'Haystack Monument' commemorating Christian missions in danger of removal from Massachusetts college

by Gregory Tomlin |

(Orion Howard/Flickr)The Haystack Prayer Meeting monument, commemorating the beginning of the American missions movement on the campus of Williams College in Massachusetts. Four years after five students prayed here in 1806 for the establishment of a missions sending agency, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was founded. The monument, the college said, may be deemed culturally inappropriate now.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Massachusetts (Christian Examiner) – A monument honoring the formation of the first American missions society may be in jeopardy of removal because some perceive it as offensive to indigenous peoples worldwide, The College Fix has reported.

Located on the campus of Williams College, established in 1793, the monument is among a list of items being reviewed by a committee for their cultural "appropriateness to modern times and impact on today's campus climate."

According to the news site, this is the second time this year the Committee on Campus Space and Institutional History at Williams has reviewed so-called "controversial works of art" at the institution.

Earlier this year, Williams covered up a mural of Native Americans that was deemed by some at the school as "stereotypical and offensive." They later uncovered it and placed a description near it explaining the "context" of the painting.

At the time, Williams had a strong emphasis on Christianity and it was common for graduates to become ministers. ... Now we are an institution with students and faculty from lots of different faiths or no religious belief at all, and no longer have mandatory chapel attendance.
- Kevin Murphy, Williams College

At question now is the "Haystack Monument" on the campus. Built in 1867, the monument commemorates the formation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1810.

Just four years before, five students at the college, all New England Congregationalists inspired by the already-occurring Second Great Awakening, decided to launch the missions sending agency after gathering to discuss Particular Baptist William Carey's treatise, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.

While meeting, a thunderstorm broke overhead causing the five to seek shelter under a haystack. They prayed for the formation of a missions sending agency. The "Haystack Prayer Meeting" came to fruition four years later when the ABCFM was formed.

Several of the students were among the first missionaries appointed to India. Luther Rice and Adoniram Judson and his wife were also among the first appointed missionaries. Judson became a Baptist and worked, even while in prison in Burma, to establish a sense of urgency for foreign missions.

"At the time, Williams had a strong emphasis on Christianity and it was common for graduates to become ministers," Kevin Murphy, a member of the college's institutional history committee told The College Fix. "Now we are an institution with students and faculty from lots of different faiths or no religious belief at all, and no longer have mandatory chapel attendance."

Murphy said, like the mural that was covered, uncovered, then explained, the question is now one of "context" – because, he said, the history of missions is "difficult to separate from American and European colonial expansion, a fraught topic, but one that offers productive areas for discussing historical and current attitudes to (primarily) non-Western cultures."

Murphy said Christian groups not affiliated with the school sometimes visit the monument to commemorate the Haystack Prayer Meeting, and the outside visitors are important. Their visits, however, have to be balanced with the college's "responsibility to past and future students."

Murphy said he doubts anything will happen to the monument, since it is historically significant.

It could, perhaps, receive a "context clue" the same way the mural did. That painting depicted the meeting of Colonel Ephraim Williams, the college's namesake, and a Mohawk leader before both were killed at the Battle of Lake George in New York in 1755 during the French and Indian War.

"Some members of the Williams community raised concerns that the mural portrayed Native Americans stereotypically and in its image of the relationship between the British and Mohawks misrepresented the history of that relationship. These concerns, in turn, raised questions about whether the room felt like an inclusive space to diverse groups of students," the committee stated.

The students involved in the Haystack Prayer Meeting were Samuel Mills, the son of a minister, James Richards, Francis Robbins, Harvey Loomis, and Byram Green.

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