In the fall of 2007, my family and I spent a week in western Massachusetts. While there, we visited Williams College in Williamstown. We had read that this college was the place where the famous Haystack Prayer Meeting took place and that there was a monument there commemorating that event. So, we set out to find the monument. It didn't take long. The first student that came along while we walked up to the campus from the parking lot told us the monument was out back among some trees. A short walk brought us to the place where the birthplace of foreign missions in America took place.
This very special event took place about 200 years ago. Today, it is mostly forgotten except for those who study missions. Williams College is now a well known secular college with little there to indicate that once upon a time a great revival took place and five dedicated students meeting under a haystack to pray committed themselves to foreign missions. Though its students today may have noticed the monument, few realize its significance or know very little about what it stands for.
Few realize today that 200 years ago great revivals were breaking out all over America. It was the beginning of the Second Great Awakening and it lasted for twenty five years or more. From the west to the east and from north to the south, revival fires were burning. Iain Murray in his book on revivals writes, "The speed and extent with which Christian churches were revitalized and multiplied at the beginning of the nineteenth century constitutes the era before us as the most important in the whole period under consideration in these pages. More than that, the Second Great Awakening has to be one of the most significant turning-points in church history. 'One of the most remarkable and extensive revivals ever known has passed over this people', Reed and Matheson wrote in 1835." (From Revival & Revivalism, p. 117.)
Rev. Edward D. Griffin, President of Williams College, looking back on the revivals that took place there in the early part of the 19th century wrote in 1832, "The earliest revival known to this town commenced in the spring of 1805 and continued between two and three years. It soon extended to the College, where five began to hope. In the spring of 1806 a new impulse was given to the work. That spring was made memorable to the College by the admission to its bosom of those distinguished young men, Samuel John Mills and Gordon Hall....Mills had devoted himself to the cause of missions from the commencement of his new existence, and by the influence of that revival he was enabled to diffuse his spirit through a choice circle who raised this College to the distinction of being the birthplace of American missions." (Lectures on Revivals by W. B. Sprague, p. 406-407)
It was Samuel Mills who led the above named students in the famous prayer meeting that took place on a hot Saturday afternoon in August in a meadow north of the college. (the place where the monument is located today) There were other prayer meetings being led by students on the campus as a result of the revivals. This particular prayer meeting concentrated on missions. They had met that afternoon to discuss William Carey's booklet entitled An Inquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen. This booklet taught that it was the responsibility of all believers to be concerned about world missions. While they met, a thunderstorm suddenly came upon them and they had to scramble to find cover which they did under a haystack. As Mills continued to lead the discussion under their shelter of hay, he insisted that the gospel must be taken to the lost of Asia. After their time of prayer and singing a hymn together, Mills in the midst of the pouring rain cried out, "We can do this, if we will!" The hearts of the five were set on fire for missions as a result of this prayer meeting. They consecrated themselves to obey the Great Commission and take the gospel to all the nations.
These students felt it was the job of America to send out its own missionaries. So, they proposed to the General Association of Massachusetts that the first American missions agency be created. In 1810, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was formed and Adoniram Judson was among the first group to sent out to India. Mills inspired the formation of other agencies such as the United Foreign Missionary Society, the American Baptist Missionary Union, and the American Bible Society.
Immediately, the Haystack Prayer Movement became know all over the area especially among college students. Mills, in 1808, began a group called the Society of Brethren, which bound themselves together for the purpose of giving themselves to extend the gospel around the world. Through these initial of efforst of Mills and the others, several mission agencies began to be formed on campuses all across the country.
Claude Hickman in an article on the Haystack Prayer Meeting writes, "Today the Haystack Prayer Monument stands at Williams College as a reminder of what God did, not only in the lives of the five, but also in the life of Luther Wishard 80 years later. Luther, inspired by the Haystack Prayer Movement, initiated the mobilization of 100,000 college students through the Student Volunteer Movement. That moment in 1806 under the haystack was the spark for the greatest missionary movement that the world has ever seen." - See more on the Student Volunteer Movement at http://www.svm2.net/page/page/1931217.htm
Missions were rooted in and came out of the burning fires of revival in America. This country became a great missionary sending nation because God poured out His Spirit in a mighty way in the early part of the 19th century. When the Holy Spirit is poured out in power, the gospel advances. Just as at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came and the gospel spread all over the world. Missions were born in Revival. May God pour out His Spirit once again in our day that the Gospel may go forth with renewed vigour and that nations and peoples may be won to Christ and His Kingdom expanded. May great nations be reclaimed for the gospel that were once in the fold of Christ. May the words of Isaac Watt's famous hymn come to life once again, "Jesus shall reign where'er the sun does his successive journey run; His kingdom stretch from shore to shore, till moons shall wax and wane no more..." (1719).
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