On a Saturday afternoon in August, 1806, five Williams College students, Congregationalists in background, gathered in a field to discuss the spiritual needs of those living in Asian countries. When a thunderstorm arose they took shelter in the lee of a haystack and continued to pray.
This gathering came to be called "The Haystack Prayer Meeting," launching the modern mission movement. Within a few years, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) was formed and sent some of the first American Protestant missionaries to other lands.
The History of the Haystack Prayer Meeting
Five Williams College students met in the summer of 1806, in a grove of trees near the Hoosack River, then known as Sloan's Meadow, and debated the theology of missionary service. Their meeting was suddenly interrupted by a thunderstorm and the students: Samuel J. Mills, James Richards, Francis L. Robbins, Harvey Loomis, and Byram Green took shelter under a haystack until the sky cleared. "The brevity of the shower, the strangeness of the place of refuge, and the peculiarity of their topic of prayer and conference all took hold of their imaginations and their memories."
In 1808 the Haystack Prayer group and other Williams students began a group called "The Brethren." This group was organized to "effect, in the persons of its members, a mission to" those who were not Christians. In 1812, the ABCFM sent its first missionaries - to the Indian subcontinent.
Samuel Mills became the Haystack person with the greatest influence on the modern mission movement. He played a role in the founding of the American Bible Society and the United Foreign Missionary Society.
Through the work of Byram Green, a monument was erected in Mission Park in Williamstown, MA in 1867 to honor the five men involved in the Haystack prayer meeting. In 1906 a gathering took place in Mission Park at Williams College in Massachusetts to remember the prayer meeting of one hundred years before. In the summer of 2006, those committed to mission today will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Haystack prayer meeting.
As well as being the first documented resolution ever made by Americans to begin foreign missionary work, the 1806 Haystack meeting has been credited with leading to the formation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). The ABCFM gave students an opportunity to go abroad and spread the teachings of Christianity.
In its first fifty years, the ABCFM sent out over 1250 missionaries. Most were from the smaller towns and farm villages of New England. Few were affluent, but many were trained in colleges where they received a classical education, which included Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. When they reached the mission field, they were able to translate the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew into difficult and often previously unwritten languages. They built educational systems in their lands of ministry and were often called upon to advise foreign governments.
Missionary reports were printed in the Missionary Herald, the magazine of the American Board established in 1821. For many Christians in America, the Missionary Herald was their window to the world. Descriptions of native customs, history, economic activities, and geographical features were included along with accounts of the influence of the Gospel on these far off lands. In a day before TV, radio, or rapid communications, such missionary reports became prime information for many Americans about foreign lands.
The ABCFM saw to it that schools and hospitals were established in all the mission fields. Native leaders were trained to continue the work of the ministry.
In 1961 the American Board merged to form the United Church Board for World Missions (UCBWM). After 150 years, the American Board had sent out nearly 5000 missionaries to 34 different fields, and it all began with five young men praying in a haystack.
In 2000, the UCBWM evolved into Wider Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ, which still exists today and is involved in mission around the world through Global Ministries, in partnership with the Division of Overseas Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).