- The Lives of David Brainerd: The Making of an American Evangelical Icon
John Grigg’s The Lives of David Brainerd is a remarkable biography that attempts to separate fact from fiction in the story of this legendary missionary. The first three chapters of the book present a critical analysis of Brainerd’s life in light of some of the claims made by Jonathan Edwards in his original biography. Grigg rewrites the history of Brainerd’s life, dispelling some of the myths of Edwards’s Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd (1749) that has for centuries served as the definitive source for scholars and popular audiences alike. 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. It is within this context that Grigg delineates an alternative version of 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. Grigg, however, points to Brainerd as a consistent rebel at the school, rather than a student punished for an isolated incident.
Grigg demonstrates that Brainerd most likely did not become a missionary to Native Americans because he had no other options after his expulsion. At least two churches offered pastorates, one at Easthampton and a second at East Haddam, but ultimately he turned down both requests. Edwards wrote that Brainerd [End Page 463] chose to become a missionary-pastor because he was “determined to forsake all the outward comforts” of life (61). Grigg, however, convincingly argues that as a missionary to the Indians Brainerd would have enjoyed much more flexibility and independence than he would have had 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.
Brainerd felt compelled to preach to the Indians of the Susquehanna River valley, but found little encouragement for his efforts. His greatest success came when he ministered to the Delaware Indians at Crossweeksung, New Jersey. Without contradicting Brainerd’s own assertion that God had aided his efforts, Grigg shows that a number of circumstances assisted him 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 as Grigg points out were the tribes’ spiritual guardians, accepted the foreigner’s message. These women traveled 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 and consider at length the details of his homily.
Throughout his narrative, Grigg has no fear of 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 was 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.
The conclusion of chapter three marks the end of Grigg’s narrative of the life of David Brainerd. In the second half of the book, he assesses the various interpretations of Brainerd in the years following...