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 One pastor wrote, “It seemed as if God had almost entirely withdrawn His gracious influence.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
At 9 p.m. on a Saturday evening, a pastor and a small group of deacons met to ask God for a revival in their church. Their church was struggling. Church members felt spiritually dry and weak. Few people were coming to faith in Christ. Month after month that small group of deacons sought God together every Saturday night, and He began to work powerfully in their lives. One evening the pastor challenged the men concerning unconfessed sin in their lives. Something changed in the atmosphere of the room. In tears, the deacons began to reconcile with one another and the pastor. God was making His presence real to those men as they persisted in praying together.
Five years later in 1971, revival came to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Saskatoon, Canada, pastored by Bill McLeod and prayed over by that faithful group of deacons. The rapidly growing crowds forced the services to relocate multiple times. Finally settling into the local civic auditorium, the revival meetings continued for seven weeks as over four thousand people gathered together each night. Affecting the entire city, the revival would go on to influence churches throughout western Canada. However, this was not the first time God had used deacons to transform a church and its surrounding community!
Revival and the Forerunners of Deacon Ministry
People were upset. Hurtful words and accusations were exchanged. The church was dividing into two factions, and the community was watching. The very next step would determine whether the church would die or thrive. Sound familiar? Except this story isn’t one of many unfolding weekly across our country, but rather it describes a critical moment in the early church (Acts 6:1-7).
At the direction of the apostles, the church chose seven men to step into the conflict. As the forerunners of deacon ministry, “The Seven” were respected, wise, Spirit‑filled men. Ministering to individual members of the church, they were a catalyst for healing and spiritual growth within the body of Christ. The change was so profound, that the entire community noticed and became extremely receptive to the gospel. New Christ-followers were pouring into the church (Acts 6:7). When the early church experienced their first revival, spiritual awakening soon followed!
Far from being extraordinary, revival and spiritual awakening became normal experiences among the first Christians. Revival usually refers to an experience within the church, while spiritual awakening describes the impact of a revived church on the surrounding community. God never intended that His people would live and accomplish His mission apart from Him. When believers begin to think of the church as a human‑powered institution, rather than a supernatural body with Christ the King as their head, they will miss God’s plan and purpose for them as a church. A church without the presence of God may appear to be doctrinally orthodox and relationally healthy, but in fact, they have abandoned their first love (Rev. 2:2-4).
Revival is a fresh encounter between God and His people. As their hearts begin to align with His heart, individual Christians are renewed in their desire to please Him in everything. Repenting of sinful and selfish pursuits, believers rediscover His beauty and long to enjoy His presence every day. The apostle Peter taught that access to the presence of God was the birthright of every Christian when he said, “. . . repent and turn back. . . that seasons of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord…” (Acts 3:19-20 CSB). Notice the word “seasons” is plural – referring to more than one experience. God desires that you encounter His presence many times! The church draws her life, her direction, and her power from the presence of Jesus Christ.
Deacons as Instruments of Revival
Does your church need a fresh encounter with the presence of God? What can you do as a deacon to pursue the presence of God in your life and in your church?
Feed on the Scriptures. The church recognized “The Seven” in Acts 6 as men who were full of “wisdom” – their approach to people and their problems stood out from the crowd. Where does wisdom come from? Wisdom comes from God alone. In the wilderness, manna from heaven represented God’s daily provision of nourishment and life for His people. Just as your body needs physical food, Jesus stressed that your spiritual life depends entirely on your intake of God’s Word (Mt. 4:4). Like a hammer, the Bible will shatter and reshape your worldview. As you absorb the truth into your mind, the Holy Spirit will cause you to become wise – a man who is able to “see” God, yourself, and your world from His perspective.
Draw Near to Him in Personal Prayer. When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He stressed the importance of being alone with Him (Mt. 6:6). When we draw near to Him, He has promised to draw near to us (Jas. 4:8; Heb. 11:6)! Prayer is your pathway into His presence – a time to love and enjoy the Lord Jesus – and an opportunity to unburden your soul at His feet (1 Pet. 5:7). However, a sustained effort to draw near to Him will expose impurities in your life, forcing you to choose between secret sinful behaviors or a heart-level devotion to Him (Is. 6:1-5). Your continued journey into His presence depends on your readiness to repent of any sin that is blocking your way forward into His presence.
Cultivate a Sensitivity to the Spirit. As one of “The Seven,” Phillip was known for his sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. By depending on the Spirit to guide him every day, Phillip knew when it was time to leave a busy ministry assignment to go out in the middle of nowhere, only to discover a man who was ready to receive Jesus as his Savior (Acts 8:26-38). We grieve and quench the work of the Spirit when we ignore His promptings (Eph. 4 :30; 1 Th. 5:19). As we grow in our sensitivity to Him, the Holy Spirit will reproduce the life and ministry of Jesus in us (Gal. 2:20, 4:19).
Pray Together as Deacons. Because Jesus promised His presence to any group of Christians seeking Him together, the early church made prayer a primary activity in all of their gatherings (Mt.18:19-20). Prior to any revival or spiritual awakening, God stirs the hearts of His people, opening their eyes to the need of the church, and drawing them to call on God for a fresh outpouring of His Spirit. In the process, the praying ones often experience His presence long before the larger body of believers. When deacons pray together over time, their faith will grow, their relationships to one another will deepen, and their church will be changed.
Can you imagine being part of a church where – every Sunday for five years – someone was saved or joined the fellowship? Where marriages were being transformed and prodigal children were coming home? Where God was clearly at work every day? I can. I was part of a church like that many years ago.
The church had a vibrant Sunday School and an anointed preacher, but the “secret” to what the church was experiencing did not lie in their quality programming or personnel. What they had were groups of men and women who prayed every day, and the deacons encouraged prayer by their example. In a typical deacons meeting, the men might discuss their “business” for a few minutes, but they would quickly move into a season of prayer. Recording needs on a dry erase board, they would spend the bulk of their meeting time on their knees. Jesus came and took over from there!
Deacons are more than mere participants in revival. They have been God’s chosen instruments of revival in the past. Is your heart being stirred to pray with your pastor and fellow deacons? What you do next will affect the future of your church for years to come.
For further reading:
Blackaby, Henry T., Richard Blackaby, and Claude V. King. Fresh Encounter: Experiencing God’s Power for Spiritual Awakening. Nashville, TN: LifeWay, 2009.
Catt, Michael. Power of Surrender. Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2014.
(Written to encourage deacons, this article was originally published as “Deacons, Revival, and Spiritual Awakening” in the Winter 2018 issue of Deacon Magazine, a publication of LifeWay Christian Resources.)
- My heart pursues what I truly love, and is indifferent to the things that I don’t care about (Matthew 6:21).
- My heart is susceptible to external influences — good and bad — and must be guarded (Proverbs 4:23).
- My heart can be consumed with one thing, or it can be partitioned by affections for many things (Psalm 86:11, Mark 12:30).
- My heart can be pure, or it can be morally unclean, clouding my perception of truth (Psalm 51:10).
- My heart can erupt in joy, or it can be be shattered by sorrow (1 Peter 1:8, Psalm 147:3).
- My heart is that immaterial part of me that exercises belief or unbelief (Romans 10:9-10).
And most significantly, my heart can be hard or tender towards God (2 Chronicles 24:37). Comparing the human heart to a field that must be prepared before there can be a harvest, the prophet Hosea writes,
…break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the LORD… Hosea 10:12
Is my heart like a long-neglected field, hardened against the quiet winds of God’s Spirit blowing across my soul?
In his 1956 book In the Day of Thy Power, Arthur Wallis (1922 – 1988) penned a classic reflection on genuine spiritual revival. In the following quote, he explains the vital role of a tender heart in apprehending (or missing) who God is and what He is doing around me.
“Here then is the first great condition of revival, that brokenness of heart that is sensitive to the least touch of the Spirit, and that has only to know the will of God to do it. One may cross fallow ground and not see where the feet have trod – no impression has been made. But when the plough and the harrow have done their work, and the soil is soft and friable, then the print of the foot is clearly seen. When our hearts are sensitive, responsive, and impressionable to the movements of God across our lives, we may be sure that the fallow ground is broken.”
Source: Wallis, Arthur. In the Day of Thy Power. London: Christian Literature Crusade, 1956.
For thus says the High and Lofty One Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, with him who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.” ~Isaiah 57:15
The Welsh Revival of 1904-1906 was part of a global movement of God making Himself known to His people early in the 20th century. Evan Roberts had been praying since he was 13 that revival would come to his native Wales, and by early 1904, Roberts was spending most nights in prayer alone with the Father. On October 31 in Loughor, he spoke to his hometown church to a crowd of 17 people… within weeks he was speaking to thousands, and within the next 10 months, over 100,000 new Christians were swept into the churches of Wales.
Was God manifesting His Presence to His people? In Isaiah 57:15, God reveals that He inhabits eternity, where time ceases to exist. In the article excerpt below, a secular newspaper reporter with the London Times describes the environment of one those first meetings in November 1904.
While he is still speaking the people give vent to their feelings in a hymn of thanksgiving repeated as before again and again. Thus the hours creep on. It is long past midnight. Now here, now there someone rises to make his confession and lay bare his record before the people or falls upon his knees where he is and in loud and fervent tones prays for forgiveness. Still unwearied, the people sing. Hymns seem the only adequate channel for expressing their joy and thankfulness. It sounds incredible, but this succession of prayer, of address, of confession, of singing, went on from 7 o’clock at night until 3 o’clock in the morning. “Succession” was not always an adequate description, because several times during the night, when the excitement was at its highest, the outbursts were not successive, but literally simultaneous. These cross-currents were confusing, and once or twice one felt as if the whole scene were a dream or a nightmare. Most amazing of all was the endurance of the men and women. There they were, through all those long hours, eager and earnest to the last, as if wrestling for life with an unseen power. At 3 o’clock the “hooter” sounded from distant colliery. Whether this or mere physical exhaustion brought them back from the world of timelessness, I could not tell. Soberly and reverently they went out into the morning air, eager as themselves. Many of the colliers [coal miners], I know, had “only time for a wash and breakfast” and were at the colliery to join the morning “shift.”
Source: “The Welsh Revival (by a Welsh Correspondent).” The London Times (London), January 3, 1905.
Revival is not a calendared event in a church. It is not an evangelistic crusade, although evangelism is an expected result of revival. It is not confined to a place or a time outside of the human heart.
Revival is best defined as what happens to God’s people when He is present. It is truly the birthright of every child of God…
Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ
What happens when God manifests His presence in an experiential way among His people? In the first decade of the twentieth century, believers around the world encountered the presence of God in a well-documented, global event. Here is one description, drawn from the revival in the Khassia hills region of India in March 1905:
Shillong is a fashionable Hill station, and the seat of Government; a difficult place in which to lead a truly spiritual life. Here a large proportion of the Christian community consisted of young people born of Christian parents, instructed in Scripture truth, yet who had never come into living touch with a personal Saviour…
Many felt that the Glory of the Infinite God was actually visible in the building. Special prayer had been offered up here as elsewhere. Attendance became larger and expectancy grew. Then one night while a not very prominent member of the church was leading in prayer, he prayed for the Spirit and pleaded so earnestly, as if his soul was parched with thirst, and faint with hunger. Then others began, while he still prayed, to pray in whispers, which went on to loud cries, and the greater part of the congregation burst out in piercing cries for mercy; while others shouted with ecstasy at the sight of a Saviour “able to save.” . . .
Another young man, a Christian, but irreverent, felt great terror. The trifling, jocular way he had so often used in handling the holy things and words of God, appeared now in its true light. Fear and trembling seized him. He felt as if some unseen hand was twisting him, and for days was unable to leave his bed He arose a thoughtful, earnest, God-fearing man. . . .
Many present in the chapel that night–witnesses whose word can be relied on–state that they saw clouds hanging over the brother who stood praying at the commencement. To some the clouds appeared so dense that the light of the lamp was not visible. Others saw them as fiery clouds. After that came reviving and precious times; wayward and prodigal children coming home crying for mercy…
The presence of God… He is the author, source, and sustainer of life as He intends it to be.Source: Helen S. Dyer, Revival in India: Years of the Right Hand of the Most High (New York: Gospel Publishers, 1907), 35-36.
Twenty-five years later, the experience remains vivid. The Lord still whispers the lyrics of that time across my heart, “this is My church”. Church as He intends it to be. It was an ordinary church retreat, until He touched us with His presence. Five hours later, we were closer to each other. We were closer to Him. He had come. It was only a small taste of what happens in the presence of God. Why do we need revival? Because we need Him!
Revival is essential. Revival is the restoration of God’s presence to His people. In Exodus 33, God threatened to remove His presence from His people. Understanding that there is no real life apart from God’s presence, Moses pleaded for God to return to His people. In verse 15, Moses said, “If Your Presence does not go with us, do not bring us up from here.” God’s presence is essential. We need Him, and we were never intended to do life or church without Him.
Revival is also experiential. In other words, when God is present, life is different. In Acts 3:19, Peter said, “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” Peter understood that the presence of God alone could refresh and renew the hearts of His people.
Why do we need God’s Presence?
- We need Him if we are ever going to recover a biblical sense of fear and awe. In Revelation 1:17, John fell on his face in the presence of God. He simply could not stand. More than a physical response, the bowing of our bodies reflects the yielding of our hearts to His rule in our lives. When God is present, our lives are reoriented around Him and not ourselves.
- We need Him if we are going to do real battle with sin in our lives. In Isaiah 6:1-5, the prophet had a life-defining encounter with the holy presence of God. The result was that he became intensely aware of his own sinfulness. Like raising the lights in a darkened room, God’s holiness will highlight all the impurities in our lives. Isaiah wanted to deal with the sin in his life and so will we!
- We need Him if our land is going to be healed. In 2 Chronicles 7:14, God says that if His people are repentant, then He will “heal their land.” Our land is suffering. Secularists are forecasting the loss of U.S. economic and military influence around the world. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, floods… from natural disasters to national debt, it seems clear our nation is in trouble. Not only has infertility doubled in the U.S. since 1992, the World Health Organization believes the infertility will be the third most serious disease of the twenty-first century, following cancer and cardiovascular disorders. Is God getting our attention? This was similar to what the people of Israel were experiencing in the days of Haggai the prophet: “You have sown much, and bring in little; you eat, but do not have enough; you drink, but you are not filled with drink; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and he who earns wages, earns wages to put into a bag with holes.” (Haggai 1:6)
- We need Him if we are going to love the world the way He does. In Luke 9:36-38, Jesus has compassion on the masses of people without God. He feels something that is visceral, engaging all the emotions in a desire to release others from spiritual darkness and disorientation. When He is present among us, our hearts will come into alignment with His heart.
- We need Him if we are going to answer the heart cry of our generation. All around us, people have questions about God. Who is He? What is He like? Can He forgive me? Can He help me? They are interested in talking to someone who really knows God, but studies indicate that they are not looking to churches for those answers. They are not moving away from an interest in God, as much as they are running away from the institutional church. They have questions about God and a real hunger for spiritual reality, and they want those answers from people they know and trust.
- We need Him if we are going to recover the hearts of students and young adults. Recently, I was talking to a young couple I met in a coffee shop, asking them to share their thoughts about God and church. He was a second-year law student; she was a nurse. Although they had been raised in evangelical churches, they understood very little about God or the gospel message. They had not been discipled by parents or the church to walk with God. Youth are “graduating” from church at the same time they graduate from high school. Last November, Barna Research reported that almost 60 percent of young people age 15 to 29 have left active involvement in a church. Only God’s presence can turn this around.
- We need Him if we are going to see more people giving their lives to Christ, trusting Him for salvation. In the presence of God, lives are changed and resistance to the gospel melts away. However, today we are seeing the fewest number of people coming to Christ since the 1950s. In 2010, Southern Baptists baptized 332,321, the lowest number in sixty years. Baptisms in Southern Baptist churches have been in decline for over a decade.
- We need Him if we are going to impact our nation for Christ. During the First Great Awakening, 20 percent of the colonial population came to Christ and joined churches. Today, less than 20 percent regularly attend church. Discussed at length in his book The American Church in Crisis (Zondervan, 2009), David Olson conducted research showing that only 17.5 percent of the population attends church on any given weekend in America. In their book Comeback Churches (B&H Publishing, 2007), Mike Dodson and Ed Stetzer explain that less than 5 percent of churches are experiencing significant conversion growth—most churches are simply reshuffling existing members. Although Southern Baptists boast having more than 16 million members, only one-third will attend church this coming Sunday. One observer concluded that the church has become nothing more than a symbolic place for “hatching, matching, and dispatching” (i.e., baby dedications, weddings, and funerals).
Everything changes when God comes among us! Let us pray that He will revive each of our hearts with Himself, transforming our nation as we are transformed as His people.
Things happen. People change. God’s presence accomplishes something in our lives. For example:
- You will have a sense of awe (Revelation 1:17). John fell on his face in the presence of God.
- You will have a sense of His love (Ephesians 3:17-19). His love is not only a fact; it is also experiential and defies verbal description.
- You will have a crushing awareness of your own sinfulness (Isaiah 6:1-5). Like raising the lights in a darkened room, God’s holiness will highlight all the impurities in our lives.
- You will have a deep desire to confess your sin and make things right with others (Luke 3:8-14). Under John the Baptist’s anointed message of repentance, the people, tax collectors and the soldiers all asked, “What shall we do then?”
- You will begin to share His heart for a broken and lost world (Luke 9:36-38). If His heart is moved with compassion, how can ours beat in any other way?