Never Ourselves Alone: 'Haystack' observes 200th anniversary
Written by J. Bennett Guess
August - September 2006
September 1, 2006
'Foreign missions' invites us to reconsider home-grown Christianity
Next time you're talking up the UCC, mention the fact that it was Congregationalists who were the first to support foreign missions.
It all happened on an August afternoon in 1806, when five Williams College students - all Congregationalists - met in a northwest Massachusetts field to talk and pray about issues of the day. On this occasion, the topic was the spiritual needs of those in Asian countries.
A sudden thunderstorm sent the students scurrying for cover near a haystack where, as the story goes, the students made promises to God and one another that they would carry their Christian faith "into all the world."
This "Haystack Prayer Meeting," as it became known, inspired the first baby steps of the American Foreign Missions Movement, a grassroots effort strengthened by its "informal ties with the Congregationalists," according to Williams' own historical account, because the movement was spared the "sometimes stifling stranglehold" of denominationalism.
To this day, however, various denominations - including the UCC, United Methodists, American Baptists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians - trace their involvement in foreign missions back to this unlikely haystack moment. The UCC's Global Ministries, in particular, traces its founding directly to 1810 when the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission - the first foreign missionary society in the United States - was born.
On Sept. 22-24, 2006, in Williamstown, Mass., an ecumenical group of Christians will gather at Williams College and First Congregational UCC to gain inspiration from that old "haystack" story, even as they lament the often-imperalistic consequences of that colonialist era of U.S. Christianity - when exporting American culture was often synonymous with sharing the Good News.
Still, faith-based work around the world is something to celebrate. In a world where building walls, maintaining fences and defending borders is often mistaken for absolute necessity, global partnerships engender abiding trust, build cross-cultural friendships and promote lasting security. For me, it was during mission trips to Mexico and Colombia where I first glimpsed - in its fullness - that God's love is something much bigger, broader and better than mere familiarity with my native land.
The "Haystack" reality invites us, once again, to consider the importance and value of mission. To whom - thanks be to God - does this "mission" belong? And how shall we, as global Christians, continue to be about God's work in the world?
As a teenager, I vividly remember how a woman named Neel Whitledge - a high school art teacher and an intelligent, worldly and witty family friend - would react to narrow-minded, prejudicial attitudes by shaking her head in disbelief and muttering to herself, "provincial, provincial."
To this Kentucky boy, Mrs. Whitledge's more-proper, Missouri accent seemed practically British. "Provincial," she'd say, almost as I imagined Queen Elizabeth might say it.
Not yet understanding the meaning of the word "provincial," I looked it up. And, because of Mrs. Whitledge, I can actually remember when I first learned that it meant "limited in perspective, narrow, self-centered."
"Provincial" - I knew I didn't want to be that, especially since Mrs. Whitledge thought it such a nasty thing to be.
So think what you will about foreign missions, but - as for me - here's a hat off to five college students who, in 1806, bucked conventional wisdom and dreamed of a world far beyond them. People who, in the spirit of global solidarity, wanted to share love across the continents.
Provincial, they were not.