On a summer day in 1806, a long-lasting missionary movement was born when five college students seeking shelter from a thunderstorm held a prayer meeting in the lee of a haystack. Samuel J. Mills, James Richards, Francis L. Robbins, Harvey Loomis, and Byram Green had met in a wooded grove near the Hoosack River near Williamstown, Massachusetts, to discuss the theology of missions. Prompting their discussion was a booklet by pioneer missionary William Carey, An Inquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen.
A thunderstorm interrupted the young men’s meeting, and the five students took refuge by a haystack in a meadow just north of Williams College. Their talk continued, focused on the need for the gospel to reach China and the Orient. The oddity of seeking shelter beneath a haystack remained in their minds; later, their gathering came to be known as the Haystack Prayer Meeting.
Two years later, the five original students were joined by other like-minded students and called themselves the Brethren. They continued to meet, and in 1810 the members founded the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The ABCFM sent their first missionaries, including Adoniram Judson, to the subcontinent of India in 1812. This was the beginning of the American Protestant missionary movement.
During its first fifty years, the ABCFM sent more than 1,200 missionaries to foreign lands. Most of the missionaries were from New England; many had classical educations and were fluent in Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. Their language skills enabled the first American missionaries to translate the Scriptures into the languages of their host nations. Besides sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, the missionaries often engaged in the establishing of schools and hospitals where they served. Additionally, native converts were trained to continue the work when the American missionaries returned home.
Of the five original Williams College students involved in the Haystack Prayer Meeting, none played a greater role in American-based missions than Samuel Mills. Besides helping found the ABCFM, Mills was instrumental in starting the American Bible Society and the United Foreign Missionary Society. Besides his work in foreign missions, Mills also preached the gospel in the Mississippi Valley and served among the destitute in New York City. On a return trip from West Africa, Samuel Mills, only 35 years old, died at sea. Few have called as many individuals, churches, and denominations to the mission field as did Mills.
The Haystack Prayer Meeting was the first documented time that Americans committed themselves to foreign missionary work, and the results of that prayer meeting were profound. By 1960, the ABCFM had sent out almost 5,000 missionaries to 34 different fields.
In 1961, the ABCFM became the United Church Board for World Missions (UCBWM). In 2000, that organization became the Wider Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Today’s Global Ministries, partnering with the Division of Overseas Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), continues the legacy of the Haystack Prayer Meeting.
A monument stands today at Williams College in Massachusetts to honor the Haystack Prayer Meeting and what God did through five college students praying in the rain.