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 One pastor wrote, “It seemed as if God had almost entirely withdrawn His gracious influence.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
In 1979, they met in a church classroom early on Sunday mornings to pray. A small group of older men and women would gather, encouraging a group of students to join them as they interceded for Sunday services, church leaders, and lost souls. As the church grew and lives were changed, lessons were learned. Listening to their prayers, those students learned how to pray and call on God. I was one of those students. Those men and women had an effective prayer ministry!
How do you start an effective, life changing prayer ministry? Here are eight principles to consider:
Model. Long before Jesus taught the disciples how to pray, He modeled a lifestyle of prayer (Mark 1:35). Similarly, you want to carefully examine your own prayer life before launching a prayer ministry. Do you have a daily time alone with God? Do you pray for the needs of others as well as your own? Do you seek God’s will in your decisions? Have you experienced and worked through some of the basic difficulties of prayer (e.g., dry spells and unanswered prayers)? Your experience with God will help fuel the interest of others in a prayer ministry.
Discuss. Connect with your pastor and other church leaders to talk about your interest in launching a prayer ministry. Ask for their input and ideas. Listen carefully to their responses. If the church has a defined process for launching new ministry organizations, be sure to work as much as possible with the pastor and leaders to gain the support and approval of the new prayer ministry. If you encounter resistance from someone, exercise patience.
Learn. Go to “school” on the subject of prayer: read books, attend conferences, and listen to messages. Build relationships with the praying men and women in your own church. Contact prayer leaders in other churches to learn what they are doing. Become a student.
Strategize. A well-rounded prayer strategy will provide church members with opportunities to learn about and participate in at least three kinds of prayer:
Corporate Prayer. Is your church known as a “house of prayer” (Matthew 21:13)? It ought to be. Somewhere in the life of every church there needs to be a time set aside strictly for prayer. If Wednesday night prayer meeting is really a Bible study (that people are enjoying), don’t feel like you need to change it. Set aside another time and dedicate it for prayer: a time anyone who needs to be prayed for can come and find the support they need.
Small Group Prayer. Jesus is present when a small group prays together (Matthew 18:20). Faithful friends will pray for one another and the special needs of their church and community. Everyone in the church needs someone praying for them (Ephesians 6:18). A small group prayer strategy will make sure that no one is left out.
Individual Prayer. Many church members do not know how to spend time alone with God in a quiet time: they have never been taught. On a regular basis, offer churchwide opportunities to learn about an individual prayer life. Challenge church members to form a new daily prayer habit.
Calendar. The launch of a new prayer ministry needs to be planned and coordinated with other churchwide events. Working with the existing church calendar, identify the dates for your regular prayer meetings, special events, and training classes. Allow ample advance notice so church members can plan their participation.
Enlist. Who will join you in this effort? Identify specific men and women to help you lead and host the different parts of the new prayer ministry. Write out a brief job description for each role you are seeking to fill. Meet with each individual, sharing your passion and the specific tasks to be completed. As you assemble your team, be sure to meet with them on a regular basis for information and encouragement.
Launch. Highlight the launch of a new prayer ministry with a special churchwide event or emphasis. Communicate the new prayer opportunities with announcements, signs, flyers, and church mail. Visit Bible Study classes and other church groups to discuss the prayer ministry launch. Be brief, but enthusiastic.
Support. Working with your leaders, plan a full year of activities and emphases. Meet with your leaders regularly to hear their needs and concerns. Pray with them and for them. Be a cheerleader. As you find new resources, secure copies and share them with your leaders.
Although these eight principles represent the practical steps involved in launching a new prayer ministry, be assured that God will be working in ways you never dreamed or imagined (Ephesians 3:20). Some will be learning how to pray by witnessing the prayer life of others—that’s what happened to me. Others will form new friendships that will encourage them through dark and difficult periods in their lives. All will experience the mighty acts of God!
“For I want you to know what a great CONFLICT I have for you…” ~ Colossians 2:1
“Epaphras, who is one of you, a bondservant of Christ, greets you, always LABORING fervently for you in prayers, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God.” ~ Colossians 4:12
“…who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement CRIES AND TEARS…” ~ Hebrews 5:7
Prayer is not the last resort of the weak-minded, it is the inner refuge of indefatigable men and women who know how to wait before their infinitely wise and mighty God.
The great struggle in prayer is not between God and you, as if you were straining to wrest some meager token from a stingy deity. Because of His unreserved love for you, your Father knows what you need before the thought is framed in your mind or any word leaves your lips.
No. Your battle is not with God.
But the moment you set out to go to God in prayer, all hell breaks loose. Distractions will come. Interruptions. Discouraging thoughts. Powerful emotions that posture as the truth but act as blinders to it. Instead of finding rest you seem to incur greater distress in your soul. Your path to Him lies submerged beneath a swirling eddy of anxiety. Your praying seems useless beneath the smothering effects of your circumstances.
And all the while, He is still there, He hears you, and He loves you.
It bears repeating: your battle is not with God.
Your battle lies in shutting out the mad noise of the outer world…
- slipping into the secret place and sacred space of your inner world…
- to lay down your worries and weights and terrors at His feet…
- to move over and surrender the controls…
- to let go of your fiercely-held “maps” to your happiness…
- to enter the sanctuary of His Presence…
- to simply be with Him…
- and to discover He has been seeking you for this relationship all along!
The noise of battle ends in the loving Presence of the all-sufficient King and the infinitely satisfying Savior… Jesus!
Every Christian is on a journey to know God more fully (John 17:3)… but rarely does anyone explain that the path is not an easy one nor is it well-populated. It can be strange and disorienting, especially as you look around and it seems no one else is travelling with you, or that no one else has passed this way before (not true, but it can feel that way).
John Newton (1725-1807), best known as the author of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace,’ in another hymn describes the way our Father draws us near and refines our faith into the finest spiritual “steel”…
I ask’d the Lord, that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.
‘Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answer’d prayer;
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that in some favour’d hour
At once He’d answer my request,
And by His love’s constraining power
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
Yea more, with His own hand He seem’d
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
“Lord, why is this?” I trembling cried,
“Wilt thou pursue Thy worm to death?”
“’Tis in this way,” the Lord replied,
“I answer prayer for grace and faith:”
“These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st seek thy all in me.”
~ John Newton (1725-1807)
Source: Winchell, James M., ed. An Arrangement of the Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of the Rev. Isaac Watts. Boston: James Loring, and Lincoln & Edmands, 1832.
Aiden Wilson Tozer was 23 years old when he was called to pastor a new church in Clarksburg, West Virginia. On August 18, 1920 at a campground a few miles outside Cleveland, Ohio, leaders of the Christian and Missionary Alliance scheduled an ordination service. After the formal ceremony and laying on of hands, Tozer was deeply moved by the grave implications of his calling to be a preacher. He slipped away from the crowd and found a quiet place to be alone with God. It was a divine encounter that marked him for the remainder of his life. He never forgot the essence of what he prayed that evening. Years later as the new editor for the Alliance Weekly, Tozer published his prayer in an article “For Pastors Only: Prayer of a Minor Prophet” (May 6, 1950). What follows is a slightly edited and updated version of that prayer.
“Lord, I have heard Your voice and was afraid. You have called me to an awesome task in a grave and perilous hour. You are about to shake all nations and the earth and also heaven, that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. O Lord, my Lord, You have stooped to honor me to be Your servant. No man takes this honor upon himself save he that is called of God. You have ordained me Your messenger to them that are stubborn of heart and hard of hearing. They have rejected You, the Master, and it is not to be expected that they will receive me, the servant.”
“My God, I shall not waste time deploring my weakness nor my unfittedness for the work. The responsibility is not mine, but Yours. You have said, “I knew You – I ordained You – I sanctified You,” and You have also said, “You shall go to all that I shall send You, and whatsoever I command You, You shall speak.” Who am I to argue with You or to call into question Your sovereign choice? The decision is not mine but Yours. So be it, Lord. Your will, not mine, be done.”
“Well do I know, God of the prophets and the apostles, that as long as I honor You, You will honor me. Help me therefore to take this solemn vow to honor You in all my future life and labors, whether by gain or by loss, by life or by death, and then to keep that vow unbroken while I live.”
“It is time, O God, for You to work, for the enemy has entered into Your pastures and the sheep are torn and scattered. And false shepherds abound who deny the danger and laugh at the perils which surround Your flock. The sheep are deceived by these hirelings and follow them with touching loyalty while the wolf closes in to kill and destroy. I beseech You, give me sharp eyes to detect the presence of the enemy; give me understanding to see and courage to report what I see faithfully. Make my voice so like Your own that even the sick sheep will recognize it and follow You.”
“Lord Jesus, I come to You for spiritual preparation. Lay Your hand upon me. Anoint me with the oil of the New Testament prophet. Forbid that I should become a religious scribe and thus lose my prophetic calling. Save me from the curse that lies dark across the modern clergy, the curse of compromise, of imitation, of professionalism. Save me from the error of judging a church by its size, its popularity or the amount of its yearly offering. Help me to remember that I am a prophet – not a promoter, not a religious manager, but a prophet. Let me never become a slave to crowds. Heal my soul of carnal ambitions and deliver me from the itch for publicity. Save me from bondage to things. Let me not waste my days puttering around the house. Lay Your terror upon me, O God, and drive me to the place of prayer where I may wrestle with principalities and powers and the rulers of the darkness of this world. Deliver me from overeating and late sleeping. Teach me self-discipline that I may be a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”
“I accept hard work and small rewards in this life. I ask for no easy place. I shall try to be blind to the little ways that could make life easier. If others seek the smoother path I shall try to take the hard way without judging them too harshly. I shall expect opposition and try to take it quietly when it comes. Or if, as sometimes it falls out to Your servants, I should have grateful gifts pressed upon me by Your kindly people, stand by me then and save me from the blight that often follows. Teach me to use whatever I receive in such manner that will not injure my soul nor diminish my spiritual power. And if, in Your permissive providence, honor should come to me from Your church, let me not forget in that hour that I am unworthy of the least of Your mercies, and that if men knew me as intimately as I know myself they would withhold their honors or bestow them upon others more worthy to receive them.”
“And now, O Lord of heaven and earth, I consecrate my remaining days to You; let them be many or few, as You will. Let me stand before the great or minister to the poor and lowly; that choice is not mine, and I would not influence it if I could. I am Your servant to do Your will, and that will is sweeter to me than position or riches or fame and I choose it above all things on earth or in heaven.”
“Though I am chosen of You and honored by a high and holy calling, let me never forget that I am but a man of dust and ashes, a man with all the natural faults and passions that plague the race of men. I pray You, therefore, my Lord and Redeemer, save me from myself and from all the injuries I may do myself while trying to be a blessing to others. Fill me with Your power by the Holy Spirit, and I will go in Your strength and tell of Your righteousness, even Yours only. I will spread abroad the message of redeeming love while my normal powers endure.”
“Then, dear Lord, when I am old and weary and too tired to go on, have a place ready for me above, and make me to be numbered with Your saints in glory everlasting. Amen.”
Source for the unedited text: Lyle W. Dorsett, A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A.W. Tozer (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008), 66-67.
One thing I have desired of the Lord, that will I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple. ~ Psalm 27:4
If you could ask for one thing from God, what would it be? How long would you think about that question before submitting your request? Most of us have immediate needs… money for a car repair, or direction for a big decision, or relief from a broken marriage. Those are serious needs, but is that the one thing you want the most?
Let me reframe that question in a way that helps me: if there was one thing I could ask from God that would fulfill and satisfy my heart every day for the remainder of my life, what would it be?
Isn’t that the kind of thing you ask for when you can only ask for one thing?
In Psalm 27:4, David exposes the deepest longing of his heart when he writes, “One thing I have desired of the Lord.” There is something he wants from God… a single desire. He hasn’t said yet what it is, but to get the one thing it seems clear I must want just one thing.
But desire is not enough. He writes, “that will I seek.” Some people will go all their lives wanting God, but will never seriously seek God. David is different. He throws himself into the effort, seeking God by faith with determination and intentionality.
What is he seeking? To dwell in the presence of God “all the days of my life.” Every day. He does not want to merely “visit,” but David wants to live there… in His Presence.
What does he want to do? Two things…
(1) He wants to “behold” Him. He wants to see God, but not with his physical eyes. Walking into the deepest recesses of the Temple complex, David would have only seen the Ark of the Covenant with the eyes in his head, but with the eyes of his heart he knows he can gaze on the “beauty of the Lord.” No speaking is involved, just seeing… simple, childlike wonder at who He is… contentment in His love… deep satisfaction. David’s soul thirst becomes soul rest.
The apostle Paul later describes how the daily practice of “looking” at Jesus was changing him, even in the midst of destructive circumstances. He writes,
Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18
(2) In the presence of God, David also wants “to inquire.” David stands out from most of the men in his generation because he regularly asked God for direction. He understands that God is sovereign over all creation, and he wants to be personally subject to the rule of God. Throughout most of his life, he rarely made a move without consulting God. For example…
- 1 Samuel 23:1-3 David inquired of the LORD, saying…
- 1 Samuel 23:4-5, 10-11, 12-14 David inquired of the LORD once again.
- 1 Samuel 30:8-9 David inquired of the LORD, saying…
- 2 Samuel 2:1-2; 5:17-21 David inquired of the LORD, saying…
- 2 Samuel 5:22-25 23 David inquired of the LORD…
- 2 Samuel 21:1 …and David inquired of the LORD.
David’s one desire is to live his life within the confines of an intimate relationship with God.
He wants to know God…
He wants to please God in every decision… and
He shares his desire in order to influence the generations that would follow.
This message was given at the Bible Training College in London (February-June 1915), where Chambers was teaching a course called Missionary Matters. Guest lecturers included well-known missionaries and evangelical leaders, such as C.T Studd. Chambers did not know that the school would close in a few months because of Great Britain’s involvement in World War I, or that he and his young family would soon be moving to Egypt to minister to soldiers through the YMCA.
“The first minister of munitions in this Empire has just said: You have read appeals for the front, appeals to the workshop, I would almost say at the present moment everything depends on the workshops of Britain. What is true in the enormous world crisis of war is symbolically true in work for God. But what are the workshops that supply the munitions for God’s enterprises? The workshop of missionary munitions is the hidden, personal, worshipping life of the saint.”
Nathanael said to Him, “How do You know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” John 1:48
“The constant, private habit of the life of the missionary ought to be worshipping as occasion serves, that is the first great essential for fitness. The time will come when no more fig tree life is possible; when we are right out in the open and glare of the work, and we shall find ourselves without any value then if we have not been worshipping God as occasion serves. We imagine we should be all right if a big crisis arose; but the crisis only reveals the stuff we are made of, it does not put anything into us. If God gives the call, of course, I shall rise to the occasion. You will not, unless you have risen to the occasion in the workshop. If you are not the real article before God there, doing the duty that lies nearest, instead of being revealed as fit for God when the crisis comes, you will be revealed as unfit. Crises always reveal character, and we are all ignorant of our true character until it is revealed to us.”
“If you do not worship as occasion serves at home, you will be of no use in the foreign field; but if you put the worship of God first, and get the revelation of Who God is, then, when the call comes you will be ready for it, because in the unseen life and preparing, and now when the strain comes you are perfectly fit to be relied on by God. Worshipping is greater than work in that it absorbs work.”
Nathanael answered and said to Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered and said to him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And He said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” John 1:49-51
“Our Lord is the One in Whom God and man can meet as one. If that has never been learned in our private worshipping life, it will never be realised in active public work. There is no need for this private worship of God, I cannot be expected to live the sanctified life in the circumstances I am in; there is no time for praying just now, no time for Bible reading; when I get out into the work and the opportunity comes for all that, of course I shall be all right. If you have not been worshipping as occasion serves, you will not only be useless when you get out into service but a tremendous hindrance to those who are associated with you. Imagine a general having ammunition made in a workshop at the back of the trenches! His men would be blown up whilst attempting it. Yet that is what we seem to expect to do in work for God.”
Source: Oswald Chambers, So Send I You: A Series of Missionary Studies (London: Simpkins Marshall, 1930), 83.