Haystack: Samuel J. Mills

Haystack: Samuel J. Mills

Samuel John Mills was born in Torringford, Connecticut, April 21, 1783 and died at sea, June 16, 1818. He graduated Williams College in 1809, and Andover Theological Seminary in 1812. While in college he determined to devote his life to missionary work, and in 1810 addresses that he and several of his classmates made before the General Association of Massachusetts resulted in the formation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM).

In the early 1800’s, the United States was swept by religious revivalism and many people were converted in the wake of the newly born religious fervor. The movement reached Williams College, resulting in the formation of a succession of student religious societies.

Samuel J. Mills is credited in the foundation of one of the earliest, the “Brethren,” in 1808, along with Ezra Fisk, James Richards, John Seward and Luther Rice. Mills’ calling was to inspire fellow students to missionary action which he saw as the primary duty of all Christians.

It was in August 1806 at a small prayer meeting under a haystack that Mills was inspired with the idea of sending missionaries abroad. In 1808, he organized a “Society of Brethren,” the first foreign missionary society “to effect, in the persons of its members, a mission to the heathen.” The Society’s existence was kept secret, but membership grew and spread to other campuses. By 1810 the Society’s influence resulted in the creation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM).

During 1812-13, Mills was an exploring agent of the Massachusetts and Connecticut missionary societies in the west and southwest, and in 1814-15, he served as missionary and Bible agent in the southwest.

While in New Orleans during the early part of 1815, he was unable to purchase a single Bible in that city, and, in consequence, he procured a supply in both the French and English languages, and distributed many. Finding that thousands of families in the south and west did not have a Bible, he suggested the formation of a national society. His efforts contributed to the establishment of the American Bible Society in May, 1816, and meanwhile, on June 21, 1815, he was ordained.

Subsequently the education of African-Americans claimed his attention, and in 1816 the synod of New York and New Jersey established a school for the education of young men of color who wished to be preachers and teachers. After the school was established, Mills became its agent in the middle states, and was successful in obtaining funds for its support.

The American colonization society was founded in 1817, and Mills was chosen to explore on its behalf the coast of western Africa and select the most eligible site for a settlement. He reached Africa in March, 1818, spent two months on the continent, and began his homeward voyage in May. He died at sea on June 16, 1818, returning from his labors in Africa.

Mr. Mills was called the “Father of foreign mission work in Christian America.” Religious societies used his name to honor the tradition of piety and service that he inspired with the formation of the foreign mission movement in America. Williams College commemorated his contribution with the erection of the Haystack Monument in Mission Park.