Friday, April 20, 2018

300 years ago: The birth of David Brainerd

On April 20, 1718, missionary David Brainerd was born in Haddam, Connecticut. Mr. Brainerd had a conversion experience at the age of 21, two months before he entered Yale University. His religious enthusiasm led to his expulsion from Yale, and after a brief time as a pastor, he embarked on missionary work among Native Americans in New York and New Jersey. From 1743-1746, Rev. Brainerd experienced success in working with the Delaware Indians in New Jersey, despite a chronic battle with an illness believe to be tuberculosis. He spent his last months as a guest of the famous revivalist Jonathan Edwards, and died of consumption on October 9, 1747 at the age of 29. Rev. Brainerd's influence was probably greater after his death than it was during his life, as Rev. Edwards' biography An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd (1749) influenced future missionaries such as William Carey, Jim Elliot, and Adoniram Judson.

I must admit that I knew almost nothing about David Brainerd until I looked up the Infogalactic and Wikipedia entries on him. What little I had read about Rev. Brainerd depicted someone who was so saintly that I found it impossible to identify with him as a real person. It seems that Jonathan Edwards doctored up his biography--taken from Rev. Brainerd's diary--to remove the parts where Rev. Brainerd expressed his despair, and to make it express Rev. Edwards' doctrine.

The David Brainerd of Jonathan Edwards' biography may have inspired some people to become missionaries, but I can't help but wonder how many others were discouraged from becoming missionaries because they couldn't hope to ever achieve the level of godliness of Rev. Brainerd as depicted by Rev. Edwards. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the real David Brainerd was a flesh-and-blood human being who had a less than reverent attitude toward certain figures of authority in academia, and who suffered from loneliness and depression exacerbated by poor health that made his life miserable. I much prefer the real David Brainerd to the authorized version.

It's interesting to note the negative attitude toward religious "enthusiasm" at Yale University in the early 1740s. By the last quarter of the 18th century, the anti-Christian attitudes on the major college campuses in the United States hardened to the point of violence, making for interesting history.

It's also interesting to note that there was a law in Connecticut in the 18th century regarding the licensing of pastors. Strict separation of church and state didn't exist in colonial America. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which begins with "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," refers exactly to that. The United States Congress couldn't make a law establishing a religion, but individual states had such laws, and those continued after the Constitution took effect.

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