A number of celebrations from various theological perspectives are planned this fall around the 200th anniversary of a student-led prayer meeting that marked the beginning of America’s foreign missionary movement.

Southern Baptists are seeking to capitalize on what is known as the Haystack Revival with a 21-day program of prayer, fasting and evangelism on college campuses. Mainline churches, meanwhile, will gather at a bicentennial celebration at the small liberal-arts college in western Massachusetts where it all began.

Diverse groups like Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and the United Church of Christ all trace their involvement in foreign missions back to an unlikely movement that started when five Williams College students gathered in a field for a twice-weekly prayer meeting on the third Saturday of August in 1806.

A dark cloud arose in the west, and thunder and lightning began. The students sought shelter under a haystack, where they rode out the storm talking and praying about foreign missions.

Like other colleges of the time, Williams College was heavily influenced by what came to be called the Second Great Awakening, a revival movement that began with the Cane Ridge camp meeting in Kentucky in 1801.

The students were also influenced by a pamphlet titled “An Inquiry into the Obligation of Christians to use means for the Conversion of the Heathen,” written by British Baptist missionary William Carey.

Before Carey, many Christians believed the Bible’s Great Commission was fulfilled by the apostles. At one meeting when Carey presented his ideas to a group of ministers, one is said to have admonished him: “Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine.”

After publishing his book, Carey spoke to a group of ministers at a Baptist association meeting in Nottingham, England, where uttered his famous quote: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” The next day the ministers decided to form the Baptist Missionary Society, which is today called BMS World Mission.

At what came to be known as the Haystack Prayer Meeting, the Williams students discussed “the moral darkness of Asia” and the desire to send the gospel to “that dark and heathen land.” Four of the five committed to become missionaries.

The prayer meetings continued, leading several other students to pledge to service overseas. In September 1808 they decided to organize, forming a secret Society of the Brethren for the purpose of spreading the gospel around the world.

In June 1810, students including Samuel Mills, one of the five original Haystack students but by then studying at Andover Theological Seminary, petitioned the General Association of Congregation Churches requesting they form a society that would send them out as missionaries.

Two years later the Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the first missions society in the United States, sent its first five missionaries to work alongside Carey in India.

All were Congregationalists, but while at sea one couple, Adoniram and Anne Hasseltine Judson–knowing they were going to meet Carey–studied the Bible searching for the meaning of baptism. They eventually rejected the Congregationalist practice of baptizing infants.

After arriving in India they were immersed and became Baptists, along with a third missionary, Luther Rice, to the chagrin of Congregationalists back home. They were forced to resign.

Baptists in the U.S. started their own missionary society to underwrite their support, the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States for Foreign Missions–also called the Triennial Convention–in 1814. That convention split in 1845 over slavery into the Southern Baptist Convention and what is today called American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.

The Judsons stayed in India only briefly, spending the rest of their lives in Burma. Rice, who was single, returned to America to enlist Baptist churches to support missions. He never returned to the mission field.

Mills never made it overseas, staying behind to explore new mission fields and help organize mission societies. He participated in establishing the American Bible Society in 1816. He worked in urban slums in New York City, where he founded the Marine Bible Society to minister to seamen who came into the port by the thousands.

Concerned about world evangelization, Mills turned attention toward Africa. Being equally concerned about the downtrodden in America, he looked at slavery in the U.S. Putting the two together, he helped to found the American Colonization Society in 1817, for the purpose of evangelizing American slaves, working for their liberation and then repatriating them to Africa. Mills contracted an illness and died at sea while returning home from a trip to survey what is now Liberia, at age 35, in 1818.

The Southern Baptist North American Mission Board’s collegiate evangelism unit is commemorating the bicentennial with Haystack Awakening ’06. Campus ministers in Baptist state conventions will set aside Oct. 1-21 to encourage students to pray, fast and share the gospel. Suggestions for fasting include giving up meals and certain days of food, to refraining from amusements like playing Xbox, watching sports or going to movies.

“We need to capture and introduce the passion of the Haystack spirit. The legacy that these five students brought us out of that haystack is something that this generation needs to know about,”
Keith Inman, associate team leader of the Kentucky Baptist Convention’s collegiate and young adult ministry group, said in a news release.

The United Church of Christ has designated Sept. 24 as Haystack Sunday to discuss and examine the meaning of call and mission to the church today. The denomination is offering churches Haystack bulletin covers, prayers, studies, skits, songs and ideas for family nights and prayer vigils.

The UCC pays tribute to the Haystack students because they were all Congregationalists. Congregational and Christian churches merged in 1931, the first of several mergers that led to formation of the United Church of Christ in 1957.

While gaining inspiration from the story, said editor J. Bennett Guess, UCC members should also “lament the often-imperialistic consequences of that colonialist era of U.S. Christianity–when exporting American culture was often synonymous with sharing the good news.”

Williams College and the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC are co-sponsoring a Sept. 22-24 bicentennial celebration of the Haystack Prayer Meeting on the campus in Williamstown, Mass.

The ecumenical gathering features Lamin Sanneh, D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School, as keynote speaker.

Workshops will explore cross cultural ministries and contemporary missions.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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