John was now journeying alone on horseback towards Albany County, N.Y. He was twenty-seven years old, had no prior experience as a missionary or as a pastor, and was ignorant of the Indian language, an unlikely candidate for the difficult work ahead of him, according to human judgment. But God’s ways are not man’s ways. God was sending the young Brainerd to continue the heavenly work his brother had begun.
At least a day’s ride to Kaunawmeek, in Albany County, N.Y., brought John to the small cabin which David had built with the help of the Indians. In light of who he was, the Indians gave John a warm and joyful welcome, as his biographer says, ‘with open arms.’ They would have met John the previous May, when he had visited David, and now they welcomed him as their new spiritual under-shepherd.
Though the welcome was real, for John the reality of leaving all his friends, the intellectual setting of Yale and New England, and all the civilized benefits he had ever known, to arrive at a wilderness cabin with only Indians around him, must have prompted all the faith and courage he had. It must be remembered that it had only been twenty-four months since David had found the Indians very wild, roaming around, reckless and behaving like savages in drunkenness and evil. But they had been transformed by a power not of this world in a genuine outpouring of the Spirit of God, and were now humble, teachable, and earnest Christians. They had for the previous two years been receiving serious and solid preaching, and their progress in Christian growth proved to be genuine and consistent. A Mr. McKnight, a minister in New York, reported of the Indian converts: ‘They put to shame their white brethren in other churches.’
It was this group that John had come by himself to live among. But he did not know the language at all and was yet inexperienced in knowing all their ways of thinking. David’s recently-published journal, which John would have just obtained, reveals the difficult circumstances John would have to face:
I have often been obliged to preach in their houses in cold and windy weather, full of smoke, as well as being unspeakably filthy, which has thrown me many times in violent headaches … while I have been preaching, their children cry to such a degree that I could scarcely be heard and their mothers would take no care to quieten them; at the same time, some men would be laughing during the sermon or mocking divine truths, with others playing with their dogs – all this, not out of spite or prejudice, but for lack of better manners.
John began his labours on or near April 15 1747, and except for brief occasional visits, never returned to New England. Bethel was the name given a new settlement which John took part in helping found. This was the location from which John dated his correspondence, being often called by Jonathan Edwards, ‘the Indian town in New Jersey.’ John’s first communication about the place was insightful and revealing in writing about what he first saw of the work of God through David’s ministry:
It pleased the Lord greatly to smile on my brother’s endeavors, and in the most remarkable manner to open the eyes of the poor natives and to turn them from Satan to God. The Indians had settled themselves on a tract of land near Cranberry, far better than Crossweeksung, for cultivation and for such a number as were now gathered together. In this situation I found the Indians when I arrived among them at their new settlement, called Bethel, about the middle of April. This summer I have officiated for my brother, who took a journey eastward, thinking it might possibly be a means of recovering his health. But his disease [consumption] has taken such a hold on his vitals as not to be removed by medicine.
By the time John arrived, the revival which had occurred within the previous year had begun to decrease. But he found it, to use his words, ‘only gradually going off.’ This testimony actually proves the original purity and power of the work of the Holy Spirit from two years earlier. The Indians were now living out their Christian lives which had begun with their clear conversion during a time of God-sent revival. Now, two years later, John could say that ‘the work of divine grace still went on among the Indians.’
Of his first labors from April until September, few details are available. He seems to have entered into the work in the same pattern and heart which David had exhibited. But the major event of this period was in July, when John, receiving news of his brother’s increased sickness, left Bethel for Jonathan and Sarah Edwards’ home in Northampton, Massachusetts, where David was staying. John had not sent word to David that he was coming, though David had expressed to the Edwards’s family of his desire to see his brother. It must have been a real joy for them both when John arrived. Jonathan Edwards wrote of this particular visit:
Mr David Brainerd was much refreshed by this visit, for his brother was peculiarly dear to him; he seemed to rejoice in a devout and solemn manner to see him and to hear the comfortable things he brought concerning the state of his dear congregation of Christian Indians. John also brought some of his private writings, particularly his diary, which he had kept for several years past.
This diary was David’s own personal copy, which gave him genuine joy to read while at the Edwards’ home. In a real sense, he was able to live his memories over again, and, as Thomas Brainerd says, ‘comforted the weakness of his dying hours by the recollection of honest and earnest labor in the past.’
John stayed a week and returned to his work, but by October, he had a strong desire to see David again and made another Northampton trip, arriving October 7, shortly before David died. David Brainerd’s earthly life was virtually gone, as he died a few days later on October 19th. After the funeral and several days more, John headed once again to Bethel to his Indian flock. Before now, there had been some hope for David’s restoration in many hearts, as he was only twenty-nine years old. But now John would be the permanent pastor among David’s beloved Indians. What he must have felt in that return journey, God only knows. But God was with him and that would prove to be sufficient,
In February 1748, John Brainerd was finally ordained to the gospel ministry. It wasn’t long before two of his Yale friends and classmates, Elihu Spencer of Haddam, Connecticut, the Brainerds’ home town, and Job Strong of Northampton, came to join John in the work at Bethel and among the six Indian nations in western New York, which included the Mohawk, Oneidas, Cayugas, Senecas, Tuscaras, and the Onondayas. The arrival of these two friends had to be a deep encouragement and help to John, as the three would have initially lived together and would have had regular times of fellowship, prayer, and discussion.
Five months after David’s death, Jonathan Edwards wrote a letter to Mr James Robe in Scotland, regarding the Brainerds’ work among the Indians:
We have had accounts from time to time of religion being in a flourishing state in the Indian congregation of New Jersey, under the care of Mr John Brainerd; of the congregation’s increasing by the access of Indians from distant places; of a work of awakening being carried on among the unconverted, and of additions made to the number of the hopefully converted. Mr Brainerd was at my house a little while ago, and represented this to be the present state of things in that congregation.
By the time John had been at his work there two years in 1749, he had begun to prove, by God’s grace, the certainty and reality of his calling, as he went about his work with what his biographer calls ’eminent success.’ As his older brother was a difficult if not impossible man to equal, John at least showed himself to be equal in fidelity and faithfulness.
One later biographer records:
Mr John Brainerd traveled to the Forks of Delaware and to Wyoming several times, to induce the Indians to leave their unsettled life and dwell near him. Numbers came from time to time, but he succeeded in doing little more than civilizing them. In 1751 he had some special success, and in October, 1752, he had forty families near him, and thirty-seven communicants. There were fifty children in the school. In the same year, with only one attendant, he spent a fortnight on the Susquehanna. Their horses were stolen, the guide was too lame to go on foot, and they remained three days where there was no house. That year, also, the General Court of Connecticut, on the petition of the Correspondents, granted a brief for a general collection to aid him in his school.
In 1752, John married a young woman by the name of Experience Lyons from New Haven, Connecticut. Nothing is recorded of her background or her coming with John to Bethel, but it is evident from the record that theirs was a happy marriage.
In 1755, Brainerd felt he should cease his work with the Society as a missionary, and in 1757 left to become the pastor of the evangelical congregation in Newark, N.J. But he remained only a few years, as in 1760, he resumed his work among the Indians. he wrote:
As to the success that has attended my labors, I can say but little. It is a time wherein the influences of the Divine Spirit are mournfully withheld. I think, however, I have ground to hope that some good has been done among both Indians and white people, and the prospects of further usefulness are very considerable, if proper means could be used.
When John reached his forty-ninth year, David had been dead twenty-two years. John was himself now facing increasing health problems and was going out less and less on extended mission travels among the Indians. Instead, he had begun to establish preaching points among scattered white people. Still, beginning from 1760, over the next ten years Brainerd preached over 500 sermons outside his own area in his travels.
In the latter half of his life, John preached the gospel with zeal and self-denial over a vast neglected area of New Jersey among white people. The astounding fact is that he established at least seven white churches in addition to his full-time labours among the Indian tribes. Seven other places were regularly and frequently visited by him.
At the age of thirty-four John had been elected a trustee of the College of Princeton and served faithfully in this capacity for twenty-six years until the end of his life. In his final years, he was zealous, faithful, and unceasing in his preaching of the gospel of God’s grace. He battled through personal discouragements, some spiritual depression, and regular physical infirmities, but remained faithful to the end. He gave himself to the Indians for the sake of the gospel for over thirty years.
John Brainerd would have died among the Indians he loved, had not war broken out and a British army captured the area, causing him to be removed from there. He finally ended up in Deerfield, Connecticut, preaching there until his death on March 18th, 1781, though he was never officially installed as their pastor. But the people’s love for him caused him to be buried under the church there, with a marble slab bearing the words: ‘Beneath here moldereth the dust of the Rev. John Brainerd – died March, 1781.’ It was March 18th. He was sixty-one years old. His will began with these words:I, John Brainerd, minister of the gospel of Christ, at present laboring under some bodily indisposition, but through the grace of God, blest with the fullest use of reason, think it my indispensable duty to Christ and my family, to signify my will in writing. First of all, I give and recommend my soul into the hands of God in and through Jesus Christ, firmly relying on His name, merits and righteousness for pardon, justification, and eternal life.
It is not surprising that different sources would later compare the Brainerd brothers. A pastor, Dr Field, who was for many years minister of the congregation in which the Brainerds’ parents resided, was to say of John, ‘The tradition in Haddam is that he was as pious a man as his brother David, but not equal to him in ability.’ There is no evidence that the Indian believers made any comparison between the two men. Certainly in both, by the working of divine grace, there was biblical orthodoxy, humility, spiritual passion, self-denial, and prayerfulness.
The heritage David and John left did not end with their deaths. In the history of Haddam, Connecticut, their birthplace and first home since its first settlement, the following Brainerds were ministers which came out of Haddam: David, John, Elijah, Eleazar, Chilliab, Nehemiah, Israel, Israel II, James, and David S. Brainerd.
Thomas Brainerd gives the best commendation about John that a man could receive: ‘He was a lover of all good men and seems to have hated nothing but sin; he was a holy man of God, to which his whole life bore witness.’
Two brothers – John and David – of whom the world was not worthy. May God raise up such brothers once again in our day, who live not for themselves, but for him who died and rose again to give life to the peoples of all nations!
– Mack Tomlinson