This Sunday morning I asked the pastor if he had ever heard of the Haystack Monument. He looked at me as if I had asked him the name of my second cousin. Yet churches around this vast land of ours contain seals in stained glass depicting a haystack descriptive of an event in August 1806 in Williamstown MA. It was there in the minds of five young college students that American Foreign Missions was born. Samuel J. Mills, James Richards, Francis L. Robbins, Harvey Loomis, and Byram Green were taking an afternoon stroll and were in deep conversation about their futures, a subject still in vogue in college dorms. A sudden storm arose and they sought shelter in the lee of a haystack. That sultry August day they made a solemn promise to embark on a new enterprise: to go to foreign lands with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
From this distance from the storied past of oldtime religion their resolve strikes us as what we would expect. In fact, they were swimming against the stream. Anticipating they would be scorned by their elders they kept their dream a secret for several years; and even communicated in code with each other. But eventually they found support within the institutional church and embarked on voyages to distant lands to tell the good news.
In 1906 in Williamstown a centennial commemoration of the Haystack attracted a greater throng of believers and missioners than the crowd that would be seen on a July evening emerging from the Summer Theatre in that college town when Paul Newman is starring. Cries of "Victory!" were shouted. As a reflection of that certainty a journal, originally a denominational organ, aiming now at an audience of interdenominational Protestant clergy, renamed itself in 1900 "The Christian Century." Meaning the Twentieth.
This past September 22-24, at the 200th Anniversary of the Haystack, the gathering was far smaller and humbler. I was an inadvertent attendee. Barbara and I had months earlier arranged to spend the weekend at Williams College - where I attended from 1949-53, and never once paid any attention to the Haystack monument, within easy walking distance of each of my four dorms - for yet another of my college class' mini-reunions (look under Williams Connections on this website for my photo report on the event). But since most of us in the Class of 1953 are soon approaching or have passed our diamond anniversary, the schedule of class events was, to say the least, less than arduous. We had, therefore, sufficient time to look in on some of the Haystack presentations.
I was particularly engaged, no, astounded, by the keynote speech of a Yale University professor of history, Lamin Sanneh, a native of Gambia. Herewith are some of the statistics he offered:
1. The original missioners converted very, very few people. The renowned Dr. David Livingstone won three converts.
2. Europe loses 8,000 Christians daily; but Africa adds 18,000 a day.
3. Since 1970 sub-Saharan Africa has gone from a few million Christians to 460 million.
4. If current trends continue, China will be 20-30% Christian by 2025, which Dr. Sanneh calls the "tipping point."
5. The most representative Christian person in the world today is an African woman in her thirties.
That is, the vision of those five college students in the lee of a haystack in August 1806 has been realized beyond their most faithful imagination. Not that they or many of us might give our wholehearted endorsement to the outcome. We and they will have to remind ourselves, in the words of God in Isaiah, "my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways" (55:8 NRSV).
Dr. Sanneh, a specialist in missiology, provided us with two new terms I had not previously encountered: Post-Western and non-Enlightenment.
"Post-Western" refers to a Christianity in which ecclesiastical hegemony no longer lies in the West, meaning Europe and the U. S.... which, of course, is the consequence of #2 listed above. Pope Benedict XVI has yet to come to terms with this development and seems intent on devoting his papacy to conserving heartland (i.e., European) Catholicism.
"Non-Enlightenment" refers to a Christianity unimpeded (or, I worry, untempered) by the Enlightenment's insistence on the supremacy of human reason. The new Christians come from a God-filled world where atheism and agnosticism are as unnatural as a third eye. No need any longer for a seminary education like mine which equipped me to defend the faith against the cultured despisers of religion. The Gospel will be heard directly and simply by those little influenced by the intellectual history of the West, almost as if they were first century Palestinians, without the obscuring filters of, say, Descartes and Hegel.
Ah, well, my time is almost up anyway!
Which is to say, I stood in front of the Haystack Memorial with mixed feelings. That maybe the world coming into being will be a better, more unified place, where a preponderance of its people share the values of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. But it pains nonetheless to see one's way of thinking and believing diminish in the tides of history. Yes, yes, Isaiah's right; and, yes, I am still learning to appropriate it into my soul: that God's thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are our ways his ways.