Text by Mac Harman, Williams 1998
For a fuller version of this history, see an archived version of a student project by by Mac Harman, Williams 1998, Dan Chu, Williams 1999 and Ryan Mayhew, Williams 2001.
Twelve years after the incorporation of Williams College in 1793, the Second Great Awakening spread from its origins in Connecticut to Williamstown, Massachusetts. Enlightenment ideals from France were gradually being countered by an increase in religious fervor, first in the town, and then in the College. In the spring of 1806, Samuel J. Mills, the twenty-three year old son of a Connecticut clergyman, joined the Freshman class. Mills, after a period of religious questioning in his late teens, entered Williams with a passion to spread Christianity around the globe.
On a sultry Saturday afternoon in August, 1806, Mills and four other students gathered as usual in the maple grove of Sloan’s Meadow for one of their twice-weekly prayer meetings. Thunderclouds broke open the sky, driving the students to seek shelter from the rain on the lee side of a great haystack. With thought turned toward their classroom studies of Asia and the East India Company, Mills shared his burden that Christianity be sent abroad. With the exception of Harvey Loomis, who felt that missionary efforts should first be concentrated domestically, Mills, Byram Green, Francis L. Robbins, and James Richards prayed that American missions would spread Christianity through the East.
In 1808, Mills and other Williams students formed “The Brethren,” a society organized to “effect, in the persons of its members, a mission to the heathen.” Upon the enrollment of Mills and Richards at Andover Seminary in 1810, Adoniram Judson from Brown, Samuel Newall from Harvard, and Samuel Nott from Union College joined the Brethren. Led by the enthusiasm of Judson, the young seminarians convinced the General Association of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts to form The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1810. In February, 1812, Rev. and Mrs. Judson, Rev. and Mrs. Newall, Rev. and Mrs. Nott, Rev. Gordon Hall, and Rev. Luther Rice were commissioned as the Board’s first missionaries and set sail for Calcutta, India.
Though only two of the five Williams students at the Haystack Prayer meeting ever left the United States, the impact of their passion for missions is widespread. Loomis, true to his early convictions, dedicated his life to domestic missions in the State of Maine. Robbins engaged in missionary work in New Hampshire before returning to pastor a church in his native state of Connecticut. Green preached for a short time before serving in New York State government and later in the U.S. Congress. Richards left America in 1815, serving as a missionary in India until his death in 1822. Mills engaged in missions in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, in the Southwest United States, and in New Orleans. He influenced the founding of the American Bible Society and the United Foreign Missionary Society before he died in 1818 while returning from a short-term mission trip to Africa with the American Colonization Society.
In 1854, the Hon. Byram Green returned to Williamstown and marked the location of the haystack next to which he had prayed forty-eight years earlier. Interest in the site peaked and in 1855 a group of Williams College alumni purchased a ten-acre tract of land to commemorate the Haystack Prayer meeting. In 1857, Williams President Mark Hopkins and two other alumni, Professor Albert Hopkins and Charles Stoddard, incorporated the Mission Park Association for the purpose of “improving the grounds…and of erecting and placing thereon suitable monuments and other memorials, to commemorate the origin and progress of American Missions.” The park was deeded in trust to Williams College in 1885.
After visiting Williamstown in August, 1866, the Hon. Harvey Rice (Williams Class of 1824) elected to donate the funds to “erect a monument of some kind, on the sacred spot in Mission Park” that Green had marked more than a decade earlier. The twelve-foot tall marble monument, quarried and crafted in the Berkshires, was dedicated by President Mark Hopkins following the Baccalaureate Discourse on Sunday, July 28, 1867. The monument, approved by the Faculty and Trustees of the College, mounts a globe three feet in diameter and proclaims, “The Field is the World.” Beneath this inscription is a similitude of the haystack and the names of the five students who sought its shelter while in prayer.
Though the original intent was to “embellish the Park with specimens of the trees and shrubs and flowers of every foreign land to which missionaries have been sent” as can be acclimated to the New England weather, this vision never fully materialized. The most dramatic addition to the landscape of the Park was the 1969 construction of the “Mission Park” dormitory. Though the bulk of the building lies on adjacent lands, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts granted permission for the eastern and westernmost wings to extend into the Park provided the dormitory be given a name of commemorative significance. To that end, “Mission Park” includes four houses named after Mills (Class of 1809) and fellow Williams alumni Samuel Armstrong (1862), James Pratt (1898), and Tyler Dennett (1904).
The long tradition of foreign missions at Williams College, as begun by Mills and his contemporaries in 1806, since has included the work of numerous alumni abroad and domestically. Though the College never held religious affiliation, President Mark Hopkins served as chair the American Board from 1857 until his death in 1887. Williams has also been host to commemorative services of the Haystack Prayer Meeting in 1856, 1906, 1956, and most recently in 1981, drawing missionaries and other participants from around the globe.
The scope of American Foreign Missions has extended far beyond that of Christian missions, including the establishment of educational institutions throughout the world as first begun in 1815 by Hall and Nott’s pioneering work in India. Though contemporary perceptions of foreign missions have changed, the College honors the tradition of the Haystack both through the “Haystack Scholarship” for students from foreign countries and by the Haystack-inspired “Williams in China” and “Williams in Hong Kong” programs that send Williams students to study and teach English abroad.