growing task of guiding the organization, Clark left Williston in 1883, to pastor a church in South Boston so that he could be nearer to the organizations offices. Yet, with the Society growing by leaps and bounds, he resigned in 1887 and took up the position of President to both the United Societies of Christian Endeavor (the North American union of the Society of Christian Endeavor) and of the World's Christian Endeavor Union (the International Union). As President, he wielded an incessant pen, writing nearly 40 books and innumerable articles for the organizational newspaper, the Golden Rule (later renamed the Christian Endeavor World).  Purchased in 1886, it was focused on “recording the news and defending the principles of Christian Endeavor” and soon achieved a weekly readership of nearly 100,000 (Clark, 1895, p. 200). While the newspaper and his many books spoke the heart of the Society, it was his incessant travels that provided a face. By the end of his nearly 40 years as President, he would embark on 19 international trips and 5 circumnavigations of the globe to both recruit and expand the organization which he loved (Clark, 1930, p.98).

Yet, despite its success at reaching youth, denominations soon began to fear its interdenominational focus. So, in 1889, the Methodist church became the first denomination to demand that the all their Christian Endeavor societies should henceforth to be known as the “Epworth League”. Other denominations, like the Baptist and Lutherans soon followed suit. Despite, their unique names and increasingly denominational ways of doing things, they still gathered together for yearly CE conventions (Clark, 1922, p.86). Because of Clark’s willingness to still give focus to his youth prayer movement, even with denominational factions, the Christian Endeavor Society which began with only 56 original members in 1881, numbered over 40 thousand societies and close to 2.5 million members by 1895 and was a purported force of almost 4 million at the time of Clark’s retirement in 1925 (Clark, Senter, 2010, p.167)

The End

Despite the innumerable youth who joined the ranks of Christian Endeavor, there was a growing problem. By the 1900’s, the Society was progressively becoming bifurcated- focusing on ministry to those in their 20’s to 30’s and, through their Juniors program, to children up to 13 (Chaplin, 1903, p.71). This is why W. Knight Chaplin,  a top leader in the Christian Endeavor Union of Great Britain and Ireland, observed, “in many cases that critical moment had arrived when some of the older boys and girls, enthusiastic Endeavourers, were feeling themselves “too big” for the Junior Society, and yet not old enough to take equal rank with their elders. This was a serious problem, and Dr. Clark was persuaded that its best solution would be found in the addition of an Intermediate Society or ‘teen age societies . . . for those between fourteen and eighteen or nineteen.” (p. 71).

It does not appear from the records that anything ever came of this, but it did serve as a sign of where the Society was headed. Soon after his death in 1929, Katherine Niles concluded in her survey of the health of Christian Endeavor societies that, “Their forms and techniques, which remain much the same as they were in the beginning are no longer suited to modern society.” (Chaplin, 1903, p. 534). In the end, it seems that Christian Endeavor’s great success at segregated ministry to youth proved to be their demise. As segregation bred further segregation, they could not adapt, and the largest youth ministry in history quickly faded into the foundational shadows.

Works Cited

     Chaplin, W. K. (1903). Francis E. Clark.  Nottingham, UK: J&J Vice, Ltd.

     Clark, Francis E. (1922). Memories of many men in many lands. An autobiography. Boston, MA: United Society of Christian Endeavor.

     Senter, M. (2010). When God shows up: A history of Protestant youth ministry in America. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

     Niles, K. (1929). A survey and critique of Young People’s Societies. Religious Education, 24, 526-535.

Contributions to Christian Education

When Francis Clark began the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor in 1881, he would have had no idea the long-term impact his Society would have on the Christian education of youth. Basing much of his thought off the recent work of Horace Bushnell, he conceived of Christian Endeavor being a powerful means of “Christian nurture of the young people who voluntarily join(ed) its ranks” (Clark, 1882, p.52). Continuing to follow the lead of his fellow Congregationalist minister, Clark worked in almost direct opposition to the revivalist spirit of the age. Believing that waiting until such times that personal depravity were well understood was the least effective means of calling the young to Christ and His Church (Clark, 1882, p. 13-14). On the contrary, Clark, like Bushnell believed that children were fully capable of taking their rightful place within the church. After all, he had done so when he was just 13, and could therefore conclude, that “while I believe heartily in revivals, and in many revivalists, and in special periods of religious awakening, I also believe” in the same type of conversion experience that he encountered (Clark, 1922, p. 39). In the end, he argued, if youth were not indoctrinated into Christian thought early on in life, then they would ultimately not be able to become the type of Christians desired in adulthood (Clark, 1882, p. 21-26).

As Bushnell and his thoughts seemed to have influenced Clark’s philosophy of ministry, so Dr. Theodore Cuyler, an eminent Presbyterian pastor in Brooklyn, seems to have influenced the focus of the organization (Clark, 1882, p. 39). Writing about the impact of the prayer meetings that he had instituted for the youth of his church, Clark happened on the idea and it piqued his curiosity. He had long believed that entertainment was not the most effective means to engage youth with the church (Clark, 1895, p.47). So, Cuyler’s prayer meetings seemed quite appealing. Yet, beyond setting prayer as the focal point of the society, Cuyler and his methods, seem to have had little impact on the ultimate shape and global success of Christian Endeavor (Clark, 1922, p. 84-85).

In the end, what Clark created in his Society of Christian Endeavor was a distinctly different way of engaging with youth.  Clark’s inception of the Christian Endeavor pledge, immediate involvement for youth in current and segregated ministry, a focus on international growth, weekly institutional publishing, and yearly inter-denominational conventions would not just serve as an exceptional foundation for Christian Endeavor, but would lead Senter to conclude, “It was the growth . . . of the Society of Christian Endeavor that shaped modern youth ministry” (Senter, 2010, p. 167).  

The Christian Endeavor  Pledge

The Christian Endeavor pledge was considered by Clark to be the primary distinctive of the Society (Clark, 1922, p. 84-85). So passionate was he regarding the pledge that he takes a whole chapter, entitled “The Battle-Ground of the Society” to explain why societies should never consider dropping the pledge.  The taking of pledges was common in the temperance movements of the day, but Clark put a distinctly prayerful spin on it. This is because Clark concluded, that “ I have never known of a society to fail except those before specified, whose failure could not be traced directly or indirectly to an unwillingness on the part  of its members to accept this pledge or live up to it” (Clark, 1895, p. 105). Although most youth ministries today do not require their students to take a pledge, the regular presence of accountability groups and student leadership teams points back to the importance of the first Christian Endeavor pledge in ministry with youth.

Focus on Current and Segregated Ministry

It seems that keeping youth connected to the church has been an eternal issue. In Clark’s day, his fellow ministers regularly eschewed the necessity of entertainment and food if youth were to remain (1895, p.47-48). This was because they were not considered capable of providing leadership for the congregation. Neither was their participation or involvement considered valuable in its weekly prayer meetings (1895, p.66-70). Clark adamantly disagreed. Yet, instead of attempting to reform the view of the adults in the congregation, he simply created a segregated youth organization. Its focus was to let youth work for the kingdom through weekly prayer meetings and committee work for the Society. His belief was that this precocious involvement would lead to greater involvement in the church (Clark,1895, p.311). Many youth ministries have followed that same path and are still debating the fruits of this approach.

International Engagement

In 1888, Clark took his first of 19 international trips. Over and again, he pointed to these trips as the foundation of the Society’s exceptional growth (Clark, 1925). It is no wonder, for in a world without planes or phones, his personal presence provided encouragement and support to Endeavor’s across the world. In the future, organizations like Youth for Christ and Youth With a Mission would send their Presidents and greatest leaders around the world to not just spread the gospel, but the organization that they represented. Clark pioneered this work, and through it, built the largest Christian youth organization to date.  

Institutional Publishing

When Christian Endeavor purchased The Golden Rule in 1886, it opened a branch of youth ministry that had never been utilized to this extent. Soon reaching a weekly audience of 100,000 the renamed, Christian Endeavor World provided regular advice on administering the societies, encouragement in the work and connected the reader to larger work being accomplished through the combined efforts of CE Societies throughout the globe (Clark, 1930, p. 98). Years later Mike Yaconelli and Thom Schultz would also use publishing as the primary means to encourage and support the work of youth ministers. Although Youth Specialties and Group never sought to propagate a unique expression of youth ministry, in following Clark’s publishing lead, they helped to expand ministry to youth on a global scale.

Inter-Denominational Interactions

At a time when denominationalism was at its peak in American Christianity, Christian Endeavor was seen as a great gift to youth and the church, as well as a great cause for concern. It did not take long for the Methodist to declare that all Methodist congregations that wished to continue to use the Christian Endeavor methods would need become part of the uniquely Methodist form of the organization. Other denominations soon followed suit (Clark, 1925, p. 85). Yet despite these denominational factions the Society managed to continue as a unified movement because of Clark’s ability to adjust. His refocused emphasis on yearly national conventions and state organized unions not only saved the movement, it infused it with interdenominational life. Yet again, Clark’s expansive vision helped to spread ministry to youth and, in time, would serve as an impetus for the use of rallies, conferences and conventions in  modern youth ministry.

In conclusion, Francis Clark, set the stage for much that is seen in modern youth ministry. Basing the philosophy of his Society off the work of Horace Bushnell and the practice of Theodore Cuyler, he created the largest youth ministry to date. By improving on current practice and developing his own unique means, his Society of Christian Endeavor forever changed the face of ministry to youth. It also presented future ministers with a toolbox of concepts that would continually be adapted to both grow and develop their ministries. All of this, is why Cannister can conclude, that “Christian Endeavor and its denominational clones are best identified as the first significant Christian education movements for adolescents” (Cannister, 2001, p. 86)

Works Cited

Cannister, M.(2001).Youth ministry’s historical context: The education and evangelism of young people. In  Dean, K., Clark, C. & Rahn, D. (Eds.), Starting right: Thinking theologically about youth ministry (pp. 77-90). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Clark, E.  (1930). A son’s portrait of Dr. Francis E. Clark. Boston, MA: Williston Press.

Clark, F. (1882). The children and the Church and the Young People’s Society, as a means of bringing them together. Boston, MA: Congregational Sunday-School and Publishing Society.

  Senter, M. (2010). When God shows up: A history of Protestant youth ministry in America. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.



Clark, F. E. (1874) Our vacations. Estes and Lauriat.

___. (1877) Life of William E. Harwood. Portland: Hoyt, Fogg, and Dunham.

___. (1882) The children and the church. Congregational Publishing Society.

___. (1883) Our business boys. Lothrop.

___. (1883) Looking out on life. Lothrop.

___. (1884) Danger signals. Lee and Shepard.

___. (1887) Young peoples prayer meetings. Funk and Wagnalls.

___. (1890) Ways and means. Lothrop.

___. (1890) Christian Endeavor saints. Pilgrim Press.  

___. (1894) Our journey around the world. Worthington.

___. (1889) The mossback correspondence. Lothrop.

___. (1898) The everlasting arms. Crowell.

___. (1898) The great secret. United Society of Christian Endeavor.

___. (1898) Fellow travellers. Fleming H. Revell Company.

___. (1895) World-wide endeavor. Gillespie and Metzgar.

___. (1898) Old lanterns for new paths. United Society of Christian Endeavor.

___. (1900) A new way around an old world. Harper Brothers.

___. (1900) My mothers journal. United Society of Christian Endeavor.

___. (1902) Training the church of the future. Funk and Wagnalls.

___. (1903) Christian Endeavor manual. United Society of Christian Endeavor.

___. (1899) The presence of God. United Society of Christian Endeavor.

___. (1899) Living and loving.  United Society of Christian Endeavor.

___. (1899) The kingdom within. United Society of Christian Endeavor.

___. (1899) The golden alphabet. United Society of Christian Endeavor.

___. (1906) Christian Endeavor in all lands. Winston.

___. (1907) The gospel in Latin lands. Macmillan.

___. (1917) The continent of opportunity. Revell.

___. (1910) Similes and figures from Alexander Maclaren. Revell.

___. (1912) Old homes of new Americans.  Houghton Mifflin Company.

___. (1912) The holy land of Asia Minor. Scribners.

___. (1914) In Christs own country. Christian Herald.

___. (1914) The charm of Scandinavia. Little, Brown, and Company.

___. (1916) Christ and the young people. Revell.

___. (1917) In the footsteps of St. Paul. Putnam.

___. (1919) Our Italian fellow citizens. Small, Maynard, and Co.

___. (1920) The gospel of out-of-doors. Kessinger Publishers.

___. (1922) Memories of many men in many lands. United Society of Christian Endeavor. 

Other Resources About Francis E. Clark and Christian Endeavor

Christian Endeavor Website:

Cannister, M.(2001).Youth ministry’s historical context: The education and evangelism of young people. In  Dean, K., Clark, C. & Rahn, D. (Eds.), Starting right: Thinking theologically about youth ministry (pp. 77-90). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Chalmers, T. (1893). The juvenile revival; Or the philosophy of the Christian Endeavor Movement. St. Louis: Christian Publishing Company.

  Chaplin, W. K. (1903). Francis E. Clark.  Nottingham, Great Britain: J&J Vice, Ltd.

Clark, E.  (1930). A son’s portrait of Dr. Francis E. Clark. Boston, MA: Williston Press.

  Niles, K. (1929). A survey and critique of Young People’s Societies. Religious Education, 24, 526-535.

Pollock, J. (1929). The British manual of Christian Endeavor (7th. Ed.). London: Christian Endeavor Union of Great Britain and Ireland.

  Pratt, D. (1891). A decade of Christian Endeavor. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company.

  Senter, M. (2010). When God shows up: A history of Protestant youth ministry in America. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Wells, A. (1896). Prayer meeting methods: How to prepare for and conduct Christian Endeavor prayer meetings and similar gatherings. Boston: United Society of Christian Endeavor.

Excerpts from Publications

Clark, F.E. (1882). The children and the Church and the Young Peoples Society, as a means of bringing them together. Boston: Congregational Sunday-School and Publishing Society.

  “We have already related how this society seeks the Christian nurture of the young people who voluntarily join its ranks. Let us attempt to explain how it seeks to make church membership safe and useful for the youngest Christians who come under its influences. In the first place, it is a half-way house to the church. . .  In the second place, the Society of Christian Endeavor is a training school within the church. . . In the third place, the Young Peoples Society of Christian Endeavor is a watch-tower for the church (p. 52-59)

Clark, F.E. (1895). World-wide Endeavor: The story of the Young Peoples Society of Christian Endeavor from the beginning and in all lands. Philadelphia: Gillespie, Metzger & Kelley.

Christian Endeavor Pledge:

“Trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ for strength, I promise Him that I will strive to do whatever He would like to have me do; that I will make it the rule of my life to pray and to read the Bible every day , and to support my own church in every way, especially by attending all her regular Sunday and mid-week services, unless prevented by some reason which I can conscientiously give to my Savior; and that, just so far as I know how, throughout my whole life, I will endeavor to lead a Christian life. As an active member, I promise to be true to all my duties, to be present at and to take some part, aside from singing, in every Christian Endeavor prayer meeting, unless hindered by some reason which I can conscientiously give to my Lord and Master. If obliged to be absent for the monthly consecration meeting of the Society, I will, if possible, send at least a verse of Scripture to be read in response to my name at the roll call.”( p.104)

Clark, F.E. (1922). Memories of many men in many lands. Boston: United Society of Christian Endeavor.

I am particularly impressed in my devotional moments with Gods underserved goodness in giving me my special work in the world. Realizing my limitations of intellect and soul, I wonder that He called me to start, and in some measure to develop, the work of the Christian Endeavor Society. . .  This is no mock humility. The underserved eulogies with which I am sometimes introduced on the platform, often make me cringe and cover my face, for I realize, as no one else can, how small has really been my part, and how all-embracing Gods part has been in fitting this cause to the time, and in commissioning a multitude of young men and women for the special tasks He has given them through Christian Endeavor. (p. 691-692)

Clark, F.E. (1882). The children and the Church and the Young Peoples Society, as a means of bringing them together. Boston: Congregational Sunday-School and Publishing Society.

Explains the philosophy of ministry and examples which spurred the creation of a young people’s Society for their Christian nurture. It also provides a defense for the existence of the Society and ideas for its propagation.

Clark, F.E. (1895). World-wide Endeavor: The story of the Young Peoples Society of Christian Endeavor from the beginning and in all lands. Philadelphia: Gillespie, Metzger & Kelley.

Covers the rapid expansion of the Society of Christian Endeavor from its preliminary conception to its near apex. Special attention is given to the organizational structures, people, travels and conventions that fostered this growth.

Clark, F.E. (1922). Memories of many men in many lands. Boston: United Society of Christian Endeavor.

Largely an autobiography of Clark’s life with a special focus on the Society which he founded. It is also the most in-depth retelling of the many trips and people with which he interacted during his years of incessant travel for the Society. 

Author Information

Jason Lanker

Jason Lanker (Ph.D., Talbot School of Theology, Biola University) is currently Assistant Professor and Director of the Youth Ministry program at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, AR.