Religious Societies at Williams College
In the early 1800's the United States was swept by religious revivalism and many people were converted in the wake of the newly born religious fervor. The movement reached Williams College, resulting in the formation of a succession of student religious societies. Samuel J. Mills is credited in the foundation of one of the earliest, the "Brethren," in 1808, along with Ezra Fisk, James Richards, John Seward and Luther Rice.
Samuel J. Mills (1783-1818)
Mills is a key figure in the religious history of Williams College. When he came to Williams in 1805 there was already a spirit of religious revivalism in the air (Richards, p.27). His calling was to inspire fellow students to missionary action which he saw as the primary duty of all Christians (ibid. p.29).
It was in August 1806 at a small prayer meeting that Mills was inspired with the idea of sending missionaries abroad. In 1808 he organized a "Society of Brethren," the first foreign missionary society "to effect, in the persons of its members, a mission to the heathen" (Richards, p.35). The Society's existence was kept secret, but membership grew and spread to other campuses. By 1810 the Society's influence resulted in the creation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (Rudolph, The American College and University, A History, p.72).
Mills spent his life as a missionary and died returning from his labors in Africa. Religious societies used his name to honor the tradition of piety and service that he inspired with the formation of the foreign mission movement in America. Williams College commemorated his contribution with the erection of the Haystack Monument in Mission Park.
Theological Society founded 1805
The meetings of this group of students revolved around discussions and critiques of religious topics such as readings from The Bible or sermons. The Society maintained strict rules for admission because of their strong beliefs in high standards for morality and behavior. They wanted to grow closer to God through prayer and reflection. This group had over three hundred members in its forty years of existence.
In 1849 the Theological Society combined with the Mills Society of Inquiry to form the Mills Theological Society.
Society of Inquiry founded 1820
The revised constitution of the society states, "the object of the Society shall be to make inquiry with regard to missions, and to devise and execute measures for inducing young men to engage in them." It required that its members "devote their life to a domestic or foreign mission."
In 1833 this society became the Mills Society of Inquiry in honor of Samuel Mills, its primary goals remaining the same. At that time, the Society numbered one hundred and thirty members.
In 1849 the Mills Society of Inquiry combined with the Theological Society to become the Mills Theological Society.
Mills Theological Society founded 1849
Under the continued influence of Samuel J. Mills' philosophy, the goals of the Society emphasized "a mission to [bring God to] the heathen." The tenets of the new constitution professed its members' desire "to increase our knowledge of the Scriptures and Theology and to make inquiry with regard to Missions and to encourage one another to engage in them." There were over three hundred members of this group in thirty-odd years.
In 1873 the Mills Theological Society became the Mills Young Men's Christian Association which became the Williams Christian Association in 1908.
Mills Young Men's Christian Association founded 1873
This society met on a weekly basis, attracted anywhere from thirty-nine to three hundred people and focused on serving the needs of the community. The constitution states: "Although one of the great purposes of the Association is to organize and render more efficient the voluntary religious work of the Undergraduates in particular, its' ideal is to enlist the cooperation of the Faculty and the Alumni also in serving the religious needs of the college and vicinity." This was the first religious organization at Williams to target groups other than students for membership.
The requirements for membership were active participation in an evangelical Church and "to organize and render more effective the voluntary Christian work of Williams College." The Association published a Student Handbook which provided freshmen with valuable information about Williams College and Williamstown. They also instituted many programs designed to serve the community such as the Boy's Club, Employment Bureau, etc.
In 1908 the name was changed to the Williams Christian Association. President H.A. Garfield remarked on the society in 1913: "I regard the work of the Christian Association the most valuable of all the undergraduate activities."
The Williams Christian Association started a program in China in 1920. They took over the responsibility of the work of the YMCA in Soochow. Their main goal was raising funds to support a Williams representative, Egbert Hayes, at the YMCA. This project was initiated in an effort to "combine educational work with social, religious, and athletic projects." The Williams fund was devoted to "securing and financing proper American leadership for the program." As the project is not mentioned in the Annual Reports after 1923, it is presumed that it was discontinued.
In the mid 1950s the Williams Christian Association combined with the Chapel Committee to become the Williams College Chapel organization. This new group worked "to develop an attitude of self-sacrifice and service to the community as well as the college."