by Ryan Shaw
The Haystack Prayer Meeting in 1806 is still impacting global missions today.
The missionary movement today (and indeed the overall work of the Church of Jesus Christ) owes much of its history to the actions and zeal of the emerging generation. In my limited study of revival history I have found that nearly seventy-five percent of all historically documented revivals have been sparked by a person or a group of people under the age of twenty-eight. Many young adults today, however, are not aware of how God has used their historic peers to accomplish great things. Most have also not been shown scriptural examples of how God handpicks young people to use as his vessels.
This year we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Haystack Prayer Meeting, which was a significant factor in launching the foreign missionary movement in North America. By reflecting on this event we are given the rare opportunity to teach lessons and generate understanding among today’s emerging generation regarding God’s desire to use young adults for his purposes. This is critical for seeing the global harvest hastened and unreached peoples given the opportunity to respond to Jesus in a culturally relevant way. Fifty percent of the world’s population is under the age of twenty-one. In order for this significant population within the Church to be mobilized for global harvest, we need to change our vision for mobilization and focus a greater measure of energy, time and finances on training and equipping young disciples with a bent toward radical involvement in global, cross-cultural ministry.
THE LEGACY AND HISTORY OF THE HAYSTACK PRAYER MEETING
The legacy of the Haystack Meeting reaches beyond its own generation and stretches across all denominational and organizational lines. The meeting in 1806 on the Williams College campus in northwestern Massachusetts was the birthplace of America’s involvement in global cross-cultural ministry. From it has come two hundred years of motivating the North American Church toward its responsibility and privilege of reaching the unreached around the world for Jesus’ glory. Four specific points of legacy include: (1) North Americans’ initial involvement in cross-cultural ministry, (2) the first student mission movement (Society of Brethren at Williams College and Andover College) in North America, (3) many college campuses filled with a spirit of prayer for the nations and (4) multitudes of mission agencies and boards coming into existence.
By the end of the eighteenth century many colleges had begun slipping from their biblical foundations. This dismal spiritual climate was the backdrop for the Second Great Awakening, brought on through a group of believers who called for fervent prayer against society’s ills. According to Wilbert Norton, God answered with a mighty downpour (1986, 2). The Awakening moved across the Church as a whole, but had a profound effect specifically upon many of the colleges of the day. In 1802 Yale University put out a report that stated that one- third of their students had found faith in Christ (1986, 2). Radical prayer became part of the students’ lifestyles. Entire days were set apart for prayer.
In this setting of spiritual fervor, five students met regularly in 1806 to pray in a grove on the Williams College campus. On one specific summer day a thunderstorm forced them to find shelter under a large haystack where their hearts were arrested in prayer for an awakening of global missions interest among their fellow students. One of the five, Samuel Mills, had been reading William Carey’s book, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens (1792). Carey’s words regarding every believer’s responsibility to take part in global missions cut straight to Mills’ heart. While praying, each of the five determined in their own hearts to become message bearers. Their motto became, “We can do this, if we will!”
THE SOCIETY OF BRETHREN
Eventually the group organized formally and in 1808 launched the Society of Brethren, a group of members bound together by the single-minded purpose of giving themselves to extend the gospel around the world. This was the first student missions movement on a college campus in North America and the ancestor of what God is rebuilding today. The five confronted many of their classmates with God’s heart for the nations, challenging each individual to go share the gospel once they graduated.
Up to this point in history no mission organization, agency or denominational mission board was in existence in America. These five students approached various denominations, asking them to set up a board which would send them out as message bearers.1 Eventually the first North American mission board, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission, was set up (Howard 1970, 77). It was through the prayers, intercessions and influence of five students that the American missionary movement began.
HAYSTACK AND THE STUDENT VOLUNTEER MOVEMENT
Eighty years later the Haystack story became known to a few college students who worked with the YMCA (a large and influential campus ministry organization of that day). They read the story of what God had done through college students to spark America’s involvement in global cross-cultural ministry and it impacted them deeply. They began to ask themselves what their generation was doing to increase commitment for the global harvest. One young leader, Luther Wishard, visited the Haystack monument, which had been erected in 1856 (1970, 77). While there, Wishard prayed, “God, where water once flowed, may it flow again.” Wishard soon became involved in pushing for a greater measure of student focus on cross-cultural ministry.
Wishard helped to organize a month-long conference which brought together 251 students from eighty-six colleges under the teaching of evangelist D.L. Moody. The conference lacked any formal structure and had no cross-cultural ministry emphasis (1970, 42). Two weeks went by without any public mention of global missions during any of the sessions. A young man named Robert Wilder approached Moody, asking if he could gather ten students to hold a session on the unreached peoples of the world. Moody responded positively and John R. Mott, who would later become the first chair of the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM), claims the session “did more to influence decisions than anything else that happened in those memorable days” (1970, 44). Wilder says of the session, “Seldom have I seen an audience under the sway of God’s Spirit as it was that night” (1970, 44).
By the end of the conference one hundred people had signed a covenant card committing themselves to become missionaries. This was remarkable in light of the fact that global missions was never highlighted in the advertisements for the conference. Forty percent of the attendees left having committed to go to the ends of the earth (1970, 44).
When the conference concluded there was a sense among many of the students that what had been experienced there needed to become known on a wider scale. The key leaders felt their endeavors were the culmination of what had been started by the five students at the Haystack in 1806. Two students decided to tour North America, sharing what had happened at the conference. Their purpose was to challenge others with the vision of God’s mission to the world, calling them to sail to other nations upon graduation. By the end of that year they had seen 2,106 students sign the volunteer declaration. Over the next forty years the movement raised up twenty thousand message bearers who went to the ends of the earth.
The SVM eventually began to fizzle out and by 1940 was all but dead. Its impact, however, spawned several movements focused on raising up students for God’s global purposes. The Student Foreign Missionary Fellowship came into being during this time and the triennial Urbana conference, with its first conference being held in Toronto in 1946, sought to ignite within young hearts a committed vision for the nations.
THE STUDENT MISSIONS MOVEMENT TODAY
Today there is an emphasis on cross-cultural ministry from ministries in North America; however, for too long we have lacked unity in rebuilding the student missions movement that spans campus ministry organizations, Christian college campuses and denominations. SVM’s effectiveness was found in unity. Though students were from a variety of campus ministries and denominational backgrounds, they were united both in their commitment to cross-cultural ministry upon graduation and in their commitment to influence and implement strategies for missions emphasis in their respective local ministries.
In October 2002 a group of twelve leaders representing several student ministries and organizations visited the Haystack monument and spent a day and a half in prayer and fasting, asking God to “do it again.” Research had proven (1) that a long-term missions vision among the emerging generation was on the decline, (2) that a desire for unity surrounding a common missions vision and call was present and (3) that prayer for the nations by college students was almost non-existent. The leaders sought the face of God for another unified student missions movement to be rebuilt among today’s student generation and for 100,000 new message bearers to commit themselves to reach the remaining forgotten people groups of the world. The leaders prayed for an international movement to be raised up in Western and non-Western countries for this purpose. They also considered and developed strategies to be implemented across campus ministry organizations, Christian colleges and denominations that would bolster vision for the nations, stimulate momentum in devoted prayer fixed on the nations and provide a common commitment to challenge the student generation today. These elements are the bedrock of the movement that has come to be known as Student Volunteer Movement 2 (SVM2).
LESSONS FROM THE HAYSTACK PRAYER MEETING
Looking at our history is only useful if we are committed to gleaning key lessons and principles that we can implement today. The Haystack Prayer Meeting gives us ample lessons for today’s emerging generation. Just as these young men took God at his word in their day, today’s emerging generation can take God at his word today.
Every great movement is birthed and sustained by individual and small acts of hidden obedience. Most people read spiritual history and see only the end result; they do not see the labor that led to that end result. The activities working up to the end result are always small acts of faithfulness that any person can do. If we do that which we read about in scripture, and step out and trust God, he will move! Here are seven lessons we can learn from the students involved in the Haystack Prayer Meeting:
1. God’s miracles are often born out of consistent and unspectacular habits of devotion to Christ. We may think these five young men were different than we are, but this is not the case. They were simply devoted to faithfulness to God, to what they saw in God’s word and to discerning the critical times in which they lived. It is the unspectacular habits and disciplines that draw the eye of the Lord. Many of us look for the spectacular in ministry or in our devotion to the Lord, and God is saying, “I am found in the daily unspectacular acts of faithfulness and obedience that my people walk in.”
2. Perseverance in prayer pays off. These five were committed to praying until God moved and responded. They recognized that prayer was the critical tool for seeing the kingdom released on earth as it is in heaven. They did not give up or allow other spiritual attractions to keep them from their most powerful asset—seeking the face of God for the things that he had birthed in their hearts.
3. Do not waste your college years. These were students who saw their primary purpose of being in college as the opportunity to stir up their peers to follow hard after God and to challenge them to their role in cross-cultural ministry. Often, students in campus ministries today are not passionate about their spirituality and just want to coast through their college years having a good time. These five historical peers would cry out, “What a waste!” God has strategically placed students on their campuses for two purposes: first, to make them look more and more like Jesus and second, to influence others toward his kingdom purposes.
4. It does not take many to launch a movement. Many biblical stories confirm that God’s heart is not in the numbers, but in the spiritual courage and vitality of those involved. America’s missionary movement was launched with five college students. If we will step out in faith as a result of something we believe God has led us to do, are willing to persevere in it and are willing to potentially be criticized for it, then we may see movements arise tomorrow that are not in existence today.
5. God often chooses unlikely and ordinary people to be heroes in his story. The Haystack story highlights God’s passion to use weak vessels. Young people, often overlooked for many reasons, are ignorant, inexperienced, idealistic and untrained. And God says, “Perfect, I can use them to get the most glory for myself.” These five students were very ordinary; they had no educational merits, no status in the Christian community and no clout of their own. They simply acted and then influenced as many people as they could.
6. A great work of God can be accomplished through any generation willing to trust, pray and obey. The Haystack Prayer Meeting and its subsequent influence on the missionary movement teaches us how to see a work of God.
First, we must trust. God is committed to doing everything possible to make us completely dependent upon himself. He is jealous for this role in our lives and if we depend upon anything but him, he will remove these things. Second, we must pray. Are we committed to doing the hard, dirty, time consuming, non-spectacular work of intense prayer and intercession to prepare the ground for tilling? Third, we must obey. When God moves in our hearts and gives us a deep conviction, we need to respond and act.
God’s passion is to build on the foundations that have been laid for us. We are meant to look back historically and build upon these things as we pursue his kingdom purposes in our day. God has an unparalleled unified student missions movement on the horizon for those who will labor for it. Let us pray for the Lord of the harvest to raise up these leaders for today’s generation.
1. The term message bearer is an alternative term for “missionary” which carries less baggage for today’s emerging generation.
Howard, David. 1970. Student Power in World Evangelism. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Norton, Wilbert. 1986. To Stir The Church. Madison, Wisc.: Student Foreign Missions Fellowship.
Ryan Shaw is founder and director of Student Volunteer Movement 2 (SVM2), a grassroots student mission movement in today’s generation. He, his wife Kelly and son Noah live in Dorchester, Canada.
Copyright © 2006 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.