Haystack Monument dates to storm in 1806

Haystack Monument dates to storm in 1806

Bicentennial to be marked at Williams

WILLIAMSTOWN — Pilgrims do not need a special occasion to visit the Haystack Monument on the Williams College campus.

The 12-foot tall marble marker, topped by a globe, represents the global vision of five college students who met at the site in 1806 and started a Christian missionary movement that continues today.

College chaplain the Rev. Richard Spalding admits he was not well versed in the Haystack movement when he arrived on campus in 2000.

His education began with a pilgrim’s question.

“In the summer of 2000, I had been here for two weeks and someone came into my office asking me to point them toward the Haystack Monument,” Spalding recalled recently.

“To be honest, I knew very little about the Haystack tradition when I came here. As a mainline Protestant, it is part of my history, but not a part that I knew a lot about.”

Six years later, Spalding is spending his summer planning the bicentennial celebration of that first Haystack prayer meeting.

The story goes that the five students met on an August afternoon for their regular weekly outdoor prayer meeting, but a thunderstorm forced them to seek shelter beneath a haystack. It was there that they “resolved to spend their lives in service, carrying their faith ‘into all the world,’ ” according to a brochure promoting the bicentennial celebration.

Today, the monument on the north side of Williams’ campus bears the names of the “Haystack guys,” as Spalding refers to them: Byram Green, Harvey Loomis, Samuel J. Mills, James Richards and Francis L. Rob-bins.

But their legacy is in the Christian organizations of various faiths who trace their roots to the Williamstown site.

In addition to the official college celebration, scheduled for Sept. 22-24, at least one other national group, the California-based Student Volunteer Movement, plans a meeting at the college Aug. 14-16.

Another group, the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, will have a Haystack meeting Sept. 28-30 in Madison, Wis.

Part of Haystack legacy is missionary work in the traditional sense: traveling to non-Christian lands, often in developing nations, and spreading the Gospel.

But Haystack missions are often closer to home, Spalding said.

“Part of what’s so interesting about looking at Haystack through the lens of 2000 is that the word ‘mission’ means so many things to different Christians,” he said. “For some, the word is a name for witnessing and sharing faith. That is probably the most common meaning in the vernacular.

“When you say missionary work, you’re talking about people hoping to bring people to Christ. But there are a great many people, including some of the five original Haystack guys, who think about bringing compassion and a call for justice and equality and mercy — bringing those dispositions out into the world and planting them.”

Spalding chose to plant his bicentennial celebration on a weekend in September instead of August, when the first Haystack meeting occurred, for two reasons:

First, no one knows for sure the exact date of the 1806 meeting, and second, the September date will give Williams’ students a chance to attend the symposiums, panel discussions and prayer meetings being organized by Spalding and the Rev. Carrie Bail, pastor at Williamstown’s First Congregational Church. Bail said the Haystack anniversary is an opportunity to reach out to young people and also learn from them.

“My hope would be that we either have to inspire people or it may be a two-way street,” Bail said. “We may need to learn to listen to young people so that we can interpret their desire to be of service.

“If you go back to the original (Haystack) story. … The young men who were prayerfully engaged in this activity of thinking about foreign mission did so sort of on their own and very secretively for a number of years because either they were afraid the older generation was going to laugh at them or wasn’t going to help them.”

Bail said today’s “older generation” should not assume that young people do not have the impulse to do God’s work. Rather it is the job of the elders to figure out how to enable youngster to do so.

And although today’s student body is more diverse, less Christian and more secular than the one that produced the “Haystack guys,” Spalding and Bail agreed that the Haystack tradition still resonates on campus. Spalding said this summer has seen an increase in the number of Christian pilgrims arriving by car or bus to pause and pray at the monument.

And five years ago, the monument was a powerful symbol on a terrible night.

“On the night of Sept. 11, 2001, Williams marked the catastrophe with a multifaith, omnitradition service in the college chapel,” Spalding said. “That is my style, and it felt like what we needed on that particular night.

“A number of Christian students wanted to pray on that catastrophic night in a uniquely Christian context. They met at the Haystack site by candlelight and held their prayer service there.”

By Stephen Dravis, Transcript Correspondent
reprinted from The North Adams Transcript