During the early years of the 19th century, student-led religious gatherings began to flourish in dormitory rooms, outdoor groves and private homes. As a storm approached on a hot summer afternoon in 1806, five Williams students—Samuel J. Mills, Byram Green, James Richards, Harvey Loomis, and Francis LeBaron Robbins—sought shelter by a haystack to continue their discussion of religion. There they started to discuss missions to convert people in foreign lands. This gathering, later called the Haystack Prayer Meeting, was one of several revivals that rocked the town and college as part of the Second Great Awakening.
From the Haystack gathering in 1806 came the impetus for the formation, in 1810, of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). By mid-century over four dozen Williams graduates were serving as missionaries in the American West, the Middle East, Africa, India and Hawai’i.
With the approach of the 50th anniversary of the Prayer Meeting, David Dudley Field (Class of 1825) advocated purchase of the land we now call Mission Park at a meeting of the Society of Alumni. Gathering funds by subscription, the Society and Charles Stoddard (Williams trustee) acquired the acres the next year.
In January 1857, the Mission Park Association was incorporated with its members—Williams President Mark Hopkins, Prof. Albert Hopkins, and Charles Stoddard—holding the property “for the purpose of . . . erecting and placing thereon suitable monuments, and other memorials to commemorate the origin and progress of American missions . . .” Mission Park was donated to the College in 1885.
The Park monument, the cost of which was borne by Harvey Rice (Class of 1824), was dedicated in July 1867. Although Rice originally planned a life-size haystack made of sandstone, a monument was decided upon. Made of ‘silver blue’ marble, it was erected by the Berkshire Marble Company of Alford, Mass.
Since the Missionary Jubilee of 1856, hundreds have visited Williamstown to attend anniversaries of the Haystack Prayer Meeting. Christians from around the world also continue to make pilgrimages to Mission Park.
While missionaries’ stated purposes professed service, sacrifice and the desire to make the world a better place, attitudes and language were laced with Christian imperialism and colonialism. As we have grappled with our history, Haystack anniversaries have changed in their focus from a celebration of Christian missionary activity to reflect broader societal movements.
For another version of this history, see an archived version of a student project by Mac Harman (Williams 1998), Dan Chu (Williams 1999) and Ryan Mayhew (Williams 2001).