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FIRST-PERSON: Remembering the Haystack Prayer Meeting

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–I have always had a love for studying (and even more being a part of) movements of God, from my childhood when our small church erupted in the Jesus Movement to teaching courses on the subject today. Santayana said those that do not learn from history are doomed to relive it. I think those who do learn from history can best deal with culture today.

In August I began my 12th year teaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. That same month, 200 years ago, an event happened that still affects the students I teach today. That is what happens when God moves. Let me give just a snapshot of what God did two centuries ago concerning the event historians call the Haystack Prayer Meeting.

On the 12th year following the founding of Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., a 23 year old named Samuel Mills enrolled as a freshman. The son of a pastor, Samuel’s home church had been touched by a wave of revival that instilled in him a passion to take the Gospel to the nations. Samuel Mills soon proved to be a poor student in the classroom but a great student of the work of God.

While at Williams College Mills began to meet with a group of students — Harvey Loomis, Byram Green, Francis L. Robbins, and James Richards — twice weekly for prayer. On a warm August Saturday in 1806, a rainstorm drove the group to seek shelter at a large stack of hay. Sheltered from the wind and rain at the side of the great haystack, the men continued in prayer. While there Mills proposed a mission to India. There and then he uttered his famous words concerning his proposal, “We can do it if we will.” Although Loomis felt the focus should be on domestic missions, the rest agreed to seek to share the Gospel in Asia.

Subsequent historians have referred to the meeting as the Haystack Prayer Meeting. In 1808 the group organized to study and pray for missions, calling themselves the “Brethren.” After seminary graduation, Mills and others of the “Brethren” asked the General Association of Massachusetts to send them to India as missionaries. This association formed the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions on June 28, 1810. It was the first official foreign missions organization in the United States.

Some of the most famous missionaries of the 19th century, including Rev. and Mrs. Adoniram Judson and Luther Rice, would be among the first commissioned and sent overseas by the new American Board. Judson has been called the father of Baptist foreign missions for his work in Burma. He left for Asia in his early 20s with his wife of only seven days. It would be over six years before Judson would baptize the first new Christian in Burma. But soon after his death in 1850 the Burmese government noted over 210,000 Burmese Christians! Rev. and Mrs. Samuel Nott, Gordon Hall, and Rev. and Mrs. Samuel Newell also traveled on the maiden mission. Mills stayed behind in part because of his ability to promote the cause of world missions in America.

The Haystack Prayer Meeting sparked the missions enterprises to which we still remain in debt. They were just a bunch of college students, meeting for a time of prayer. Mills was such a poor student he was not allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies. (Interestingly, the valedictorian, also named Samuel, missed his speech because he was drunk.) God took a mediocre student with a radical passion for the nations, and we are debtors to him.

This year, the Census Bureau reports there are more teenagers than at any point in U.S. history. Colleges are about to swell like never before in numbers, and the most rapid growth is in private schools, including evangelical colleges. Do we believe God could take a handful of students and change the world? I do. And that is one reason I teach.

The next time you see a raindrop fall, take a moment and thank God for the Haystack Prayer Meeting, and for young leaders who would risk all, not for fame or influence, but for the Gospel. May God give us a generation like that!
Alvin Reid holds the Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.

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  • Alvin L. Reid