Samuel Mills

The Haystack Movement

On the North American continent, the beginnings of the church's interest in global missions can be traced directly to student influence and, more precisely, to the impact of one student, Samuel Mills.

Samuel J. Mills, Jr. (1783-1818) was born in Connecticut as the son of a Congregational minister and was brought up in a godly home. His mother reportedly said of him, "I have consecrated this child to the service of God as a missionary."1  This was a remarkable statement since missionary interest was practically unknown in the churches of that day, and no channels (such as mission boards) for overseas service existed in America.

Mills was converted at the age of seventeen as a part of the Great Awakening that began in 1798 and touched his father's church. His commitment to world evangelism seemed to be an integral part of his conversion experience. From the moment of conversion, on through the years of his study and for the rest of his public ministry, he never lost sight of this purpose.2

At the age of nineteen Mills remarked to his father that he could think of no course in life that would be more fulfilling to him than to "communicate the Gospel of Salvation to the poor heathen."3

When one reads today, more than a century and a half later, the writings of men like Mills, it would be easy to find fault with their terminology and to criticize them of "paternalism" or, some would even say, "cultural imperialism." Their way of expressing themselves was different from what would be used today and might therefore be misinterpreted. However, when one remembers the limitations of communications, of world understanding and of cultural interchange, it is not surprising that their desire to give the gospel to others might be expressed in terms that today sound paternalistic.

The Prayer Meeting

In 1806, Mills enrolled in Williams College, Massachusetts. This school had been profoundly affected by the religious awakening of those years, and devout students on campus had a deep concern for the spiritual welfare of their fellow students. Mills joined with them in their desire to help others. Apparently he was unattractive intellectually and physically (he was reported to have "an awkward figure and ungainly manner and an unelastic and croaking sort of voice");4 yet he became much sought after by students who were convicted of sin and realized their need of spiritual counsel.

It was Mills' custom to spend Wednesday and Saturday afternoons in prayer with other students on the banks of the Hoosack River or in a valley near the college. In August, 1806, Mills and four others were caught in a thunderstorm while returning from their usual meeting. Seeking refuge under a haystack they waited out the storm and gave themselves to prayer. Their special focus of prayer that day was for the awakening of foreign missionary interest among students.  They had all been greatly influenced by William Carey’s Pamphlet, “An Inquiry into the Obligation of Christians to use means for the Conversion of the Heathen.”5  Mills directed their discussion and prayer to their own missionary obligation. He exhorted his companions with the words that later became a watchword for them, "We can do this if we will."

"Bowed in prayer, these first American student volunteers for foreign missions willed that God should have their lives for service wherever he needed them, and in that self-dedication really gave birth to the first student missionary society in America."6 Kenneth Scott Latourette, the foremost historian of the church's worldwide expansion, states, "It was from this haystack meeting that the foreign missionary movement of the churches of the United States had an initial main impulse."7

The exact location of the haystack was unknown for a number of years. Then, in 1854, Bryan Green, one of those present in 1806, visited Williamstown and located the spot. A monument was erected on the site in 1867. Mark Hopkins, who was then president of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, gave the dedicatory address in which he said, "For once in the history of the world a prayer meeting is commemorated by a monument."8

The Society of the Brethren

Back at Williams College these students, along with others of like mind, continued to meet regularly for prayer and for world evangelism. They were influential in leading a number of other students into a commitment of their lives for overseas service.  In September, 1808, deciding to organize formally, they founded The Society of the Brethren. Their members were bound together by an oath of secrecy and the purpose of giving themselves to extend the gospel around the world.

Desiring to extend the influence of this Society to other colleges, one of their members transferred to Middlebury College to found a similar society there. In 1809, following his graduation from Williams College, Mills enrolled at Yale with the dual purpose of continuing theological studies and of imparting missionary vision to the students there.

Here he met Henry Obookiah, a Hawaiian, who encouraged him with the need of evangelizing the Hawaiian Islands. Obookiah did much in the next few years to stimulate student interest in evangelizing the Pacific Islands. He died prematurely before he was able to return to his homeland, but Latourette says of him, "The story of his life and missionary purpose was a major stimulus to the sending, in 1819, the year after his death, of the first missionaries of the American Board to Hawaii."9 (James Michener's caricature of Abner Hale as the first missionary to Hawaii, in his novel Hawaii, should not be allowed to obscure the commitment which led Obookiah, Mills and other students to be concerned for the evangelization of those who had never heard of Christ.)

The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions

In June, 1810, the General Association of Congregational Churches met in Bradford, Massachusetts, in annual meeting. Samuel Mills (then studying at Andover Theological Seminary), with several fellow students, including Adoniram Judson, presented a petition requesting the formation of a society which could send them out as foreign missionaries. Up to this date no such organization existed. The petition was originally signed by six students, but the signatures were reduced to four "for fear of alarming the Association with too large a number."10

The petition was received on June 28, 1810. On June 29, the Association recommended to the assembly "That there be instituted by this General Association a Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, for the purpose of devising ways and means, and adopting and prosecuting measures, for promoting the spread of the Gospel to heathen lands."11 (One could wish that ecclesiastical circles could move as rapidly today!) Although not legally incorporated until 1812, the Board began activities immediately. It was interdenominational in character, enjoying the support of numerous church bodies. Volunteers were recruited and prepared.

On February 19, 1812, Adoniram Judson and Samuel Newell and their wives sailed for India, and five days later Samuel Nott, Gordon Hall and Luther Rice also embarked on another ship for India. These first American missionaries joined hands with the great English pioneer, William Carey, who since 1793 had been evangelizing in India. Judson and Rice subsequently persuaded the Baptists of North America to form their own missionary society which became the second foreign board in the United States.

Thus, within four years of the haystack prayer meeting, these students had been influential in the formation of the first North American missionary society, and a year and a half later the first volunteers were on their way to Asia.

Missions and Social Concern

In this age it is popular to criticize foreign missions for failure to be concerned sufficiently with the social and physical needs of people. Hollywood, modern literature and current journalists have often portrayed the missionary as one who seeks only the soul of man and forgets about his physical needs.

However, anyone who will take the time to study the legacy of Samuel J. Mills will be impressed with the breadth of his concerns and activities. For Mills there was no false dichotomy between "home" and "foreign" missions. Nor did he engage in fruitless debate about the relative merits of "evangelism" as distinct from "social service." For him it was not a question of "either-or" but "both-and." In addition to spear-heading the founding of the first mission board, Mills took an active part in a variety of other concerns.

In 1816, he participated in the establishing of the American Bible Society, a movement whose influence in the spread of the gospel through the dissemination of the written Word of God will only be evaluated in eternity.

During the summer of 1816, Mills worked in the urban slums, or ghettos, of New York City, being deeply moved by the needs of poverty-stricken people who were trapped there. His journal written during that summer depicts untiring efforts to reach the underprivileged peoples of New York with the message of salvation. These were accompanied by equal endeavors to help alleviate physical suffering. And through all his records runs the thread of his continued interest in spreading the gospel, with its healing influence, around the world.

Mills also became concerned with the welfare of the seamen who came by the thousands into the port of New York. Consequently, he helped to found the Marine Bible Society for the purpose of evangelizing these seamen.

Mills was detained from sailing overseas with his companions in 1812 because the Board wanted him to help in two major endeavors: first, to stimulate further missionary interest among the churches in America and second, to help explore the missionary possibilities among the Indians of the western frontier of the United States. During the next few years Mills made several trips to the Mississippi valley, the principal purpose being "to preach the Gospel to the destitute, to ascertain the moral and religious wants of the country, and to form Bible societies and other religious and benevolent institutions."13 In fact, missions to the Indians became a major con¬cern for him during these years.

Perhaps Mills' most intriguing vision was one which could be called his crowning glory, for it was while pursuing this vision that he met death. Being concerned for world evangelism, he looked toward Africa. Then, being equally concerned for the plight of the downtrodden, he looked at the slaves of the United States. Putting these two together, he helped to found the American Colonization Society on January 1, 1817. The purpose of this Society was to evangelize the slaves in America, work toward their liberation and then repatriate them to Africa. He saw that these blacks could be raised from their miserable condition of slavery and at the same time could be the best possible missionaries to their own people of Africa.

He devoted more time to this endeavor in his later years than to any other work. During his trips through the south and to the Mississippi valley, he became deeply impressed with the importance of this goal and of the responsibility of American Christians to it. He considered no sacrifice too great, including death itself if necessary, to help fulfill this goal.14

In November, 1817, Mills went to Africa to survey lands in what is now Liberia—for use in this program of repatriation. While returning to America, he contracted an illness and died at sea on June 15, 1818, at the age of thirty-five. Less than twelve years had passed since this amazing young man had knelt with his companions under the haystack near the Hoosack River. Yet in that short time he had formed The Society of the Brethren, stimulated the founding of the first foreign mission board from North America, participated in sending the first missionaries, worked toward the betterment of the poverty-stricken in the ghettos of New York, helped found two Bible societies, ministered to the Indians of the Mississippi valley and finally gave his life in the effort to break the chains of slaves in America and combine this with the evangelization of Africa.

Not a minor accomplishment.


1. Watson A. Omulogoli, "The Student Volunteer Movement: Its History and Contribution," unpublished M.A. thesis, Wheaton College, Wheaton, 111., 1967, p. 18.

2. William B. Sprague, Annals of the American Pulpit (New York: Robert Larker and Brothers, 1859), p. 556.

3. Omulogoli, p. 19.

4. Clarence P. Shedd, Two Centuries of Student Christian Movements (New York: Association Press, 1934), p. 49-50.

5. This information, not part of the original David Howard chapter, is supplied by Claude Hickman.  “Haystack Prayer Meeting.”   Online at The Traveling Team.org.

6. Shedd, p. 52.

7. Kenneth Scott Latourette, These Sought a Country (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1950), p. 46.

8. The Haystack Centennial  (Boston: American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, 1907), p. 216.

9. Latourette, p. 51.

10. Memorial Volume of the First Fifty Years (Boston: American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, 1861), p. 43.

11. Joseph Tracy, History of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (New York: M.W.Doss, 1842), p. 26.

12. Sprague, p. 568.

13. Tracy, p. 567.

14. Sprague, p. 568.

(This article is a slightly revised version of Chapter 6, “The Haystack Movement,” by David M. Howard in Student Power in World Missions, IVP, 1979.  Used by permission)

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