The Forgotten Brainerd, Pt 1
JOHN BRAINERD: MISSIONARY TO THE NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS 1747-1781
David Brainerd’s life and legacy have become a special part of Christian history for Christians worldwide. The sacrificial giving of himself to take the gospel to the North American Indians, as recorded in his journals and Jonathan Edwards’ Life of David Brainerd,1 has been used of God to stir missionary zeal and action among succeeding generations of believers, both in the U.S.A. and worldwide.But one quickly forgets that David Brainerd’s entire ministry lasted only three years before his death at the age of twenty-nine. He is so well-remembered and rightly so, as his pioneering mission work became a catalyst for missions and gospel zeal in the future. So one wonders how it is that so little is known and remembered about his brother, John, in light of the amazing fact that John replaced David as the appointed missionary and pastor among the Indians shortly before David’s death at age 29, and would remain there for the next 34 years. So John’s ministry exceeded David’s by over 30 years among the Indians, exhibiting the same kind of sacrifice, loneliness, commitment, and zeal that the older and more well-known Brainerd had shown. How can we not remember John Brainerd as well?
The Brainerd brothers were born to Mr and Mrs Hezekiah Brainerd, a family with a godly heritage and strong Puritan convictions. Nine children were born to Hezekiah and his wife: Hezekiah, Jr (1708), Dorothy (1710), Nehemiah (1712), Jerusha (1714), Martha (1716), David (1718), John (1720), Elizabeth (1722), and Israel (1725). So John was the 7th child born into an already large family on February 28th, 1720, in Haddam, Connecticut.
The family’s stability was to be cut short within a few years, as their mother died when John was seven; then five years later, father Hezekiah died. As David was fourteen and John twelve at that time, their care and education were left with their older five siblings, several of whom by this time were married. Several of the Brainerds then also died at an early age: Jerusha as a married woman around her 19th year and Israel, the youngest of them all, who had already begun to walk in the godliness he had seen in his parents and older siblings. He was at Yale College himself when he was called to visit his dying brother, David. He had stirrings toward the Christian ministry himself, but never had the opportunity, as he died at the age of twenty-three, Jonathan Edwards calling him ‘an ingenious, serious, studious, and pious person.’
David and John would have experienced the typical New England upbringing. Thomas Brainerd, John’s biographer, pictures it:
At a young age, from sundown on Saturday evening until Sunday evening, the young man’s sports would be suspended, all secular reading laid aside, and the Bible, the New England Primer, The Pilgrim’s Progress,3 and books like Baxter’s Saints Everlasting Rest would have been read; they were taught by their father that it was a sin to find fault with the family meals, their clothing, tasks, or their lot in life. If one of the young men would have complained at meal times, they would hear, ‘You don’t like your mother’s provision? You may leave the table!’
David and John lived with their married siblings the next few years until their specific departures for Yale, with David arriving there as a freshman two years before John would come. John entered Yale in 1742 as a freshman with David in his junior year. This was the year that David was somewhat unjustly expelled from the school. David, though not without fault in the situation, was made the target of overly-severe administrative discipline from the school officials over a critical comment of a professor he had made in private conversation that was overheard by a student, which was then repeated by a woman in the town to a school official. The entire event was blown out of proportion, especially in light of David’s full confession of guilt and a private apology. When the school officials demanded a public apology for the private infraction, David felt it too severe and would not submit to that. Those in authority would not lessen their position and thus David was expelled in his junior year, never to be allowed to return. John Wesley himself was later to make the comment regarding those who carried out the severe actions: ‘Are these people even Christians at all?’
This grievous event not only greatly affected the Brainerd family, but would have caused deep sadness and embarrassment for young John, yet in his first year at Yale. He had to remain there without his older brother’s presence and guidance, which he did, graduating in 1746 at the age of twenty-six. Still, God’s providence was overruling man’s sinful limitations to bring about great good for Christ’s kingdom in the near future that would affect many in coming generations.
There is ample evidence that David and John were very close and were in genuine fellowship in the things of God. Two letters particularly reveal the nature of their relationship. The first was written in April, 1743 from David to John:
I should tell you that I long to see you, but my own experience has taught me that there is no happiness and satisfaction to be enjoyed in earthly friends or any other enjoyment that is not God Himself. Therefore, if the God of all grace is pleased graciously to afford each of us His presence and grace, that we may perform the work He calls us to do until we arrive at our journey’s end, then the local distance at which we are held from one another at present is of no great importance to either of us. Alas! The presence of God is what I want and need. For my part, I feel the most vile of any creature living. All you can do for me is pray incessantly that God would make me humble, holy, resigned, and heavenly-minded by my trials. Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Let us run, wrestle and fight, that we may win the prize and obtain that complete happiness of being holy, as God is holy. So wishing and praying that you may advance in learning and grace, and be made fit for special service for God – I remain,
Your affectionate brother.
Part of another letter to John, December 27, 1743:
Why should we sink and grow discouraged with any particular trials which we encounter in this world? Death and eternity are before us – a few more tossing billows will waft us into the world of spirits and we hope into endless pleasures and uninterrupted rest and peace. Let us, then, run with patience the race set before us. O, that we could depend more on the living God and less upon our own wisdom and strength. My dear brother, may the God of all grace comfort your heart and make you an instrument of good to His people in your day. This is the constant prayer of your affectionate brother.
– to be continued