Haystack Reloaded: Could a Haystack Change the World Again?

Twice in the last two hundred years God has used a haystack to change the world.


The prayers of five Williams College students changed the
global student missions movement.

Haystack 1.0: The Haystack Prayer Meeting (1806)
In 1806 five students gathered in a field just outside the Williams College campus (Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA) for their weekly prayer meeting. Caught in a thunderstorm, the five found shelter under a large haystack and continued their prayers. Freshman Samuel Mills directed the discussion and prayer toward their missionary obligation. The students specifically discussed the needs in Asia; one of the men suggested that it was too dangerous, and that they should wait to go until Asia was safe and “civilized.” They decided to commit the matter to prayer and “willed that God should have their lives for service, wherever he needed them.” Seeing their own responsibility to reach their world and believing that the choice of what they would do with the Great Commission was in their hands, Mills catalyzed their faith and their prayers by exclaiming, “We can do this if we will!”

That self dedication gave birth to the first student mission society and within five years, through the influence of these and other students, the first mission sending organization in America was founded and seven student volunteers set sail for India in 1812. Over the next several years numerous mission societies were founded on campuses throughout the United States and more missionaries were sent out through new sending boards. Kenneth Scott Latourette, one of the foremost historians on Christian movements, notes, “It was from this haystack meeting that the foreign missionary movement of the churches in the United States had an initial main impulse.”

Haystack 2.0: The Student Volunteer Movement (1886)
About eighty years after the Haystack Prayer Meeting a young man in his twenties, Luther Wishard, learned of the story of these five men. Having just been appointed a leader within the newly developed Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), his role was to lead students in their Christian commitment. Wishard visited the Haystack Prayer monument (which had been erected in the exact spot where the five had prayed some sixty years after the meeting) and immediately recognized that what had happened among the students under the haystack was again happening in his generation. “What they had done was ours to complete,” he said. Kneeling in the snow by the monument, Wishard pleaded with God to do it again. “Where water once flowed, may it flow again,” he prayed. Recognizing that his own surrender to Christ must be the first step, Wishard prayed, “I am willing to go anywhere, at any time, to do anything for Jesus.”

The Haystack Prayer Meeting in 1806 lives on through
monuments and changed lives.

Although he desired to go to the mission field, Wishard knew he could be more effective if he stayed and raised mission awareness to send others in his place. He organized the Mt. Hermon Mission Conference in 1886, at which one hundred students volunteered their lives for missionary service; this sparked the Student Volunteer Movement, the largest mission movement ever. Over the next generation students on nearly every campus in the US committed themselves to the “evangelization of the world in this generation.” Over twenty thousand individuals sailed to the foreign mission field, and over eighty thousand others had personally committed themselves to prayer and to financially supporting those being sent out.

Haystack 3.0: A Movement Today (2006)
God has already used the Haystack to see two student mission movements birthed. Could it happen again? Yes, it could. Each generation of believers has a choice. Will they choose to surrender themselves and seek to see God’s global purpose realized in their generation? Or will they choose to live their lives for something smaller? God has always used the dedication of just a handful of students who committed themselves to prayer for a widespread movement in their generation to create great mission movements. 

Today’s students are longing for something more. They know there is more to life than material items and shallow purposes. Will students today commit themselves to prayer and personal involvement in what God is doing globally? If so, we could see another great revival. And given the technology and connectedness that exists today, we very well could see the “evangelization of the world in our generation.”

For this to happen we need to pray along these lines: “Lord, where water once flowed, may it flow again. May you do in our generation what you desire. Will you help us to be a generation that is about your purpose? May we be a generation that throws off the things that hinder us. May we be a generation marked by sacrifice, surrender and servanthood. May we not settle for anything less than your will. May we join you in your great mission to see the good news proclaimed in word and deed to all peoples. May we strive for all that you have for us. May we live to the full, and may your gospel be preached to all nations in our lifetime. Lord, I am willing to go anywhere, at anytime, to do anything for you. Amen.”

Upcoming Haystack Prayer Summit
From 14-16 August 2006 leaders and students from various organizations, fellowships and churches will gather to celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of the Haystack Prayer Meeting. We will also use the time together to pray and plan toward the further development of the student mission movement in the United States. For more information visit www.svm2.net and click on the Year of the Haystack tab.

Paul Van der Werf is co-founder and director of operations of Student Volunteer Movement 2. He is also director of the Year of the Haystack initiative.