When people find out I live in Massachusetts, I can almost watch the Mayflower sail across their minds. My state is not large, but everyone knows significant history happened here. I have visited the home of Louisa May Alcott, Calvin Coolidge’s Presidential Library, Walden Pond, Amherst College, and the Old North Bridge. All of them are less than two hours from my front door.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I traveled through the Berkshire Mountains to a small, grassy clearing in Williamstown. Unlike other places we have visited, this one is not prominent on the bucket lists of America. It doesn’t even appear on most maps. That Monday morning we were the only tourists there.
But the often overlooked monument at Williams College marks one of the most important events in the history of the world.
Haystack Prayer Meeting
In 1806, a Williams College student named Samuel Mills began to pray for the cause of foreign missions. Until then, the missionary organizations in the United States were solely dedicated to domestic missions, both in the Western frontier and among Native American tribes. But Mills prayed that the Lord would raise up men to take the gospel to other nations.
One August day, Mills assembled a small group of spiritually minded friends who prayed together outside of campus for foreign missions. Some accounts say there was a sudden thunderstorm as they were praying, which caused the five men to take refuge under a haystack.
Afterward, they continued to gather weekly for what became known as the Haystack Prayer Meeting. In answer to the prayers from among the haystacks, God established the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions, the American Bible Society, and the United Foreign Missionary Society. Through those organizations, the Lord sent many laborers into his ripened field.
Four Valuable Lessons
The site of that prayer meeting is not a superstitious holy place or a magical Mecca; instead, it is a testimony that God works in time and place to advance his kingdom. Standing and praying there, I reflected on four lessons that place can teach us:
1. God uses people in the middle of nowhere to plead for the souls of people who are everywhere.
In our day, it is popular to talk about the culture-making, idea-shaping, world-changing work that happens in urban ministry. Urban settings offer unique gospel opportunities, but the small prayer meeting in a hayfield reminds us that the Lord has important work for people in rural places, too.
Williamstown has far more trees than people, but the prayers offered there were answered in Turkey, in India, in South Africa, in Mexico, and in China. On the Last Day, a multitude from every nation will give thanks to the Lord for saints in the middle of nowhere who faithfully prayed for them.
2. God uses people who are young to stir up people of all ages.
The men of the Haystack Prayer Meeting were young—not yet enrolled in seminary, not even graduated from college. They had no worldly power or resources. They held no official position in the church.
And yet, they were so moved by the desire to “effect . . . a mission or missions to the heathen” that they began to organize missionary societies on several college campuses, encouraging other students to pray for the cause of missions. After this, they repeatedly visited the influential ministers of their day, eventually prevailing on those men to form a missionary board (The American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions) for sending gospel laborers into the world.
In 1816, Haystack organizer Samuel Mills died at sea on a return voyage from Africa. His legacy included people of all ages partnering in missions throughout the world. At the time of his death, he was 35.
3. God uses people who are few in number to gather a countless harvest.
Most church prayer meetings are poorly attended. In a lifetime of Wednesday nights, I have rarely been in a gathering of more than a quarter of my church’s total membership. This is not good, and I pray and write hoping this might change.
But the Haystack Prayer Meeting is an encouraging reminder that, no matter how small our numbers, the Lord of the harvest hears and answers our prayers. Jesus promises that when two or three are gathered to pray, he will attend every time. Brothers and sisters, take heart. The five haystack men—not even enough for a college baseball team—prayed in the name of Christ and received in reply an exponential harvest of souls.
4. God uses invisible and seemingly insignificant events to accomplish his great purposes.
As my husband and I prayed at the Haystack monument, we were entirely ignored. A landscaper on a golf cart passed without a glance, a student or two hurried down the sidewalk, a professionally dressed woman crossed the street nearby. It was just us and the birds.
In 1806 the world did not notice what was happening at the edge of campus. But the Lord did. Because of the prayers, the laborers were sent. Because of the laborers, the gospel was preached. Because of the gospel, people were saved.
Like a haystack in a field, praying together can seem ordinary and unremarkable. But viewed from eternity, it is one of history’s most significant events.
Offensive, Powerful Gospel
As I took one last look at the Haystack monument before getting into the car, I wondered aloud if it would still be there 10 or 20 years from now. Through secular eyes, the monument—like the gospel it represents—is an embarrassment and an offense.
In 2006 the Haystack bicentennial was an occasion of skepticism—even hostility. The United Church of Christ, which has historic ties to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, designated September 24 as “Haystack Sunday” and supplied resources for church prayer events. But the denomination also called its members to use the day to “lament” the “imperialistic” and “colonialist” implications of the missionary movement. Though such popular sentiments are widely accepted as true, the negative social effects of the modern missionary movement have been greatly exaggerated—and the positive effects largely ignored—as sociologist Robert Woodberry has ably demonstrated.
I would not be surprised if someday soon the Haystack monument proves too great a liability for the college to keep.
But, for now, it rises as a public reminder that, once, five students on their knees asked God to send out laborers to preach Christ to the nations. They knew it was the world’s only hope.
I’m glad I could stand there and add my “Amen.”