It was on a Saturday afternoon during the month of August 1806 that five young men from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, met together to pray near a grove of maple trees north of the campus. As a thunderstorm rolled in overhead, lightning and rain forced the students to run and take shelter in a haystack. As the storm raged, the students prayed that God would send them across the seas to share the good news of Jesus Christ with a lost world. God heard their prayer.
Six years later, the first missionaries from America set sail for foreign lands.
The leader of the Haystack Prayer Meeting was Samuel J. Mills, Jr. Born in 1783, Samuel grew up in a minister’s home in Torringford, Connecticut, the youngest of four living children born to Samuel and Esther Mills. His father, Samuel Mills, Sr., pastored the same church for 64 years.
Prayers for revival—for God to make His presence real to His people—were common throughout New England in the 1790’s. In 1798 revival broke out in Connecticut and Massachusetts, affecting over 150 churches. In the 30 village churches of northern Connecticut, over 1,700 converts were added to the membership rolls in less than 24 months. Samuel Mills witnessed the impact of that revival.
In 1806, Mills entered the all-male Williams College at the age of 23. Like many colleges in the 1790’s, the spiritual and moral conditions at the school were tough for Christians. Believers were often ridiculed and ostracized from the social life of the campus. The French Revolution and Enlightenment ideals ushered in a wave of skepticism towards God and the Bible. Several church-based colleges completely lost their theological moorings. One pastor wrote, “It seemed as if God had almost entirely withdrawn His gracious influence. We were left to mourn an absent God, barren ordinances, an unsuccessful Gospel and cold hearts.”
In 1805, revival broke out at the congregational church in Williamstown pastored by Seth Swift, deeply affecting a number of students, including a junior named Algernon Bailey. Bailey was repeatedly threatened and harassed by his fellow students for his faith, but his patient endurance only served to draw other students to Christ. The revival spread from the church to the campus.
By the summer of 1806, Mills and others were meeting twice a week for prayer and Bible study. Normally a dozen or so students would attend the meetings. But on one particularly hot Saturday in August, Mills was joined by a childhood friend, Harvey Loomis, and three others: James Richards, Francis Robbins, and Byram Green.
Years later Byram Green recalled that it was during this meeting that Mills first proposed that as students, they could be the first to carry the Gospel to Asia and the Middle East. He writes, “We first went to the grove, expecting to hold our prayer meeting there, but a dark cloud was rising in the west, and it soon began to thunder and lightning, and we left the grove and went under the haystack to protect us from the approaching storm… The subject of conversation under the stack, before and during the shower, was the moral darkness of Asia. Mills proposed to send the gospel to that dark and heathen and; and said that we could do it if we would.”
In 1810, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) was launched in response to a petition for assistance coming from Mills and his prayer partners, now students at Andover Theological Seminary. The ABCFM was the first Christian ministry in the United States devoted to sending missionaries overseas.
On February 12, 1812, the first missionaries from America set sail for India. On board that ship, the missionary roster included Adoniram Judson and Luther Rice, who would become founders of the modern missionary movement among Baptists.
Samuel Mills went on to become a missionary promoter and statesman throughout the United States. He conducted two missionary surveys of the Mississippi River, including the western territories belonging to the young United States. He helped start a training school for internationals, American Indians, free slaves, and Polynesians. He helped organize the American Bible Society in 1816. He died in 1818 on a return voyage from a mission trip to West Africa. Samuel Mills was 35 years old. He never married.
Why did it happen? What caused the explosion of American interest in global evangelism and missions after 1810? Was it the students under the haystack? Not quite.
It was a few people in the presence of God.
What happened to those students who completely sold out to God in the summer of 1806 was simply this: they experienced the presence of God. In the presence of God, the students at the haystack took personal responsibility for the lost souls of their generation.
Today, in His Presence, we too can hear the heartbeat of God for lost souls around us—and our heart will begin to beat with His heart—and we will cry out “Here am I, send me!”
Editor’s Note: Would you like to view a 15-minute documentary of the 1806 Haystack Prayer Meeting and the birth of American foreign missions? Produced for Arkansas Baptist Collegiate Ministries, this video (click here) was created by a wonderful team of talented friends, and written and narrated by yours truly. Enjoy! – DP
Imagine that you are in a room with an Iranian Jew, a Pakistani Muslim, a Nigerian animist, a Tibetan monk, a Chicago-born African-American, and a businessman from Memphis. You are each in this room for your entire life, and you are the only Christian in the room.
Who would you be most responsible to share the gospel with? You’d say, “That’s silly. I’d share the gospel with each of them.”
And if I kept putting people in the room with you, would you give me the same answer? I would hope so. This planet is that room… and we’re all in it together.
Who are we supposed to share the gospel with? Jesus said “all.” I believe He meant it.
The Sending-Organization Imperatives
When Jesus told His followers to make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:19), He was not referring to the modern concept of a nation, such as France, India, or the Philippines. The Greek word “ethne” referred to any group of people living together, typically along racial and cultural lines.
Since the 1990s, every major missionary-sending body has embraced an unreached people group strategy. In a historic speech at the Lausanne Conference on World Mission (1974), Ralph Winter argued that it simply didn’t make sense to focus on sending missionaries to evangelize a country (i.e., a nation with geographical and political boundaries), because there may be hundreds – or even thousands—of unique people groups within the borders of any given country. Sometimes those people groups lived on both sides of the geopolitical borders and straddled the borders of multiple countries.
What is a people group? That depends on who composes the definition. There are approximately 7,000 languages in the world, but when you include natural associations derived from dialects and ethnicity, human beings can fall into 13,000 different “people groups.” However, if you add other bases for affinity – such as religion, caste, education, politics, ideology, customs, or shared history – you could identify as many as 24,000 groups of people in the world. Consequently, the people group definitions and counts vary widely.
Mission organizations have worked hard at identifying and classifying people groups as reached or unreached. Again, the definitions vary somewhat, but an unreached people group is one where less than 2% of the population is composed of evangelical Christians. Unreached people groups are either engaged or unengaged… engaged groups have been penetrated by someone attempting to implement a church planting strategy as a primary means of spreading the gospel.
Millions of dollars are raised each year and thousands of churches have become involved in the effort to reduce and eliminate the number of unengaged, unreached people groups on the planet. The people group strategy is an essential way of identifying groups with little or no access to the gospel. It offers a way for mission organizations with limited funding to prioritize where dollars and personnel will be deployed. It opens up new ways for individual churches to become directly involved in global missions.
But there is a major problem with an exclusive commitment to a people group strategy.
The Biblical Imperative: ALL
Most mission groups define an unreached people group as one where less than 2% are evangelical Christians. What’s wrong with that?
Jesus commanded us to do much more.
Many mission leaders refer to the effort to carry the gospel to unreached people groups as “finishing the task,” when in truth (if you believe 2% is the goal), you have only just begun the task. In the Bible, God reveals His heart for every person:
- He is the shepherd who doesn’t stop at finding 2% of the sheep, or 99% of the sheep: He does not stop until every last sheep is rescued.
- He is the woman who doesn’t stop until the lost coin is found.
- He is the father who does not rest until the lost son is home.
God dances when one soul is saved! This is the heart of God. He is not satisfied with merely penetrating the world with the gospel, rather, He is focused on saturation. Prior to the advent of contemporary people group emphases, the earliest missionaries in the modern era seemed to understand this. In 1818, missionary pioneers Gordon Hall and Samuel Newell wrote,
“If we send half a dozen Missionaries to a country where there are as many millions of souls, we are too apt to imagine that we have discharged our duty to that country—we have sent them the gospel. The fact however is, we have only sent the gospel to a few individuals in that nation. The great body of the people never hear of our missionaries or the religion they teach. The thing that Christ commands is to preach the gospel to every creature,—not merely to a few individuals in every nation.”
In 1870, William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, wrote a book entitled How to Reach the Masses with the Gospel. In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed D. L. Moody’s mission church, his home, and the YMCA. God used it to change him: he devoted the rest of his life to the “evangelization of the world in this generation.” In 1891, A.T. Pierson asked the question as he succeeded Charles Spurgeon as pastor of London’s Metropolitan Tabernacle: “The great question of the hour is, how can the immediate proclamation of the Gospel to every creature be made a fact?”
As late as 1976, the Southern Baptist Convention launched a “Bold Mission Thrust”, setting a goal “that every person in the world shall have the opportunity to hear the gospel of Christ in the next 25 years.” Unfortunately, our mission is no longer to saturate the world with the gospel, but to merely penetrate selected groups.
The Great Commission is actually a series of statements Jesus made directing the church to continue His ministry on earth. Matthew 28:18-20 is probably the best known and most quoted (more on that in a moment). Other “great commission” statements include:
- Matthew 24:14 “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.”
- Mark 16:15 And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.”
- Luke 24:46-47 Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
- Acts 1:8 “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Only two of these passages capture a clear command from Jesus that defines our mission.
Disciple All Who Receive Christ
And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus begins with a promise that He rules in the unseen and the visible realms (all authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth). He issues a single command to reproduce more followers of Jesus (make disciples of all the nations). He adds three defining activities associated with making a disciple: going, baptizing, and teaching. Then, He closes with a final promise that He is always with us in this assignment (I am with you always, even to the end of the age).
His promises about His authority challenge me and comfort me. The challenge lies in the fact that He is not recommending I make disciples: he commands me (and every other believer) to do it. The comfort I find in His authority is that every place I go and every person I meet is already under His rule… they just don’t know it. Knowing this has helped me battle my own experiences of loneliness, culture shock, isolation, disappointment, discouragement, rejection, and doubt.
The mandate to make disciples includes all nations. I am to help people learn to follow Christ without regard to their race, language, literacy, income, age, or health. I am to help people understand His heart and will for their lives. I am to help them learn how to walk with Him wherever He is moving, staying close through the leading of His indwelling Spirit—listening for His voice, relying on His presence, and drawing on His power.
Evangelize All Who Are Lost
And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.”
In Mark 16:15, the essential command is to preach or herald the gospel. In ancient times, official statements from a king were entrusted to an official messenger who would go to public locations and announce the king’s words. Jesus clarifies His intent by adding that this preaching activity was to involve going to every place (all the world) and speaking to every person (every creature).
This is a GREAT commission. Jesus is insisting that every human being needs to hear the good news. From senior adults in North Dakota, to street urchins in Mumbai, to white collar types in New York City, to the gaucho in Patagonia… every person needs to know that God sent Jesus to rescue every individual from the enemies of the human soul. Without Jesus, they have no hope. The gospel answers their deepest needs: to know God, to find forgiveness for sin, to know power for change, and to lose the universal fear of death.
Possessing the gospel is not a privilege to enjoy, or a resource to be rationed out among the nations, but it is a message to be shared!
Every generation of Christians is responsible to share the good news with their generation. A concept flowing out of the nineteenth century, it is rooted in biblical example. Paul preached in Ephesus, until everyone in Asia heard the gospel (Acts 19:10), then he told the church leaders in Acts 20:26, “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men.”
For an illustration of our current problem, imagine a cord 120 inches long (10 feet). If that length represents a global population of 7.1 billion people, then 8½ inches would represent the 500 million evangelicals alive today. Do you really believe God is satisfied that only 2¼ inches (2%) of the remaining 111½ inches would represent the “fulfillment” of the Great Commission?
That’s not “bold” or anything like “finishing the task” — that’s disobedience!
We are to make Him known to every person in our generation… that’s the heartbeat of the Great Commission.
Yes, we are being forced to leverage limited resources and personnel to unreached people groups… but we must never forget that God is pursuing the unreached person whether he (or she) lives across the street or around the world.
All means every… one.