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THE HAYSTACK: EXPLORING 21ST CENTURY PERSPECTIVES ON AN 18TH CENTURY EVENT

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The Haystack Monument on Mission Park at Williams College. The globe at top is the world. The inset cone in the base represents the haystack.

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Press Release Written for Williams College, October 2006

WILLIAMSTOWN, October, 2006 — Two hundred years ago, in 1806, at a young college in a young nation, five young Williams College students were talking and praying outside in a farmer’s field on a hot summer afternoon when a violent thunderstorm descended.

The young men took shelter either under or on the lee side of a haystack — no one knows for sure which — and proceeded to make history.

The leader of the group was a first-year student, Samuel Mills, the son of Congregational minister in Toringford, Connecticut. In the shelter of the haystack he spoke to his classmates of Asia, a subject he was studying in geography class. He then revealed what was for Protestants of that time and place a radical idea: sending missionaries to such far-off lands. Moreover, he proposed to the five at the haystack that they be the ones to go.

So was born the Haystack Movement, and Mills continued as its driving force during its early years. Still at Williams in 1808, he and other students formalized their plan to become missionaries after they completed their studies. They named themselves “The Society of the Brethren,” a group chartered “to effect, in the person of its members, a mission to the heathen.”

Mills and two other members of the Brethren continued their studies at Andover Seminary outside Boston. They found great excitement among Andover students for the idea of mission.

In 1810, Mills and three Andover students persuaded some of New England’s leading Congregational clergy to organize a foreign missionary society, what soon became The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The first five missionaries were ordained in 1812. Over the next seven years the board sent missionaries to India, Ceylon, the Cherokee and Choctaw nations, the Sandwich Islands, and Palestine.

“There are tens of thousands of Christians all over the world who understand themselves to have become Christians as a result of the Haystack Prayer Meeting,” said Williams Chaplain Richard Spalding.

A 12-foot granite monument erected in 1867 marks the spot of the prayer meeting. Capped by a globe, it stands on what is known as Mission Park on the Williams campus. The monument announces the spot as the birthplace of American Foreign Missions and declares that “The Field is the World.”

Today, the legacy of the Haystack Movement — as is the case with all such Western missionary endeavors — lends itself to widely varying interpretations.

One group sees the Haystack Prayer Meeting as a very important response by U.S. Christians to Christ’s instruction “to go and make disciples of all nations.” Other Christians see the Haystack as reflecting the colonialist mentality of the time, though they still trace the energy of their Christian commitment in the world to that event, Spalding said.

“In this perspective, the work of Christians in the world today is to carry the spirit of Christ’s message of hope and healing, equality, dignity, self-development, and justice out into the world,” he said. “It means unapologetically carrying one’s own faith but not necessarily with the primary agenda of changing other people’s religious convictions.”

Christians from around the world came to the Haystack Bicentennial Celebration held at Williams in September. Organizers saw it as a chance to reflect on the legacy of the Haystack Prayer Meeting.

“This seemed like an important moment to get people of different Christian perspectives together to listen to each other,” Spalding said before the celebration. “Because when we’re all standing around the Haystack monument we really have found a piece of common ground, and so we’ll be reflecting on what that means with each other during the weekend.”

With speakers, panel discussions, and written materials, the Haystack Bicentennial Celebration did not blink in its look at the legacy of Western missionary endeavors, warts and all.

“There’s no denying that one very important byproduct of the 19th century Protestant missionary movement was a variety of manifestations of cultural imperialism. It’s very hard — maybe it’s impossible — to take faith out of a culture completely and cleanly and then export it and plant it somewhere else,” Spalding said. “It’s also true, though, that a number of Christian bodies are much more multicultural, much richer human families today than they would have been otherwise.”

“So a lot of us look back at the legacy or back over the movement that ensued from the Haystack Prayer Meeting and have a profound mixture of feelings about it.”

In her 2006 Convocation Address at Williams, Elizabeth Andersen, ’87, offered students a distinctly secular appreciation of the Haystack Prayer Meeting.

“The story reflects a long and laudable tradition of people grappling with what they could do to make the world a better place,” she said. “The inscription on the Haystack monument captures this tradition in a phrase: ‘The Field is the World’ — words that have as much or more relevance today as they did 200 years ago. Not in the sense of the Haystack students’ colonial-era ambitions to sow their religious beliefs throughout the world, but in a globalization-era sense that we live in a shrinking world where nearly all aspects of our lives have a global dimension.”

Globalization presents both opportunities for new economic prosperity and vitality and unprecedented challenges such as terrorism, environmental degradation, and global health pandemics, she said.

“In a globalized world, these far-away problems have a profound effect on our lives, right here at home,” Andersen said. “The Haystack students chose to define their mission on a global scale; for the class of ’07, you have no choice in the matter. Your field is the world.”

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