The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions had its beginning in the revivals at the end of the eighteenth, and the beginning of the nineteenth century.
During the latter part of the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth century several missionary societies were formed in the United States.
Back then, Williamstown was a frontier village, similar in many respects to any western village of the last half century, composed of men with patriotic hopes and daring wills.”
Twelve years after the incorporation of Williams College in 1793, the Second Great Awakening spread from its origins in Connecticut to Williamstown, Massachusetts. Enlightenment ideals from France were gradually being countered by an increase in religious fervor, first in the town, and then in the College. (Williams College)
In the spring of 1806, Samuel J. Mills, the 23-year old son of a Connecticut clergyman, joined the Freshman class. Mills, after a period of religious questioning in his late teens, entered Williams with a passion to spread Christianity around the globe. (Williams College)
He found the town and college under the influence of a great revival. Though felt but slightly in the college in 1805, in the summer of 1806 it was profoundly stirring men’s souls. Prayer-meetings by groups of students were being maintained zealously.
On Wednesdays, the men met south of West College beneath the willow trees. On Saturdays, the meetings were held north of the college buildings, beneath the maple trees in Sloan’s meadow. (The Haystack Centennial)
On a Saturday afternoon in August, 1806, five Williams College students, Congregationalists in background, gathered in a field to discuss the spiritual needs of those living in Asian countries. The five who attended were Samuel J. Mills, James Richards, Francis L. Robbins, Harvey Loomis, and Byram Green.
The meeting was interrupted by the approaching storm. It began to rain; the thunder rolled with deafening sound familiar to those who dwell among the hills; the sharp quick flashes of lightning seemed like snapping whips driving the men to shelter.
They crouched beside a large haystack which stood on the spot now marked by the Missionary Monument. Here, partially protected at least from the storm, they conversed on large themes.
The topic that engaged their interest was Asia. The work of the East India Company, with which they were all somewhat acquainted, naturally turned their thoughts to the people with which this company sought trade.
Mills especially waxed eloquent on the moral and religious needs of these people, and afire with a great enthusiasm he proposed that the gospel of light be sent to those dwelling in such benighted lands
All but Loomis responded to this inspiration of Mills. Loomis contended that the East must first be civilized before the work of the missionary could begin.
The others contended that God would cooperate with all who did their part, for He would that all men should be partakers of the salvation of Christ.
Finally at Mills’ word, ‘Come, let us make it a subject of prayer under the haystack, while the dark clouds are going and the clear sky is coming,’ they all knelt in prayer. (The Haystack Centennial)
‘The brevity of the shower, the strangeness of the place of refuge, and the peculiarity of their topic of prayer and conference all took hold of their imaginations and their memories.’ (Global Ministries)
The students were also influenced by a pamphlet titled ‘An Inquiry into the Obligation of Christians to use means for the Conversion of the Heathen,’ written by British Baptist missionary William Carey.
After praying, these five young men sang a hymn together. It was then that Mills said loudly over the rain and the wind, ‘We can do this, if we will!’ (Williams College)
That moment changed those men forever. Many historians would tell you that all mission organizations in the US trace their history back to the Haystack Prayer Meeting in some way. Yes, these men turned the world upside down. And it all began in a prayer meeting under a haystack. (Southern Baptist Convention)
Though only two of the five Williams students at the Haystack Prayer meeting ever left the United States, the impact of their passion for missions is widespread.
Samuel Mills became the Haystack person with the greatest influence on the modern mission movement. He played a role in the founding of the American Bible Society and the United Foreign Missionary Society.
In 1808, Mills and other Williams students formed ‘The Brethren,’ a society organized to ‘effect, in the persons of its members, a mission to the heathen.’
Upon the enrollment of Mills and Richards at Andover Seminary in 1810, Adoniram Judson from Brown, Samuel Newall from Harvard, and Samuel Nott from Union College joined the Brethren.
Led by the enthusiasm of Judson, the young seminarians convinced the General Association of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts to form The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. (Williams College)
In June 1810, Mills and James Richards petitioned the General Association of the Congregational Church to establish the foreign missions. American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was formed with a Board of members from Massachusetts and Connecticut.
“The general purpose of these devoted young men was fixed. Sometimes they talked of ‘cutting a path through the moral wilderness of the West to the Pacific.’ Sometimes they thought of South America; then of Africa. Their object was the salvation of the heathen; but no specific shape was given to their plans, till the formation of the American Board of Foreign Missions.” (Worcester)
“The Board has established missions, in the order of time in which they are now named at Bombay, and Ceylon; among the Cherokees, Choctaws, and the Cherokees of the Arkansaw …” (Missionary Herald)
At this same time, in the Islands, a Hawaiian, ʻŌpūkahaʻia, made a life-changing decision – not only which affected his life, but had a profound effect on the future of the Hawaiian Islands.
“I began to think about leaving that country, to go to some other part of the globe. I did not care where I shall go to. I thought to myself that if I should get away, and go to some other country, probably I may find some comfort, more than to live there, without father and mother.” (ʻŌpūkahaʻia)
‘Ōpūkaha’ia swam out to and boarded Brintnall’s ‘Triumph’ in Kealakekua Bay. After travelling to the American North West, then to China, they landed in New York in 1809. They continued to New Haven, Connecticut. ʻŌpūkahaʻia was eager to study and learn – seeking to be a student at Yale.
The Mills family invited ʻŌpūkahaʻia into their home. Later Mills brought ʻŌpūkahaʻia to Andover Theological Seminary, the center of foreign mission training in New England.
In October, 1816, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) decided to establish the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Litchfield County, Connecticut, for the instruction of youth like ʻŌpūkahaʻia.
By 1817, a dozen students, six of them Hawaiians, were training at the Foreign Mission School to become missionaries to teach the Christian faith to people around the world. Initially lacking a principal, Dwight filled that role from May 1817 – May 1818.
ʻŌpūkahaʻia was being groomed to be a key figure in a mission to Hawai‘i, to be joined by Samuel Mills Jr. Unfortunately, ʻŌpūkahaʻia died at Cornwall on February 17, 1818, and several months later Mills died at sea off West Africa after surveying lands that became Liberia.
Edwin W Dwight is remembered for putting together a book, ‘Memoirs of Henry Obookiah’ (the spelling of the name based on its pronunciation), as a fundraiser for the Foreign Mission School. It was an edited collection of ʻŌpūkahaʻia’s letters and journals/diaries. The book about his life was printed and circulated after his death, becoming a best-seller of its day.
Ōpūkaha’ia, inspired by many young men with proven sincerity and religious fervor of the missionary movement, had wanted to spread the word of Christianity back home in Hawaiʻi; his book inspired missionaries to volunteer to carry his message to the Hawaiian Islands.
The coming of Henry ʻŌpūkahaʻia and other young Hawaiians to the US, who awakened a deep Christian sympathy in the churches, moved the ABCFM to establish a mission at the Islands.
On October 23, 1819, the Pioneer Company of ABCFM missionaries set sail from Boston on the Thaddeus to establish the Sandwich Islands Mission (now known as Hawai‘i). Over the course of a little over 40-years (1820-1863 – the “Missionary Period”), about 184-men and women in twelve Companies served in Hawaiʻi to carry out the mission of the ABCFM in the Hawaiian Islands.