Haystack Prayer Meeting

Great occasions do not make heroes or cowards, they simply unveil them.
-B.F. Westcott

It was 1806 and divine circumstances were about to reveal to the world its new unlikely heroes. Samuel J. Mills, James Richards, Francis L. Robbins, Harvey Loomis, and Byram Green were about to decide their destiny. These five students at Williams College in Massachusetts found themselves in a time when revival and awakening were sweeping across America and this small college town. There were many prayer meetings being maintained by students. One, to which these five men belonged, met in Sloan’s meadow north of the college. On a hot Saturday afternoon in August these five left to pray and discuss William Carey’s small booklet, An Inquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen. It was a controversial book that laid on all believers the weight of responsibility of world missions. There were threatening clouds in the distance, but the group met faithfully despite the thunderstorm that was approaching.

As they discussed world missions and specifically the needs in China, their attention was focused so intently on their responsibility to the unreached that they failed to notice the speed with which storm had approached. The young men were too far away to run for adequate shelter and were soon trapped by the angry thunder clouds. Within minutes the sound of the thunder was deafening and the pouring rain and strikes of lightening drove the students to scramble for the first shelter available - a haystack. Even as the storm rolled over the five continued their building discussion. Beneath the cover of the haystack, Samuel Mills, the leader of the group, continued to insist that the gospel must be taken to the lost in Asia.

All were inspired to act by Mills’ passion except for Loomis, who argued that it was too dangerous in China. “We must wait until they are civilized,” he maintained. Samuel suggested that they make it an issue of prayer, and they began to pray over the wail of the storm. All prayed except for Loomis. Mills, remembering the objections of Loomis, prayed, “O God, strike down the arm, with red artillery of heaven, that shall be raised against a herald of the cross.”

Finally after singing a hymn, Mills looked at the others, and over the roar of the drenching rain, and with flashes of lightening reflecting in his eyes, cried out, “We can do this, if we will!” Something broke loose in that moment within the hearts of all five. All pointed back to that moment as the one that changed them forever. The five later consecrated themselves to full devotion to the Great Commission and taking the gospel to all the nations. They felt that it was the job of the American church to send its own missionaries and proposed to the General Association of Massachusetts that the first American missions agency be created. Their desire was granted, and in 1810 the agency was named, “The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.” Adoniram Judson was among the first five men that the American Board sent to Calcutta, India. Mills went on to inspire the creation of several other mission agencies and works such as The United Foreign Missionary Society, the American Baptist Missionary Union, and the American Bible Society.

This Haystack Prayer Movement became known all over the surrounding area, especially among college students. Samuel began a group in 1808 called the Society of Brethren, which bound its members together by the single-minded purpose of giving themselves to extend the gospel around the world. Several missions societies began to spring up on campuses all across the U.S. in the footsteps of Mills.

Years later, several women purchased with one gold dollar, the spot of land which Bryam Green identified as the location of the haystack that day. Today the Haystack Prayer Monument stands at Williams college as a reminder of what God did, not only in the lives of the five, but also in the life of Luther Wishard 80 years later. Luther, inspired by the Haystack Prayer Movement, initiated the mobilization of 100,000 college students through the Student Volunteer Movement. That moment in 1806 under the haystack was the spark for the greatest missionary movement that the world has ever seen.

They were ordinary young men - college students. Life forced them to search out their life purpose, maybe before it was too late; before the world had a chance to steal away their passion and talents into other great endeavors; before the roots of careers, and comfort grew too deeply into the American dream. These five had no idea that all of history was watching that day and what weight of responsibility lay on them. God uses moments like this, not to test our hearts, but to reveal them. He is unveiling to us what holds our true loyalty. Neil McClendon says, “Life’s interruptions are God’s invitations.” Heroes like this are made, not born. Let us press on to know Him deeply and know His heart so that in times of testing and interruption it might be revealed that our heart has been replaced with His. Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. Out of the deepening of our passion for His renown and glory will come an overflow: our lives heralding a message to the world, “We can do this, if we will!”

By Claude Hickman