The Field is the World

The Field is the World

May 23, 2006

A six-part series of reflections by the Rev. Dr. John C. Lombard on the occasion of the 200th Anniversary of the Haystack Prayer Meeting led by Samuel J. Mills, Jr., at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, in August of 1806.

The Field Is the World Part 1

March 29, 2006

The first in a series of reflections by the Rev. Dr. John C. Lombard on the occasion of the 200th Anniversary of the Haystack Prayer Meeting led by Samuel J. Mills, Jr., at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, in August of 1806.

Matthew 13:38a

The Haystack Prayer Meeting of 1806 did not happen in a vacuum. In fact, it occurred in the midst of the Second Great Awakening, one of three Great Awakenings in America identified by historians as notable for its surge in religious vitality in American life. Scholars differ as to its precise timeframe, but it is safe to place the Second Great Awakening in the period 1790 to 1840. It was born of a time of moral decline along with the distress and distractions of a new nation emerging out of the Revolutionary War. Many educated Americans no longer professed traditional Christian beliefs, secularism seemed to be on the rise, and religious revivalism, in reaction to overemphasis on ritual, reason, cultural accommodation, and doctrinal or ideological correctness at the expense of personal religious experience, emerged as a major fact of American life.

The Second Great Awakening occurred in all parts of the young nation, but it was especially strong in the northeast and midwest. It fueled many moral and social reforms of the early 1800’s and created a kind of activist Christian. Born of an evangelical fervor to convert others and to correct all the problems and sins of what seemed to be a “ruined world,” these believers gave wings to a host of movements including temperance, moral reform, abolitionism, and the liberation of women. Considered by some to be the most extended religious revival in American history, the Second Great Awakening exercised a profound impact on American history in the short term and world history in the long term.

In contrast to the First Great Awakening of the 1730’s, the Second, while having its own widely attended revivals and camp meetings, was distinguished by far less hysteria and emotion, at least in the east. According to one historian, “unbelievers were awed by the ‘respectful silence’ of those bearing witness to their faith.”

In New England, the Second Great Awakening was fueled, in part, by opposition to Deism, a religious and philosophical belief embraced by the Enlightenment and its rational thinkers. Central to Deism was the view that God acted in history to create but then withdrew from interfering with the physical and moral laws of the universe. A common analogy is to compare the Deistic conception of God with that of a watchmaker who builds a watch, sets it in motion, and leaves it to function on its own without further intervention. For New England evangelicals who valued personal piety and conversion over schooling and theology, Deism proved unsatisfying if not utterly unpersuasive and a view to be fervently opposed.

Donald Scott of Queens College, City University of New York, offers insight into some of the major beliefs and theological themes informing the Second Great Awakening. Not only did they include an emphasis on the terrible sinfulness of human beings, but, perhaps even more significantly, they “harbored an unshakeable practical belief in the capacity of humans for moral action, in the ability of humans to turn away from sinful behavior and embrace moral action.” In short, sinful human beings had both the obligation and ability to repent, desist from sin, and be saved by God.

During the time of revival, the primary means of salvation was conversion. Conversion was less about belief, although it was essential to it, than it was about an intense and highly emotional experience resulting in the individual’s spiritual transformation or rebirth into a new relationship with God and the world through Christ. Scott would claim that, “The core of nineteenth century evangelicalism was the experience of conversion. Conversion was compelled by a set of clear ideas about the innate sinfulness of humans after Adam’s fall, the omnipotence of God – his awful power and his mercy – and, finally, the promise of salvation for fallen humankind through Christ’s death on the Cross as the atonement for human sin.” Furthermore, as a result of this religious experience, those Christians who believed themselves saved by God’s gracious mercy understood that they were to enlist in the self-sacrificial work of extending the Kingdom of God by reforming American society and preparing “the way for Christ’s Second Coming (which Jonathan Edwards had predicted would take place in the New World) by working unrelentingly to bring about the thousand-year reign of righteousness that would precede [Christ’s] return to earth.”

The above represents, in part, the American religious ethos and theological context in which the Haystack Prayer Meeting would come to pass in Williamstown, Massachusetts, in August 1806. The time seemed right if not ripe; five thoughtful, pious, and enthusiastic Williams College students were ready, feeling, as Harvey Rice, donator of the Haystack Monument in 1867 would say, that “God had a great work for them to do”; and the spirit of God was surely moving, awakening the world to the hope and promise of extending the realm of God’s love, reforming a needy world, and offering the hope of new life.

Rev. Dr. John C. Lombard serves as Senior Minister of Trinitarian Congregational Church (UCC) in Concord, Massachusetts.

The Field Is the World Part 2

March 29, 2006

The second in a series of reflections by the Rev. Dr. John C. Lombard on the occasion of the 200th Anniversary of the Haystack Prayer Meeting led by Samuel J. Mills, Jr., at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, in August of 1806.

Matthew 13:38a

The crowd gathered in Mission Park at Williams College in the Purple Valley of Williamstown, Massachusetts, on Sunday, July 28, 1867, to dedicate the newly constructed Missionary Monument commemorating the historic Haystack Prayer Meeting (HPM). Thirteen years earlier Byram Green, the last surviving member of the original five men of the HPM, had identified the precise spot of the 1806 event as being “northerly from the West College, near a maple grove, in a field that was then called Sloan’s meadow.” Subsequently, the alumni of Williams College rallied to raise $2500 to purchase ten acres at the junction of the Hoosack and Green Rivers in 1855 to be given to the College and known thereafter as Mission Park. Now, some twelve years later, a 12 foot monument of Berkshire marble surmounted with a 3 foot globe generously donated by Harvey Rice was to be dedicated, in Rice’s words, to “ever remain as an educator of coming generations, and as a landmark in the pathway of the citizen, student, and the stranger. And here may many a moral hero of the present, and of the future, stay his steps and make still higher and holier resolves. Nor let us, of the present generation, forget that we have a great work still to accomplish in the moral field — a field which is as broad as the earth, and in which we ought to renew our diligence, feeling assured that with the final triumph of truth, will come universal freedom, universal love, and universal brotherhood.”

According to the records of that day, “It was a fair afternoon [for the dedication service], with scattered clouds casting beautiful shadows upon the hill-sides. The heat was tempered by a slight breeze. The encircling mountains reposed beneath the alternating light and shadow in surpassing grandeur and beauty.” In short, the day amidst the beauty of the Berkshires was truly auspicious to commemorate the origins of a remarkable spirit of five young men of faith and vision, led by Samuel J. Mills, Jr. These were people who, with great courage and conviction, gave impetus and inspiration to the challenging task and arduous work of foreign mission not only through the ideals they embraced and the vision they shared but, more particularly, by their own personal commitment and self-consecration to become missionaries themselves.

The President of Williams College, Mark Hopkins, opened the ceremonies noting how, in the HPM event itself, “the world took no note…the meeting dispersed, and the place of it became unknown on this ground.” For five young men of deep thought, committed faith, high moral aspirations, great passion, and enthusiasm, however, even happenings of modest if not humble origin could become occasions of great opportunity when prayerfully considered and eagerly and optimistically pursued. Although “unknown to fame,” as Harvey Rice would observe, the five students “felt that God had a great work for them to do,” a compelling notion that history would validate in the opening decades of the nineteenth century. Afterall, when these individuals gathered in Sloan’s meadow on that now famous sultry August 1806 Saturday for their weekly prayer meeting and conversation, surely the thunderstorm which sent them scurrying to a nearby haystack for shelter could well have seemed to them something akin to a theophany opening the door to a new albeit unknown future and commissioning them to a life-changing mission and ministry.

In concluding his opening address at the 1867 Dedication of the Missionary Monument, President Hopkins commented as follows: “Monuments commemorate the past. This is well; but only as such commemoration strengthens the principles that underlie the event and movement commemorated. The stress and struggle of the missionary work are still upon us; the calls for help were never louder; and I can only hope that this shaft raises the mimic globe into the sunlight and poises it there, so the increasing and united efforts of Christians may lift a world, prostrate in sin, into the light of the Sun of Righteousness, and poise it in permanent obedience to the revealed will of God.”

The spirit of the Haystack Prayer Meeting lives on in the consecrated lives of many. It is especially notable in the lives of those who not only share the vision of a world lifted in love to a new sense of wholeness, fullness, and abundant life bathed in peace with justice but who, as well, have committed their own lives, if not their life’s work at some level, to the noblest values and virtues of the Christian faith as such liberating faith brings hope, help, and healing to all God’s people.

Rev. Dr. John C. Lombard serves as Senior Minister of Trinitarian Congregational Church (UCC) in Concord, Massachusetts.

The Field Is the World Part 3

May 23, 2006

The third in a series of reflections by the Rev. Dr. John C. Lombard on the occasion of the 200th Anniversary of the Haystack Prayer Meeting led by Samuel J. Mills, Jr., at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, in August of 1806.

Matthew 13:38a

“Can we dream of anything nobler and finer than this divine commission which our Lord gave to the church?” quotes  John Hewitt of James S. Dennis in Hewitt’s 1914 volume, Williams College and Foreign Missions.  “Is there any exploit of chivalry, any glory of military achievement, any attainment of scholarship, any service of culture, even any height or depth of patriotic or humanitarian sacrifice which can compare in simple  beauty, grandeur, and worth with this superb ministry, in God’s name, and at Christ’s command, to the soul of humanity?”  Admittedly, one could argue the contrary based upon one’s own values, ethic, world view, or personal life experience. Afterall,  heroes are made, if not born, in many walks of life and under all sorts of conditions and  circumstances.  Nevertheless, given the period of the Second Great Awakening  (1790-1840) and the deep convictions of people of faith, especially the newly converted with their sense of the serious sinfulness of human beings, the desperate state of a needy and fallen world, and the fervent desire to speak of salvation and seek it in one’s own life and the lives of others, the Great Commission of Jesus became a clarion call to a new generation of ardent Christians who, from humble origins but sincere desire, would step on to the world scene in an earnest way that few Americans of faith had previously dared venture.

Matthew (28:16-20) records at the very end of his gospel, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.  And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”  These last words of Jesus, commonly known as the Great Commission, have served since the beginning of the Church as the defining vision and empowering motivation for worldwide mission, evangelism, and the ecumenical cooperation inherent  therein.  This Commission was very much the backdrop for some young men of faith who found themselves as students at Williams College in the early 1800’s.  They would soon come to embody and express the Great Commission, and, in doing so, would demonstrate through their own lives of consecrated service, the truth of Hewitt’s claim in the preface to his book:  “It must not be forgotten that obedience to this command has ever called for not only strong faith and burning zeal, but for brave hearts and lofty heroism.”  Such was the make-up of those five Williams College students who  gathered in Sloan’s Meadow on an oppressively hot Saturday in August 1806 for their twice-weekly prayer meeting.

While numbers of Williams College students nurtured interests in religion and matters of faith even in an environment not always hospitable to the same, the five young men of   the Haystack Prayer Meeting (HPM) exhibited special passion about such matters, enough to engage in prayer and conversation each Wednesday and Saturday.  Two of the men were in the Class of 1808.  Byram Green was born in nearby Windsor, Massachusetts,  and Francis Le Baron Robbins was born in Norfolk, Connecticut.  Green initially entered ministry following graduation but, due to ill health, forsook a career in ministry for politics and life as a legislator, state senator, judge, and, ultimately, Congressman.  Hewitt would characterize him as “a man of marked honesty and benevolence,…always liberal and active in promoting the interests of civil and religious enterprises.”    Robbins, on the other hand, returned to Connecticut where he became a pastor.  Except for some limited missionary work in New Hampshire, he served the pastoral ministry.  Hewitt would observe of Robbins that “while his sermons were not of the highest order, he enjoyed eminent success as a pastor, and the church and society were uniformly prosperous during his ministry.”

The other three me of the HPM were in the Class of 1809.  James Richards, Jr.., was born in Abington, Massachusetts, and was the only one of the five men of Haystack who became an ordained missionary to Ceylon attendant upon completely some medical training.  Following his death at the end of his mission work, Richards was noted for his “patience under suffering, his faith  amid trials, his habitual cheerfulness and resignation to the divine will under affliction, his lively interest in every thing that related to the cause of Christ; — these and many other graces of a kindred nature reflect honor upon himself and upon the cause to which he was devoted.”

The two remaining members of the Class of 1809 who were participants in the HPM were Harvey Loomis and Samuel J. Mills, Jr., both born in Torringford, Connecticut.  In fact, both Loomis and Mills along with another Williams classmate, Orange Lyman, all came from the same Torringford Congregational Church where Mills’ father, Samuel J. Mills, Sr., served 64 years as the church’s first pastor, earning him a place in Ripley’s Believe It or Not.  Of the five  young men at the HPM, only Loomis opposed the notion of sending missionaries to Asia, fearing for their safety and preferring efforts be made in home missions.  Following graduation, Loomis went to Maine as a home missionary and subsequently became an ordained pastor of a church in Bangor.  Hewitt would comment that “in his principles and habits [Loomis] was the uncompromising Puritan, but in all his intercourse with his people he was ever the consistent Christian gentleman…Along with great firmness of character  and unusual moral courage, he combined rare self-possession and unusual tact…As a speaker he had a clear voice and fluent utterance, while his enunciation was remarkably distinct.  He is described as having the advantage of a fine person and a natural grace of manner, being rather tall, of commanding form, having a noble countenance and brilliant eye.”

The last of the men of Haystack was Samuel J. Mills, Jr.  It is intriguing to note that Mills, Loomis, and Robbins, all born amidst the gently rolling hills of Litchfield County, Connecticut, and all affected in varying degrees by the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening became related in time by virtue of family marriages.  More will be said of Mills in another essay.  Suffice it to say that Mills was first and foremost the leader and inspiration not only for the men of Haystack but for a transformative movement resulting from that gathering on a sultry summer Saturday in August 1806, a happening which had wide-ranging and worldwide implications for American mission at home and abroad.

Mills, Richards, Robbins,  Loomis, and Green had gathered for their twice-weekly prayer meeting and conversation.  To spare themselves the ridicule of those who were less religious if not totally secular in their orientation they met quietly and without fanfare  that they might preserve the integrity of their  devotions and discussion.  As college students they were engaged in classical studies including the study of geography.  They were particularly interested in Asia and considered with deep concern its people and their needs.  All five men were bright, pious, devout, eager, and enthusiastic, ready and able to see how God might use them.  When a thunderstorm suddenly arose, they quickly retreated to a nearby haystack.  Professor Albert Hopkins noted, “There were two (haystacks), we are informed; but it was under the northernmost one that Mills and his associates took sanctuary from the shower.  That south stack had a marketable value of so many dollars per ton, —it was fodder, and nothing more; but the north stack has acquired a wide fame, and is destined to acquire a fame still wider.”  Writing to Hopkins close to five decades after the HPM, Byram Green would comment on the significance of the occasion by claiming that the “prayer meeting becomes interesting to the Christian community, because it was then and there first proposed to send the gospel to the Pagans of Asia, and to the disciples of Mohammed.  The stack of hay stood northerly from the West College, near a maple grove, in a field that was then called Sloan’s meadow.  Samuel J. Mills,  James Richards, Francis L. Robbins, Harvey Loomis and Byram Green were present.  The afternoon was oppressively warm, which probably detained all those from the East College that usually attended, and some from the West.  We first went to the grove, expecting to hold our prayer meeting there, but a dark cloud was rising in the west, and it soon began to thunder and lighten, and we left the grove and went under the haystack to protect us from the approaching storm, which was soon realized.  The subject of conversation under the stack, before and during the shower, was the moral darkness of Asia.  Mills proposed to send the gospel to that dark and heathen land; and said that we could do it if we would.”  Mills further commended their conversation to God by saying, “Come, let us make it a subject of prayer under this haystack, while the dark clouds are going, and the clear sky is coming.”  The oft quoted utterance of Mills with respect to the notion of sending missionaries to farflung places, “We can do it if we will,” would reverberate through history and become the empowering theme and inspirational motive not only for making mission happen in novel ways in new places but, most importantly for the HPM, through the personal engagement and consecration of those responding to the call.

Who were these men of Haystack?  Perhaps Professor Albert Hopkins characterized them best on the occasion of the Missionary Jubilee celebration of the HPM in 1856.  In speaking of these good individuals of high virtues and humble origins, Hopkins observed that “they were remarkable for their zeal, and not less for their prudence.  With great enthusiasm they united sound judgment.  As is usual with youthful minds, hope was strongly developed; but it was balanced by caution.  With native impulses prompting them to look for immediate results, they had the grace of patient waiting.  Their powers of theorizing and planning were of a very high order; particularly was this true of Mills, whose mind was evidently highly constructive.  The men of the haystack were remarkable for their comprehension and breadth of their views, and at the same time they were men of detail.  With a lively and suggestive imagination, they possessed those qualities of sterling common sense, not the least precious part of that legacy which our New England youth have inherited from their Puritan ancestry.  But in describing the men of the haystack, we must add something to all this; yes, and a great deal, or our delineation will be sadly defective.  I observe, then that these were persons of enlarged philanthropy.  The trammels of sect were too narrow to confine them.  They held, in its broadest sense, the great doctrine of the brotherhood of man.  They had enlarged views of the capabilities of the gospel, of its moral adaptations as a universal remedy for the woes and guilt of man.  They were men of faith.  Their convictions were strong, not only in reference to the capabilities of Christianity, but in reference to its actual triumphs.  The few rays which gilded the distant summits, were to them ample pledges of day.  Nay, had there been no visible pledges, a ‘Thus saith the Lord’ would have been a sufficient guarantee.  But there is one crowning excellence wanting, which the men of the haystack possessed in an eminent degree.  They were men of deed.  Others had sympathized with the heathen.  They acted.”

So was the Haystack Prayer Meeting, a modest, unassuming event in its own time, a singularly momentous occasion in the subsequent history of Christianity and the American worldwide mission endeavor. Its lingering impact is felt to this day. So, as well, was the exquisite example of the inspiration, imagination, courage, and conviction of ordinary people of faith to accomplish extraordinary things in the name of God.

Rev. Dr. John C. Lombard serves as Senior Minister of Trinitarian Congregational Church (UCC) in Concord, Massachusetts.

The Field is the World Part 4

May 23, 2006

The fourth in a series of reflections by the Rev. Dr. John C. Lombard on the occasion of the 200th Anniversary of the Haystack Prayer Meeting led by Samuel J. Mills, Jr., at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, in August of 1806.

Matthew 13:38a

1981 marked the last major celebration of the Haystack Prayer Meeting (HPM), its 175th Anniversary in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Fred Stocking, a columnist for The Williamstown Advocate and a self-professed “devout heathen from a long line of Christian missionaries,” attended the event and provided a few “afterthoughts.” While Stocking rightfully noted that “not all missionary activities have been saintly,” indeed, some have been downright frightful, sad, and disturbing, raising suspicion if not excessive animosity, and, while the 175th Anniversary occasion “neglected to acknowledge how the essential missionary spirit — a genuine desire to help others — still persists, manifesting itself in new ways,” like the Peace Corps, etc., he did capture well the mutual benefit deriving from missionary activity and something not to be quickly dismissed.

Stocking essentially tried to correct the notion, prevalent at times, that mission was unidirectional. In such a view, the white person of that time, supposedly possessed of superior intelligence, religious belief, material resources, and evangelical spirit would travel to farflung and often unknown places conceived nationally and internationally as the wilderness, the frontier, or the unconverted if not uncivilized lands of a “ruined world.” There the missionary would strive tirelessly and under severe circumstances and climate to rescue the irreligious and uncivilized from perishing and to provide them spiritual hope, if not material help, for new life, more ably supported and liberated in the here-and-now and more greatly to be anticipated in the hereafter. To twenty-first century sensibilities historical mission, at times, might seem to have smacked of cultural imperialism, racism, religious fanaticism or extremism, prejudice, American colonialism, and the like. While traces of all the above might, indeed, exist along with the pride and arrogance which often sustain them, there were things far more fundamental, enduring, transcendent, and telling about the field of worldwide mission and those who selflessly, heroically, and faithfully committed their lives to it.

Stocking made two compelling observations from his reporting on the 175th Anniversary of the HPM. His commentary had less to do with what the earliest missionaries brought to the heathens and pagans of perishing places than with how the missionaries themselves, given an extremely high learning curve in the new and unknown field of foreign missions, grew and transformed themselves, perhaps even humanized themselves, if you will, and were given a far broader view of life, living, and the world as it truly was and really is. Stocking wrote, “Although missionaries went to foreign shores in order to inculcate The Truth in the minds of heathen barbarians, many of them slowly came to realize that people in non-Christian cultures were not entirely ‘wrong’ or ‘evil.’” Indeed, many of the natives the missionaries first encountered had much to offer and, despite different customs, cultures, and religious expression, they shared the same hopes and dreams, insecurities and uncertainties, and joys and sorrows born of every human heart. Moreover, as Stocking would note, “our missionaries not only exposed other people to Christian doctrine and American values, but they also exposed Americans to the beliefs and values of other civilizations. The result was greater mutual understanding throughout the world.” Such mutual understanding remains one of the great hallmarks of the HPM and a treasured legacy to be enjoined in the ongoing interreligious, interfaith, and ecumenical work of the Church today.

Rev. Dr. John C. Lombard serves as Senior Minister of Trinitarian Congregational Church (UCC) in Concord, Massachusetts.

The Field Is the World Part 5

March 29, 2006

The fifth in a series of reflections by the Rev. Dr. John C. Lombard on the occasion of the 200th Anniversary of the Haystack Prayer Meeting led by Samuel J. Mills, Jr., at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, in August of 1806.

Matthew 13:38a

It should come as no surprise that the gently rolling hills of Litchfield County, Connecticut, should yield three of the five men of Haystack, Robbins, Loomis, and Mills. As with much small town New England life in the 1790’s and early 1800’s, northwest Connecticut was alive with the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening. Young people who joined churches, especially Congregational and Baptist communions, as a result of a personal experience of God’s grace and mercy (i.e. conversion) frequently felt the need to live out their newly embraced religious convictions and sense of calling. So would the times speak an encouraging if not empowering word to an adolescent young man in Torringford, Connecticut, Samuel J. Mills, Jr.

Mills was born into a pious and deeply religious family on April 21, 1783; he was the fourth son and seventh child of the Rev. Samuel Mills and Esther Robbins Mills. A modest marker on Torringford Street in Torrington, Connecticut, currently designates his birthplace where the first Torringford Congregational Church parsonage stood until it was destroyed by fire in 1823. In his volume, Williams College and Missions, John Hewitt describes the senior Mills, or “Father Mills” as he was well known to his parishioners, as “tall and well proportioned, full of grace and dignity…an eminently faithful and laborious pastor, and a remarkably strong preacher.” Mills’ mother was “a woman of most amiable qualities, being noted for symmetry of character, a marvelous sweetness of spirit, excellency of judgment, and largeness of Christian love and sympathy toward all [people].” Several accounts of the Mills family testify to the fact that early on and in the presence of her young son, John Jr., Esther Mills declared regarding him, “I have consecrated this child to the service of God as a missionary.” Thus, the stage seemed set for what would become a rather remarkable history for a very humble, thoughtful, serious, and modest individual.

On May 15, 1906, there was a “gathering in the church at Torringford to honor the memory of the principal figure in the launching of [the foreign mission] movement.” According to a local newspaper account of the day entitled, “Centennial of Birth of Foreign Missions,” it was well-noted that “to the good people of Torringford, the story of Samuel J. Mills [Jr.] is sacred history; but it reads like fiction. He was only a country boy, awkward and ungainly as most of them. But under the unadorned exterior was a soul which, early in life, yearned for its fellow men who were in darkness, and because of this soul love, this self-sacrificing devotion, we have today the American Board of Foreign Missions, which carried the Gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth.”

To get from country boy to the principal figure in America’s early outreach to the world in the field of foreign mission, however, was not without its own struggle of the soul for young Mills. At age fifteen and for upwards of four years thereafter, Samuel J. Mills, Jr., wrestled with his own sense of unworthiness. In his book, Samuel J. Mills: Missionary Pathfinder, Pioneer and Promoter, Thomas Richards would observe of Mills in this period, “During the revival Samuel came under conviction, and though in awful distress and agony of spirit, he obtained no relief. What pained him most of all was the apparent discrimination of divine favor. Others felt not only conviction of sin but the joy of the lifted burden while he stumbled in darkness.” At one point, according to Gardner Spring in Memoirs of the Rev. Samuel J. Mills, young Mills broke down before his mother exclaiming, “O that I had never been born! O that I had never been born! For two years I have been sorry God ever made me.”

Fortunately, both for Mills and the future of worldwide mission, the troubled soul of young Mills was freed of its burdens through a religious experience born of prayer where he realized the grace and mercy of God was poured out for him as well as others. According to Spring, “the first idea his father had of his change of mind, arose from an observation he made, ‘that he could not conceive of any course of life in which to pass the rest of his days, that would prove so pleasant, as to go and communicate the Gospel of salvation to the poor Heathen.’ Thus, early did a sovereign God who has pity on the Heathen, set apart Samuel J. Mills for a Missionary. It is somewhat remarkable that from this same hour, he never once lost sight of his darling object. Though but a youth of sixteen, he discovered a zeal in the Missionary cause, an eagerness in the pursuit of Missionary intelligence, and an enlargement of thought in his plans, to become acquainted with the true state of the unevangelized world, which left little doubt that he was chained to his purpose by a superior power. It was a heart yearning over the miseries of perishing millions, that first led him to think of acquiring an education with a view to the gospel ministry. Having consulted his parents, and unfolded all his purpose, which, should God permit, was no less than to devote his life to the cause of Missions in foreign lands.”

The story of Samuel J. Mills, Jr., became one of a rich, full, and intensely committed life of the spirit. It was unequivocally dedicated to God, rooted in the evangelical fervor to spread the Gospel, devoted unhesitatingly to what he believed to be the highest ideals, morality, and ethics of living, and bathed in a deep and abiding compassion and sensitivity for the betterment of all God’s people, especially for those seemingly bereft of God’s mercy and grace and those in need of having their lives ameliorated or emancipated whether in the home mission field or on the other side of the world. The details of that life are too numerous for the limitations of this essay and must be trusted to volumes already written about him. A few highlights, however, deserve mention, if only in passing.

Samuel J. Mills, Jr., according to the “Williams College Christian Association Records, 1809-1939,” was “a key figure in the religious history of Williams College” where he found his calling in inspiring his “fellow students to missionary action which he saw as the primary duty of all Christians.” History clearly indicates that Mills was the primary leader of the Haystack Prayer Meeting (HPM) of 1806 which catalyzed a new initiative for America to look outward to the world and personally engage in mission those committed souls who captured the vision. Richards records that two years after the HPM, Mills, with assistance from others, was instrumental in organizing a secret “Society of Brethren,…the first foreign missionary society in America, organized not for the purpose of sending others, but to effect, in the persons of its members, a mission to the heathen.” Such a vision along with his amazing passion and incredible organizing skills learned early on at Williams College became invaluable to Mills. Years after the HPM and the initial manifestations of its effectiveness in the Society of Brethren, Williams College President Griffin would observe, as reported by John Hewitt, “I have been in situations to know that from counsels formed in that sacred conclave [of the Society of Brethren], or from the mind of Mills himself, arose the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission, the American Bible Society, the United Foreign Missionary Society, and the African School, under the care of the Synod of New York and New Jersey; besides all the impetus given to domestic missions, to the Colonization Society, and to the general cause of benevolence in both hemispheres.” From the days when he befriended a native Hawaiian youth, Henry Obookiah, in New Haven, brought him home to Torringford, and with him envisioned mission to the Sandwich Islands, through two missionary journeys through the southern and midwestern regions of the United States with special interest in forming Bible societies, preaching the Gospel, and ameliorating, emancipating, and Christianizing slaves, to efforts in New York City on behalf of the poor, and, finally, to serving as an agent of the American Colonization Society deputed to explore the coast of Africa for colonizing free black people who freely chose to participate in such an endeavor (a notion subject to critical review and reappraisal in 2006), Mills never rested for a moment. Ironically, Mills died in June of 1818 (the specific date varies from June 12 appearing on his “Certified Record of Deceased War Veterans” to other accounts placing the date of death as June 15 or 16), having completed his visit to Africa, a destination foremost in his mind for most of his adult life; P.K. Kilbourne would claim that “the darling object of Mr. Mills and the one for which he seems to have been specially raised up was the amelioration of Africa. The civil, moral, and religious degradation of that benighted land lay with continual weight upon his mind.” With his mission completed and suffering the effects of ill health, Mills gave up his life on his return voyage home to the United States and was buried at sea off the coast of Africa. A year later, the General Association of Connecticut would mark the passing of Mills at age 35 by noting that, “we knew not his worth till he left us. He stole silently through this world and kept himself unseen while he waked the energies of others, condensed the views of the community, and concentrated the exertions of pious charity till, early ripe for heaven, he rested from his labors and his works do follow him.”

So, in brief, was the remarkable life of Samuel J. Mills, Jr., a pathfinder and pioneer of America’s worldwide mission effort. Here was a man of humble origins and modest, self-effacing nature, clearly dependent upon God for strength, direction, and divine grace, and tireless in his efforts and energies to unite others in common cause of spreading the Gospel and ameliorating the human condition at home and abroad. For Mills, “self was ever put in the background,” as Richards would write, “the kingdom ever in the foreground.” In the end, Samuel J. Mills, Jr., would realize and manifest through an incredibly full and abundant, albeit short, life what Gardner Spring would note Mills as having once expressed to a cohort and kindred spirit, “though you and I are very little beings, we must not rest satisfied till we have made our influence extend to the remotest corner of this ruined world.”

Rev. Dr. John C. Lombard serves as Senior Minister of Trinitarian Congregational Church (UCC) in Concord, Massachusetts.

The Field Is the World Part 6

March 29, 2006

The sixth in a series of reflections by the Rev. Dr. John C. Lombard on the occasion of the 200th Anniversary of the Haystack Prayer Meeting led by Samuel J. Mills, Jr., at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, in August of 1806.

Matthew 13:38a

As with any anniversary celebration it is easy to wax eloquent if not nostalgic in glorifying the Haystack Prayer Meeting (HPM) of 1806 and practically deifying its original participants, especially Samuel J. Mills, Jr., the HPM’s principal leader. Wisdom dictates and balance requires, however, that the HPM and those who peopled it represent but a moment in time as well as a blip on the screen of mission history. The spirit of mission in America and various parts of the world was already alive and fledging efforts at international mission were afoot long before Haystack. But Haystack and the individuals who constituted the famous five on that oppressive August Saturday 200 years ago served as a metaphorical lightning rod for the compelling vision, energy, evangelistic fervor, expansive ideas, and missionary imagination and zeal at large, all of which were part-and-parcel of the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening.

In a sense, the HPM was a new and imaginative awakening to the possibilities, potentialities, and challenges of mission, especially in distant lands. What emerged, moreover, in the HPM’s aftermath was an incredibly dedicated group of individuals who were not satisfied with the status quo and were deeply committed to the Great Commission. Driven by the urgency of their work, energized by the passion and courage of youth, and enlivened by a vision of God calling them in hope to new places and new opportunities for mission, the individuals of Haystack not only embodied and expressed the spirit of mission, but they set about personally to instill that spirit in others and to organize others in a common cause dedicated to the glory of God and the liberating extension of God’s realm of love to a world sadly in need.

At the Missionary Jubilee held at Williams College on August 5, 1856, the Rev. Dr. Rufus Anderson, Senior Secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission spoke of standing on “the site of Antioch, where the first foreign missionaries received their special designation from the Holy Ghost” centuries ago. In then referencing the HPM, Anderson referred to the event and its locale as “the Antioch of our western hemisphere. We may not claim, that the “foreign missionary spirit in our American churches had its first development here. The proof is ample that it had not. But, so far as my own researches have gone, the first personal consecrations to the work of effecting missions among foreign heathen nations, were here. Here the Holy Ghost made the first visible separations of [individuals] in this country, for the foreign work whereto he had called them. The first observable rill of the stream of American missionaries, which has gone on swelling until now, issued just on this spot.”

Eleven years later on July 28, 1867, at the Dedication of the Missionary Movement in Mission Park, the Hon. William Dodge spoke of “standing on holy ground” and struggling “in vain to enter into the feelings of those dear young men [of Haystack], as they here looked out from this sacred grove upon a world lying in wickedness. Among the nations shrouded in thick, pagan darkness, there was scarcely a spot which seemed accessible to them; or if accessible, there was the faintest possible prospect of accomplishing any immediate good. India, Turkey, Syria, China, Africa, and the Islands of the Sea, were at that day far away. These young men thought of them only as they might be reached after long and weary months of discomfort on board of a small sailing vessel, and when reached, never ready to give them a hearty welcome. In some of them there were no books or other helps for acquiring a knowledge of their language. In not a few of them it was a problem yet to be solved whether they would be permitted to land on their shores, or take up their abode permanently among them as heralds of Christian truth. The distance was so great, and the intercourse between those nations and our own country so limited and so uncertain, that if a missionary embarked for one of their ports, an entire year must pass before his friends could hear of his arrival or his fortunes; and if he was so favored as to remain to toil in his appropriate work, his separation from those he had left behind would be so complete that it would amount in fact to an exile for life from kindred and from home. But all this was not to deter them. The command of God has been heard, and they were ready to obey.” The HPM represented and embodied in its participants the kind of daring abandon and robust courage requisite for an undertaking of such magnitude as foreign missions and fraught as they were with a universe of unknowns and potential problems, discouragements, and ongoing crises. Such an endeavor was certainly not for the unimpassioned, uncommitted, or faint of heart, and, for those who undertook such service in response to the call of mission, surely they embraced the time with high resolve, great hopes, profound courage, and a new reverence of purpose.

At the same event at which Dodge spoke, there was a returned missionary in the person of the Rev. Marshall D. Sanders. It was his primary concern that the HPM “spot was first consecrated by prayer, and I feel (and I am sure that such will be the feeling of your Missionaries) that it should now be dedicated to prayer. It is pleasant to hear and read the beautiful and able speeches which may be made on occasions like this; but it will be the earnest wrestling with God in prayer at the annual return of this meeting that will most cheer the hearts of Missionaries. The news of these meetings will be eagerly looked for in the Missions. It will pass to Western Asia, in two months to India, and still later to China and the islands of the Pacific; but, wherever it goes, the chief interest will centre in the fact that God’s people, assembled here, were fervent in prayer for the salvation of the heathen. We all know that when the Church is in earnest at the throne of grace, her contributions will not be deficient, her sons and daughters will not be wanting to engage in the work of Missions.” Thus, an essential legacy emerging out of the HPM is the criticality of prayer in each and every undertaking before God. Such is not a new idea, especially when considered in the light of Jesus’ life. But in the rarified environment of the HPM, prayer could be reclaimed with renewed vigor and vitality to discern the will of God and to be strengthened for all the tasks to which people of faith would be called.

In October 1906 at the Haystack Centennial Meeting, the Rev. Dr. George Gates of Pomona College preached on II Corinthians 5:14a, “for the love of Christ constraineth [urges…on] us.” Gates, to his distress, articulated the notion that “American Christians do not believe in Christian missions. That is, we do not believe in Christ. That is, we would patronize God instead of worshipping him and serving him as children of the kingdom, who believe in the kingdom and in the redemption of this world. We believe in automobiles a hundred times more than we believe in missions.” Gates went on to declare that “Christianity is missions; we make it one of our conveniences…The great Christian world needs rebuke, not wheedling; needs to feel shame to look Jesus in the face while his work stands calling to ears that will not hear. The pity of it? Not a bit of it. The dishonor of it! Let us not creep behind pretense of weakness; let us confess our sin. Well has it been said: ‘The greatest peril of Christianity is not in criticism, whether it be Biblical or theological, but in the failure of the professed followers of Jesus to live the life of love and unselfish devotion which he taught and illustrated.’” The HPM was a clarion call to people of faith to integrate religious belief, especially with respect to the Great Commission, with the reality of a life lived in loving and selfless service to others.

On the following day, October 10, 1906, on “Haystack Centennial Day,” the Rev. Henry Hopkins, President of Williams College, welcomed the event’s attendees. His brief remarks concluded with the exhortation that it is each individual’s personal responsibility to engage the Gospel and to live out his or her faith with action and integrity; in short, there are no stand-ins, surrogates, or substitutes for Christian believers. Hopkins reminded his audience that “faith in God laughs at impossibilities. It was so at the Red Sea, on the Mayflower, at the haystack. ‘We can if we will.’ But I confess that what chiefly compels my homage for those men of 1806 is that when they came to organize to carry out their great intention, they formed a society to meet ‘in their own persons’ the exile, the toil, the danger, — no proxies. When in 1861-65 it became necessary to march and fight and die, the young men of that generation met the crisis ‘in their own persons.’ They stood upon the fields where garments were rolled in blood and the earth covered its slain, in their own persons, and so they saved the life of the republic. God grant that in the service of God and of humanity to which the Holy Spirit and divine providence are always calling, this spirit of extreme devotion may never perish from our American colleges. High scholarship is fine, is altogether worthy, but self-sacrifice in love is Christlike, is sublime.” Surely, the HPM demonstrated in a unique way for Americans that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead (James 2:17),” and no one believer can transfer the personal responsibility for ministry and mission.

The work of mission depends not only on the moving of the Holy Spirit among the faithful but upon the exercise of personal power with respect to group undertakings. By definition, missionary work involves spiritual power and collective power as well personal power to accomplish its ends. In an address at the Haystack Centennial, the Rev. Dr. William Tucker of Dartmouth College discussed, among other things, the criticality of personal and collective power to the accomplishment of mission. Said Tucker, “I have been still more impressed as I have put myself into contact with Mills and his comrades, but especially with Mills himself, with the fact that the sense of personal power, personal though it be, is the most communicable of all spiritual gifts. There are solitary powers as there are solitary virtues. Responsibility cannot be shared. I think more frequently than otherwise of Lincoln as alone. In contrast, the sense of personal power, such as that created by the missionary spirit, is communicable. It craves fellowship and, therefore, excites fellowship. The normal unit for missionary work is not the individual, but the group. Power is multiplied many times when one man, looking even one other man in the eye, can read there the warrant for saying of the seeming impossible duty, ‘We can do it if we will.’ This communication of the sense of personal power creates in men what St. Paul calls the quality of like-mindedness. It not only creates, it intensifies this quality until it becomes active, aggressive, compelling. The power of like-minded men set upon a high purpose is, as we know, irresistible. Jesus recognized it when he said, ‘If two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.’ The work of agreeing, consenting souls is sure to be ratified.” The HPM and so much of what evolved from it resulted in the understanding, employment, and engagement of the personal power of one individual, Samuel J. Mills, Jr., and the collective power of many others in pursuit of the mission enterprise. Such deployment of power was definitive for the individuals of Haystack and is instructive to the ongoing mission and ministry of the Christian Church. It also serves as a reminder of how events and activities of humble origin like the HPM can have magnified results and impact in worldwide ways thanks to individuals exercising personal power for the collective good of others.

Finally, although far from exhausting the many possible meanings and legacies of the HPM, there is the matter of boundaries relative to mission. The Rev. Dr. Henry Cobb of Collegiate Church spoke to the above matter at the 1906 celebration when he declared that “the Haystack Prayer Meeting lives in order to recall the church to a forgotten essential, the supreme purpose of her organization. This is what those young men recognized in their spiritual exaltation, and the vision which they saw on the mountain top of prayer they went out to impart to the churches. The single supreme mission for which the church was organized, and for which she exists, is to preach the gospel to every creature. There are no geographical, racial, or social boundaries limiting her scope of activity or narrowing her responsibility.” To embrace the endless possibilities of mission to go anywhere, to address any need, to respond to any concern at any time, and to spread the saving Gospel of love and life regardless of boundaries, barriers, prejudices, biases, circumstances, resources, or the like is truly to see the field of mission as being the entire world.

The HPM leaves a rich legacy to be considered and hopefully embraced in 2006. The passing years may fade the memories of its place in history, but certain themes from that incredible August Saturday in 1806 abide in the hearts of many and continue to inform the nature and substance of worldwide mission. Among the many themes emerging from the HPM, the ones acknowledged herewith and retaining a relevance with respect to ongoing mission include the following: 1) personal consecration to the work of effecting foreign missions, 2) the necessity of brave hearts and courageous, if not perhaps even heroic, attitudes in accomplishing the work of mission, 3) the centrality and criticality of prayer in the discernment of God’s will and in the receiving of strength, encouragement, and direction for undertaking mission, 4) the importance of faith at its fullest requiring outreach or mission at its finest, 5) the knowledge that mission is the personal work of all believers, not just a few, and is not something transferable to proxies, 6) the significance of personal power infused into the lives of the collective whole as a means to leverage, empower, and expand mission, and 7) the breaking down of all barriers and boundaries which otherwise tend to restrict the movement of the Holy Spirit, restrain the efforts and curtail the initiatives of many in the execution of worldwide mission, and inhibit the unity of the Church, impact the harmony of God’s people, and detract from the efficacy of interreligious and interfaith work and witness.

Haystack and its five noteworthy participants, especially Samuel J. Mills, Jr., remind us of a great truth in life, early attributed in part to Aristotle and subsequently used in an expanded version by Thomas Richards in his volume, Samuel Mills: Missionary Pathfinder, Pioneer and Promoter. And the truth is this:

“We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths;
In feelings, not figures on a dial.
We should count time by heart-throbs. He most lives
Who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best.
Life is but a means to an end – that end
Beginning, mean, and end to all things – God.”

Rev. Dr. John C. Lombard serves as Senior Minister of Trinitarian Congregational Church (UCC) in Concord, Massachusetts.