The first Urbana conference was actually held in Toronto, Canada.
The year was 1946. Barely a year had passed since the end of the most destructive war in history. It was an era when the global mission of the church was being revitalized through World War II veterans who felt a burden for the countries they saw ravaged by war.
Students from across Canada and the United States gathered at the University of Toronto to investigate God's call to world evangelization. That gathering drew 575 students from 151 schools. InterVarsity in the United States was then only five years old. But as a movement, InterVarsity started more than a hundred years earlier in England. In 1929, the student movement began a mission work to the colleges and universities of Canada.
Before another decade had passed, student groups began forming in several universities in the U.S., such as the University of Michigan, Drexel, Wayne State, Michigan State and the University of Washington, and InterVarsity-Canada had appointed staff to pioneer student work in the United States. The constitution of InterVarsity/USA was adopted September 2, 1941.
The Urbana student missions conference drew on these roots, as well as the Student Foreign Missions Fellowship (SFMF). The latter was organized in 1936 by Christian college students and Dr. Robert McQuilkin, president of Columbia Bible College. InterVarsity/USA and SFMF merged in 1945, with the SFMF serving as the missions arm of InterVarsity on Christian college campuses.
In a letter immediately following that historic first meeting in Toronto, conference director and InterVarsity General Secretary Stacey Woods wrote:
We are praying that this convention might be just the beginning of a mighty missionary movement on the part of thousands of Christian students throughout North America. We hope that we may be an instrument in God's hands, not only as a home mission, preaching the Gospel to America’s college students, but also as a foreign missionary recruiting agency ... supplying a stream of trained missionary candidates, a pool of consecrated manpower for the evangelization of the world.
Two years later, in 1948, the conference was relocated to the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Total registration increased to 1,331, with 254 schools represented. A tradition had begun.
Inter-Varsity of Canada and InterVarsity/USA have been engaging the campus with the gospel of Jesus Christ for over 70 years, and it is apparent that God has answered Stacey Woods' prayer in ways he could never have imagined. Since 1946, God has used Urbana to challenge nearly 300,000 participants with their responsibility and privilege in global missions.