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A Prayer Meeting In A Haystack That Changed U.S. Church History!

Historians say that all Christian missionary organisations in the U.S. trace their history back to the Haystack Prayer Meeting.

In August 1806 five students from Williams College in Massachusetts met to pray and to discuss William Carey’s unusually entitled booklet “An Enquiry Into the Obligations of Christians To Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen.” Carey was a missionary to India who was the pioneer of the modern English-speaking missionary movement. The five students were challenged to take the Gospel to those who did not know Jesus in other lands. In the middle of their discussions, a fierce rainstorm with strong wind, lightening and thunder, interrupted their meeting. They ran for shelter and ended up inside a nearby haystack. Shut in from the outside world while the storm lasted, they went before God in prayer. One of them, Samuel J. Mills, urged that they surrender to the Lord to follow Carey’s example and go as missionaries to India. Mills then spoke seven words which summed up that moment for the five students: “We can do it if we will.”

The group became know as “The Brethren”. Others joined them. This then became the impetus for the founding of The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in 1810, which was the first official missions organisation in North America and which became the largest throughout the nineteenth century. The ABCFM commissioned their first five missionaries for service in India on February 5th, 1812. During its first fifty years, the ABCFM sent more than 1,200 missionaries to foreign lands. By 1960, almost 5,000 missionaries had gone out to 34 different fields.

In this way the modern cross-cultural mission movement was birthed out of that haystack prayer meeting. We can observe four facts:

1. The movement was birthed and continued in prayer. It was not the first time they had prayed. They had already begun to meet to pray twice a week. It was on the way to their regular prayer meeting that they were caught in the storm. “That small gathering under a mound of hay was not a logistical debate, a planning meeting or a strategy session. It was a time of humble surrender and wilful commitment to a cause never undertaken previously. It involved full surrender to the will and plan of God as evidenced by faith-infused prayer.”

2. Though prayer was the foundation, prayer alone was not enough. In Matthew 28:19 Jesus said: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” In Acts 1:8 He told us to go and be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. We need prayer to do that. But prayer is not sufficient without our going. Samuel Mills’ famous words tell us today that “we can do it if we will”.

3. It is never easy. “The five students were immediately met with scepticism. It took repeated meetings and a series of persuasive arguments to get the decision makers to agree. They persevered. And that perseverance paid off. The resultant movement springing forth from North America over the past 200 years is the fruit of their determination.” Adoniram Judson and his wife were some of the first missionaries sent out by this new mission board. Judson became known as the father of Baptist foreign missions.

4. Missio Nexus writes that “that seemingly insignificant gathering was the stimulus for something momentous – the North American foreign mission movement, but also for all other U.S. mission boards that would follow. Mills himself went on to help found The American Bible Society and the United Foreign Missionary Society before dying aged only 35 on board ship on his way back from Africa in 1818. From that tiny beginning the North American mission movement has become the great ground swell that it is today.”

Why did such an unplanned prayer meeting in a haystack result in such a mission explosion in the sovereignty of God? We can only say that God moved on a group of five students when they focused their minds on Carey’s challenge concerning cross-cultural mission, when they turned that focus to earnest prayer, and then, finally, they surrendered themselves (not others) for the task. “We can do it if we will.”

Mission Nexus wrote: “We are in the process of collecting data from 1,700 North American mission agencies (in the U.S. and Canada). It is humbling to think that this vast movement began with a small band of college students huddled together under a nondescript haystack in a New England hayfield on a rainy August afternoon.”

At the top of the haystack meeting monument is the phrase, THE FIELD IS THE WORLD. We live today in a world with almost 7.9 billion people. Of these, just over 3 billion are unreached. An additional 1.25 billion people are engaged only nominally. But it still remains true today that “we can do it if we will.”

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