Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Not So Legendary David Brainerd

John A. Grigg's book, The Lives of David Brainerd: The Making of an American Icon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), is a remarkable biography of David Brainerd, attempting to separate fact from fiction in the story of this legendary missionary.

The first three chapters of the book is a critical analysis of Brainerd's life in light of some of the claims made by Jonathan Edwards in his initial biography. From Grigg's account, we learn that Brainerd grew up in a relatively wealthy family in Haddam, Connecticut, a town about thirty miles northeast of New Haven. Shortly after having a conversion experience, Brainerd matriculated at Yale College at the start of the Great Awakening. In the aftermath of visits by George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennent, Yale students were whipped into a spiritual frenzy. Tennent's Danger of an Unconverted Ministry (1740) convinced radicals to question the spiritual state of the local clergy, and form separate churches if need be. It is within this context that Grigg seeks to set the record straight concerning Brainerd's expulsion from Yale College. According to Edwards's account, Brainerd was expelled for the singular comment that Yale's tutor Chauncey Whittelsey had "no more grace" than a chair. The school's rector Thomas Clap had warned students that those who persisted in denouncing a member of the faculty and staff at Yale as unconverted or a hypocrite would be expelled. The statement that Brainerd was overheard as saying at the conclusion of a chapel service had cost him a college degree. Different than Edwards's work, Grigg points to Brainerd as a consistent rebel at the school, as opposed to a student who had been punished for an isolated incident.

Grigg also demonstrates that Brainerd most likely did not become a missionary to Native Americans because he had no other options after he was expelled. Brainerd apparently had at least two pastorates offered to him by churches at Easthampton and East Haddam, but ultimately turned down these requests. Edwards wrote that Brainerd chose to be a missionary because he was "determined to forsake all the outward comforts" of life. Grigg, however, convincingly argues that as a missionary to the Indians Brainerd would have had much more flexibility and independence than as a traditional pastor to a white congregation. Sponsored by the Scottish Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, Brainerd served briefly as a missionary to the Native Americans at Kaunameek, between Albany and Stockbridge, and then for three years to the Indians at the Forks of the Delaware River valley. Throughout his narrative, Grigg provides a detailed contextual picture of Native American history in colonial America as well as the European emigration of the Scotch-Irish, German Lutherans, Quakers, and Huguenots.

Brainerd felt compelled to preach to the Indians of the Susquehanna River valley, but did not have much success. His greatest success came when he ministered to the Delaware Indians at Crossweeksung, New Jersey. Without denying Brainerd his opinion that God had aided his efforts, Grigg shows that a number of circumstances assisted him inadvertently in his attempt to evangelize the Crossweeksung Indians. For starters, they were isolated from other Native American communities, making them more susceptible to European culture and Christianity. Furthermore, Brainerd benefited from the fact that the women of the village, who Grigg points out were the spiritual guardians for a tribe, accepted the foreigner's message. These women travelled for miles to gather the men to return to the village to hear Brainerd's sermon the next day. Brainerd also benefited from the fact that the men killed some deer nearby, which allowed the community to remain in the area to hear the white man's message. The revival in New Jersey, recorded in Brainerd's published journal, continued to grow and even drew in local European settlers.

Grigg does not fear killing sacred cows. He questions the tradition of Brainerd's romance with Jerusha Edwards and, in a later chapter, denies that the missionary had a close relationship with Jonathan Edwards until the final five months of his life. Rather, Jonathan Edwards is forced to write to the people closest to Brainerd--his brother John, Jedidiah Mills, Gilbert Tennent, Ebenezer Pemberton, Esther Sherman, Jonathan Dickinson, and Aaron Burr--in order to learn about the subject of his biography.

Chapter four marks the end of the life of David Brainerd, according to John Grigg. Now begins the second half of the book in which Grigg assesses the various interpretations of Brainerd in the years following his death. First in the dock is Edwards's Life of Brainerd (1749). Grigg states that Edwards crafted his biography in such a way that would justify his theology in Religious Affections (1746) that true religion consists of actions more than words. Grigg describes Edwards working on the Life of Brainerd throughout 1748 and 1749 in the midst of his own personal struggles with his congregation at Northampton. Grigg has Edwards hounding his congregants to read the Life of Brainerd with the hope that they would recognize their own spiritual deficiencies and look to Brainerd as a model of godly behavior. Grigg writes, "Rather than responding by repentance, however, the townspeople decided to rid themselves of the messenger" (144). Throughout the editing process, Edwards removes any hint of enthusiasm in his subject as well as personal shortcomings, such as Brainerd's critical comments towards Yale's administration. Nevertheless, Grigg affirms the validity of Edwards's account, saying that "the essential message... was true to its subject (136). In the end, Edwards presents a thoroughgoing Calvinist missionary who renounces worldliness by ministering to Indians.

In chapter five, Grigg seeks to understand the reason for John Wesley's admiration of Brainerd. Wesley edition of Brainerd's life was published in 1768 as An Extract of the Life of the Late Rev. David Brainerd, Missionary to the Indians. Grigg submits that Wesley published his account of Brainerd's life in order to inspire his itinerant Methodist preachers to live a life of self-sacrifice. In the midst of the controversies involving the sexual exploits of Methodist itinerate preachers and rogue enthusiasts, Grigg writes, "Wesley turned to Brainerd as an example of the life he expected from Methodist ministers" (154). Grigg further speculates that Wesley was drawn to Brainerd because of similarities that he had with the missionary. Both men itinerated as preachers, virtually had no permanent home, and were unjustly persecuted. But unlike Edwards's Calvinistic Native American missionary, Wesley's Brainerd is a model to the theologically Arminian Methodists.

The final chapter delineates Brainerd's influence in the nineteenth and twentieth century, particularly among missionaries. Within the chapter are numerous examples and quotations of mostly men who saw Brainerd in almost unrealistic terms as the ideal selfless missionary to emulate.

Grigg's monograph is well researched and thorough throughout. Because it is well written and offers many compelling arguments, I had a difficult time putting the book down. The Lives of David Brainerd will no doubt serve as the definitive source for scholars seeking to understand the life and legacy of an American icon.

Jonathan Yeager

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