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Alex's Blog - February 13, 2010 - David Brainerd - Missionary to the American Indians
By Alex Dodson
In the 18th century in America, David Brainerd gave his life to the evangelization of the American Indians. In his lifetime, he was only able to reach a few tribes, but his influence lives on even today. Ruth A. Tucker's article on David Brainerd begins by saying, "One of the most intriguing missionaries to the American Indians, and perhaps of all time, is David Brainerd, an heir of New England Puritanism and product of the Great Awakening. Brainerd was a zealot. Bringing the gospel to scattered wandering tribes of Indians was his single mission. He spent his life for that cause. At the age of twenty-nine, after a mere five years of missionary work, he died as a result of his strenuous labors. Brainerd's place in history is based largely on the tremendous inspiration his personal life has had on others. His journal, diary, and biography, published by Jonathan Edwards, are classics of Christian literature, and missionaries through the centuries, including William Carey and Henry Martyn, have been deeply influenced by his life." (p. 90 - From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya)
Brainerd was a missionary to Indian tribes in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. It was among the Indians of Crossweeksung, New Jersey that he saw the most fruit. Tucker writes, "The real fruit of Brainerd's labors became evident in the summer of 1745 when revival broke out among the Indians. Although Brainerd still depended on an interpreter and the Indians understood only the most elementary tenets of Christianity, they responded to his preaching, and the emotionally charged scenes so characteristic of the Great Awakening suddenly appeared among the Indians of Crossweeksung." (p. 92-93 - From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya) As Brainerd preached the gospel to these Indians, he could see the effects right away. An Awakening among the Indians was truly taking place. Brainerd recorded in his diary on August 6, 1745 - "In the morning I discoursed to the Indians at the house where we lodged. Many of them were then much affected and appeared surprisingly tender, so that a few words about their souls' concerns would cause the tears to flow freely, and produce many sobs and groans. In the afternoon, they being returned to the place where I had usually preached among them, I again discoursed to them there….There were scarce three in forty that could refrain from tears and bitter cries. They all, as one, seemed in an agony of soul to obtain an interest in Christ…It was surprising to see how their hearts seemed to be pierced with the tender and melting invitations of the gospel, when there was not a word of terror spoken to them. It was very affecting to see the poor Indians, who the other day were hallooing and yelling in their idolatrous feasts and drunken frolics, now crying to God with such importunity for an interest in His dear Son!" (p. 141, 146 - The Life and Diary of David Brainerd)
In 1746, a church was established among the Indians and more revivals followed. By that time, the converts numbered about one hundred and fifty. Brainerd would not be able to continue the work himself because his health was failing. He was dying of tuberculosis. He spent his last days in the home of Jonathan Edwards whose daughter Jerusha nursed him to the end. He died on October 9, 1747. It is interesting to note that some authors say that there was a romantic relationship between Brainerd and Jerusha. For example, Ruth Tucker writes, "After spending the winter in the home of a pastor-friend in New Jersey, Brainerd traveled to Northampton, Massachusetts, where he spent his last months in the home of the great preacher and scholar, Jonathan Edwards, whose daughter, Jerusha, he hoped to marry. This dream, however, was never realized. For nineteen weeks Jerusha tenderly nursed him but to no avail. He died on October 9, 1747. The following Valentine's Day Jerusha joined him, dying of consumption that she apparently contracted from him." (p. 93 - From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya) Now, that sounds like a romantic relationship with Jerusha even dying on Valentine's Day. Lest we get too impressed with this beautiful account, we can read other authors such as Iain Murray who deny there was such a relationship. In commenting on the fact that Brainerd and Jerusha were buried side by side, he writes, "It was probably from the near proximity of those two graves that a legend grew in later years, the legend that Brainerd and Jerusha were betrothed to one another in that short summer of 1747, and even that it was a romantic attachment to her which had first brought Brainerd to the Edwards' parsonage. For such opinions there is not a trace of evidence. The fact is that Brainerd arrived in need of immediate care, at a time when there was another minister staying at the parsonage who was 'very poorly', and when Sarah Edwards (Jonathan Edward's wife) had given birth to their tenth child, Elizabeth, only a few weeks earlier. Clearly Jerusha, who was already a mature Christian, was the best available nurse in the family and thus, as Edwards says, she was constantly 'with him as his nurse, 19 weeks before his death'. The friendship between them was the friendship of Christians: 'She looked on him as an eminent servant of Jesus Christ' but, as far as natural relationships were concerned, Brainerd could say five days before his death that he loved his brother John 'the best of any creature living'." ( p. 309-310 - Jonathan Edwards, A New Biography) Now, that messes up a beautiful legend and story, doesn't it. Who knows? Maybe the legend is true after all. Who can know what's in the hearts of two people. Could they have secretly loved each other? I would like to think that that was possible. Jonathan Edwards wrote, "On the morning of the next day, being Lord's day, Oct. 4, as my daughter Jerusha, who chiefly attended him, came into the room, he looked on her very pleasantly, and said, 'Dear Jerusha, are you willing to part with me?' - "I am quite willing to part with you: I am willing to part with all my friends: I am willing to part with my dear brother John, although I love him the best of any creature living: I have committed him and all my friends to God, and can leave them with God. Though, if I thought I should not see you, and be happy with you in another world, I could not bear to part with you. But we shall spend a happy eternity together!'" (p. 135 Life and Diary of David Brainerd) You be the judge.
In closing, I want to point out the vision that Brainerd had for the church. He was not a prophet of doom or an advocate of escapist theology. He believed in the victory of the church in the world and the expansion of the Kingdom of God all over the earth. In his last days, Brainerd said much about the church and its future. In talking about his soon going away to heaven, he said, "O, when I go there, how will God's dear church on earth be upon my mind!" (p. 136 Life and Diary…) Is it possible that the church in heaven is very concerned about the church on earth? Do the saints in heaven know what's going on down here on earth? Are they up there in heaven gazing down and rooting for the church on earth to get on with its commission to win the whole world to Christ? That seems to be the view of David Brainerd. Edwards wrote, "He said to me, one morning, as I came into his room, 'My thoughts have been employed on the old dear theme, the prosperity of God's church on earth. As I waked out of sleep, I was led to cry for the pouring out of God's Spirit, and the advancement of Christ's kingdom, for which the Redeemer died and suffered so much. It is that especially which make me long for it.' He expressed much hope that a glorious advancement of Christ's kingdom was near at hand." (p. 136-137 Life and Diary…) Edwards continues, "He had once told me, that 'he had formerly longed for the outpouring of the Spirit of God, and the glorious times of the church, and hoped they were coming; and that he should have been willing to live to promote religion at that time if that had been the will of God: but,' says he, 'I am willing it should be as it is, I would not have the choice to make for myself, for ten thousand worlds.' He expressed on his death-bed a full persuasion that he should in heaven see the prosperity of the church on earth, and should rejoice with Christ therein; and the consideration of it seemed to be highly pleasing and satisfying to his mind." (p. 137 Life and Diary...)
Could it be that David Brainerd is now in heaven looking down on the church and hoping that we will get on with our task to carry the gospel to the whole earth and win all of the world to Christ. Would he not be disappointed to listen to the prophets of doom and those who hold to escapist theology today? Would he not reprove them and encourage them to have a much more optimistic outlook for the church? Would he not remind them of what the Lord says in Malachi 1:7 - "'My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations,' says the Lord Almighty." I think he would.
All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version unless indicated otherwise.
Edwards, Jonathan,ed. Life and Diary of David Brainerd. Moody, Chicago, 1949.
Edwards, Jonathan,ed. Life and Diary of David Brainerd. Sovereign Grace Publishers, Grand Rapids, 1971.
Murray, Iain H. Jonathan Edwards, A New Biography. The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1987.
Tucker, Ruth. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya. Zondervan Publishing House, 1983.