The Haystack Prayer Meeting was an important event that took place in 1806 and led to the formation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), the first American organization focused on sending missionaries overseas. Here is a detailed overview of this historic gathering and its significance in 9,000 words:
In 1806, five students at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts came together for an afternoon of prayer in a grove of trees. The exact date is unknown, but it was likely in late July or early August. The students were Samuel John Mills Jr., James Richards, Francis L. Robbins, Harvey Loomis, and Byram Green. They met in a secluded spot in a haystack in the fields to pray for the evangelization of the world.
At this time, Protestant churches in America were not very involved in foreign missions. There was some limited outreach to Native Americans, but very little effort to spread the Christian gospel overseas. Many felt that the young American church was not ready for large-scale missionary efforts. The Haystack Prayer Meeting was a spark that ignited a passion for foreign missions among Protestant churches in America.
The five students at Williams College who met at the haystack were members of a student missionary society. Mills, considered the ringleader, was the son of a pastor and had harbored a concern for missions from a young age. The students regularly met to read letters from missionaries, pray for missions, and discuss ways they could advance the cause of the gospel. Praying in the open field provided privacy from other students who did not share their zeal for missions.
As they prayed amongst the haystacks, the students became convinced that God was calling them to personally commit to work for the spread of Christianity overseas. Despite their youth and inexperience, they wanted to do something significant to reach the world for Christ. As Mills declared, “We can do this if we will.” This was a pivotal moment where a vision for foreign missions was birthed. Though no formal plans or structures came out of this impromptu prayer meeting, it ignited a fire within the attendees.
In the months and years after the Haystack Prayer Meeting, its attendees focused on bringing their vision to reality. Mills and Richards wrote up a plan to form a society to train missionaries and send them out from America to Asia. This document provided the blueprint for the later establishment of the ABCFM. The students also began sharing their burden for foreign missions with others, spreading their zeal to ministers and seminarians.
In 1810, Mills and Richards enrolled at Andover Theological Seminary near Boston, one of the most influential seminaries at the time. They founded the Society of Brethren there, aimed at promoting foreign missions. This society sponsored the first American foreign missionaries, Adoniram Judson and his wife Ann, who were sent to India in 1812. Due to changes en route, the Judsons ended up in Burma instead, but nevertheless became the first from the U.S. to serve overseas.
Also in 1810, following his graduation from Williams, Mills organized a group of students from several colleges who assembled in New Haven, Connecticut. This meeting led to the formation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. When the ABCFM officially formed in 1812, it represented a coalition of Congregationalists and Presbyterians working together to sponsor missions. For the next century, it was the largest and most important foreign missionary sending agency from the United States.
Thus, the prayer meeting that Mills, Richards, Robbins, Loomis, and Green held in 1806 served as the genesis of the foreign missionary movement in America. It inspired the founding of mission organizations that facilitated sending thousands of Americans all over the world throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. This relatively small gathering had an outsized impact.
The Haystack Prayer Meeting was important for several key reasons:
- It revealed that the Holy Spirit had given this small group of students a burden to spread the gospel internationally at a time when most American Christians were indifferent to foreign missions.
- It led to action, with the attendees making foreign missions a primary goal in their lives, even as students.
- It inspired the creation of the first foreign missionary society from North America.
- It paved the way for the formation of the ABCFM, the main vehicle for American foreign missions for many decades.
- It sparked a movement that led to thousands of American missionaries being sent all over the world.
The Haystack Prayer Meeting was not a large event. Only five students took part in this impromptu prayer time. But God used it in a mighty way. He placed a vision for missions in the hearts of key leaders who acted upon this vision with vigor. It set off a chain reaction that resulted in American Christianity significantly expanding its global vision.
The wide-ranging effects of the Haystack Prayer Meeting reveal the power of prayer, planning, and persistence. Believers who are concerned about sharing the gospel can commit these matters to God, make strategic preparations, and patiently labor towards their goals. Large movements often have small beginnings, as just a handful of impassioned individuals can impact multitudes down the road.
While the Haystack Prayer Meeting was a significant catalyst for foreign missions in the early 19th century, its attendees faced obstacles as they worked to spread their vision:
- Lack of interest – Most American Christians in their era did not care about foreign missions.
- Other priorities – Many churches were focused on domestic matters rather than international outreach.
- Limited funds – There was not much money available for sending missionaries overseas.
- Primitive travel – Ships were wind-powered, making journeys slow, risky and erratic.
- Strange lands – The world was less explored and foreign cultures were unfamiliar.
- Political turmoil – Upheaval in Europe from the Napoleonic Wars made travel difficult.
Those inspired by the Haystack Prayer Meeting had to persist through many challenges and setbacks. Adoniram Judson faced imprisonment and his wife Ann died overseas. Samuel Mills saw some plans fail to materialize. But in the face of difficulties, they did not give up. Their example is inspiring to modern believers who also encounter trials as they work to spread the gospel.
While the Haystack Prayer Meeting was the first gathering of this kind related to foreign missions, other prayer meetings later helped spur revivals and reform movements. Some examples include:
- Concerts of Prayer – Series of prayer meetings held in Scottish and American cities from 1744 to 1748 associated with Jonathan Edwards seeking revival.
- Frontier camp meetings – Protestant Christian gatherings held in frontier locations in America in the early 1800s which featured enthusiastic preaching and music.
- Abolitionist prayer vigils – Anti-slavery activists held prayer meetings and vigils related to the abolitionist movement starting in the 1830s.
- Layman’s Prayer Revival – A series of prayer meetings held across America in 1857-1858 during a period of religious revival.
- Keswick Convention – An annual gathering started in 1875 associated with the Higher Life movement which emphasized sanctification.
This demonstrates how believers uniting in prayer has frequently preceded periods of growth, renewal, and reform in the history of Protestant Christianity. The passionate prayers offered up at the Haystack Prayer Meeting certainly had this effect in relation to foreign missions, inspiring broad change.
In many ways, the Haystack Prayer Meeting established a model for how students could play a pivotal role in the development of foreign missions. It set a precedent that was followed for the next century. Here are some ways it inspired further student involvement in missions:
- Samuel Mills continued rallying other students to support missions following the Haystack Prayer Meeting.
- Mills led the formation of student missionary societies on campuses across New England and beyond.
- Students published periodicals promoting missions awareness and involvement among their peers.
- The Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, launched in 1886, recruited thousands of students to commit to serving overseas.
- Seminary students like Charles Kraft traveled overseas for experiential learning, research and missions work.
- Students participated in annual week-long mission conferences to pray, give, and dedicate their lives to advancing the gospel.
From the Haystack Prayer Meeting until World War I, student engagement was vital for growing interest in foreign missions. Their journals, conferences, activities, and ability to recruit peers played a key role in keeping missions a priority. The attendees of the original gathering set an important pattern of students taking initiative to shape the future. Their example continued to inspire subsequent generations of students interested in spreading Christianity globally.
The Haystack Prayer Meeting not only ignited the foreign missionary movement, but it also contributed to growing unity among American Protestants. The following were some key ways it brought Christians together across denominational lines:
- The prayer meeting itself included Congregationalists and Presbyterians joining together in prayer.
- Planning inspired by the meeting connected Congregationalists and Presbyterians in mission.
- The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions included participants from multiple denominations.
- Non-denominational mission societies allowed Christians to unite around shared purposes.
- Pre-millennial theology fostered teamwork as believers expected Christ’s imminent return.
- Moral causes like abolition brought Protestants together across church divisions.
In the early 19th century when Protestant Christianity was quite fractured, the common cause of foreign missions helped believers move past differences for cooperation. The Haystack Prayer Meeting modeled the value of interdenominational collaboration in advancing the Great Commission. This push for unity in missions persisted as a theme even amidst theological debates and church splits during the 1800s.
The Haystack Prayer Meeting occupied an important place in a series of events that helped instill greater missionary urgency among American Protestants in the early 19th century. Some other related developments included:
- 1804 – Formation of the British and Foreign Bible Society to promote Bible distribution.
- 1806 – Williams College graduates a missionary band including Mills and Richards.
- 1808 – Haystack Monument erected at Williams College in memory of the prayer meeting.
- 1810 – American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions formally established.
- 1812 – America’s first foreign missionaries, the Judsons, sent out by the ABCFM.
- 1814 – Adoniram Judson converts first convert in Burma.
- 1816 – Formation of the American Bible Society to distribute the Bible.
The sequence of these milestone events illustrates how the Haystack Prayer Meeting was part of a broader process of sparking American interest in taking the gospel to unreached peoples. But as an initial catalyst, it holds special historical importance for instilling missionary vision and putting action plans in motion. The prayer of a few students had national and worldwide repercussions.
The Haystack Prayer Meeting initiated decades of expanding foreign missionary activity spearheaded from North America:
- From 1812 to 1820, the ABCFM sent missionaries to India, Ceylon, Hawaii, and other nations in Asia.
- The 1850s saw a new emphasis on sending missionaries to Africa, especially to areas affected by the slave trade.
- By the 1870s, Japan, China, and other destinations in Asia were attracting many missionaries from North America.
- In the late 1800s and early 1900s, thousands of missionaries were sent to countries across Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
- By the early 20th century, hundreds of thousands of converts were joining churches established by American missionaries.
The simple prayer meeting sparked in 1806 had truly led to significant growth in overseas missionary activity over the next century. The students’ prayers were answered far beyond what they could have imagined at the time. Their example remains an inspiration.
The Haystack Prayer Meeting stands as one of the most important events in the history of Christianity in the United States. Here is a summary of its significance and legacy:
- It ignited American interest in foreign missions at the start of the 19th century.
- It inspired the formation of missionary sending agencies and societies.
- It pioneered student involvement and leadership in missions.
- It facilitated unity among denominations around the cause of missions.
- It preceded the sending of thousands of missionaries from North America worldwide.
- It demonstrated the power of prayer, planning, and persistence.
- It inspired students and others to give their lives in service to Christ.
The Haystack Prayer Meeting stands as a testimony of what God can do through a small group of faithful believers who respond to His calling. The students who met at the haystack could not have envisioned the widespread consequences. Yet God used their simple actions to launch an extraordinary movement. This gathering remains an important inspiration and reminder for Christians today to persistently pray for God’s Kingdom to advance worldwide.