Part 1: Earliest Missionary Efforts
This is a reprint of The Haystack Prayer Meeting. It was written by Edward Warren Capen, PH.D. president of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, now Global Ministries, and published as one of the 1906 Envelope Series. Subscribers paid 10 cents per year for the series.
PLEASE NOTE: This piece was written in 1906 and therefore reflects the language of that time.
All the American colonies had a professed missionary purpose. Thus the charter of the Virginia Company, granted in 1606, just two hundred years before the haystack meeting, provided that the colonists were to undertake to propagate “the Christian religion to such people as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God, and may in time bring the infidels and savages living in those parts to human civility and to a settled and quiet government.”
The missionary spirit was especially marked among the settlers of New England. Thus Winslow in his “Brief Narration” declared one purpose of the Pilgrims to be that they might “not only be a means to enlarge the dominion of the English state, but the church of Christ also, if the Lord had a people among the natives whither he would bring them.” To the Puritan colonists who settled in and around Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Company gave instructions that the propagating of the Gospel was “the thing they do profess above all to be their aim in settling this plantation.” The first shield of the colony was the device of an Indian with the legend, “Come over and help us.”
Though this was the avowed and real purpose of the colonists in New England, yet it was some time before systematic missionary work was undertaken by them. One reason for this was that they had underestimated the difficulties they would encounter; and the necessity of securing homes, food, and good order absorbed their energies to the full. Besides, for about twenty years it was held that the pagan Indians were to be won by exhibiting to them the colonists’ civilization. Even the apostle to the Indians, John Eliot, declared many years later regarding them, “I confess I think no great good will be done till they be more civilized;” and the early colonists held that the Indians were to be civilized before they could be Christianized. They therefore followed the method adopted in Virginia in 1618, and took into their homes Indian boys and girls to train in civilized methods of living. This effort was by no means fruitless. Many Indians became acquainted with the religious views of their masters.
About twenty-five years after the settlement of Plymouth, the people of Massachusetts were ready for more aggressive work, and under the lead of Rev. John Eliot of Roxbury and Thomas Mayhew, father and son, of Martha’s Vineyard, a fruitful work was begun which was interrupted and all but ruined by the revulsion of feeling caused by King Philip’s War, 1675. The news of the early achievements of Eliot aroused the people of England to an interest in the American Indians. The first of several societies was organized, which worked through local committees in the colonies until the Revolutionary War.