John Brainerd

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Early American Missionary Prayer Letter

It was on this day, March 18th, in 1781, that John Brainerd died at the age of sixty-one. His remains were buried beneath the floor of the Presbyterian church in Deerfield, Massachusetts. John was one of several sons born to the Honorable Hezekiah and Dorothy (Mason) Brainerd, and he was born in Haddam, Connecticut on February 28, 1719. In time, his older brother Nehemiah tutored him in preparation for college, and John subsequently graduated from Yale in 1746.

It was during his college years that his brother David wrote to him, warning John against “spurious religious experience that is too often found in connection with great religious excitements.” Any actual date of John’s conversion or public profession of faith in Christ is lost to history, the records of his home church having been destroyed. Nonetheless, John must have begun to anticipate entering the ministry while he was still in college, for very shortly after graduation, he began to preach and was even engaged in work as a missionary among the Indians.

A small portion of a letter that John wrote to a Mrs. Elizabeth Smith serves to provide details on the missionary work that John and his brother David were engaged in.

BROTHERTON in New Jersey, August 24, 1761.

Madam: According to my promise, I here send a particular account of the Indian mission in this Province, which, for some years, has been the object of my care. I shall take a brief view of it from its first rise and foundation.

brainerd02In 1743, my brother and predecessor, Mr. David Brainerd, being employed by the Corresponding members of the Honourable Society in Scotland for propagating Christian Knowledge, entered on the arduous business of Christianizing the Indians, and for that end, on the 1st of April, arrived at Kaunaumeck, an Indian settlement about twenty miles from Stockbridge Northwest. AT this place he continued about the space of a year; and having so far gained upon these Indians as that he could persuade them to move to Stockbridge, and settle themselves under the ministry of the Rev. Mr. Sargeant, he, by the direction of the Correspondents, removed to the Forks of Delaware in Pennsylvania. Among these Indians, he spent a little more than a year; had some encouraging appearances, but no very great success. He then took a journey of about thirty miles to a settlement of Indians at Crosweeksung in this Province; where it pleased the Lord greatly to smile upon his endeavours, and in the most remarkable manner to open the eyes of the poor savages, and turn them from the power of Satan to God, as appears at large by his printed Journal.

Partly with those Indians, partly at the Forks of Delaware, and partly on the banks of the Susquehanna, (where he made no less than five journeys first and last,) he spent near two years, till he was so far gone in a consumption [tuberculosis] as rendered him utterly unable to officiate any longer.

But by this time a number of the Indians had removed from these Northern parts; the Indians also at Crosweeksung had left that place, and settled themselves on a tract of land near Cranberry, far better for cultivation, and more commodious for such a number as were now collected into one body.

In this situation I found the Indians when I arrived among them, at their new settlement called Bethel, which was about the middle of April, 1747. And this summer I officiated for my brother, who took a journey to the Eastward, thinking that possibly it might be a means of recovering his health. But his distemper had taken such a hold of his vitals, as not to be diverted or removed by medicine or means. He was, on his return from Boston to New Jersey, detained at Northampton by the increase of his disorder, and there made his exit out of the world of sin and sorrow, and no doubt entered upon a glorious and blessed immortality, the October following.

The work of Divine grace still went on among the Indians, although those extraordinary influences that appeared for a time, had begun some months before to abate, and still seemed gradually going off, but the good effects of them were abiding in numbers of instances.”

[Brainerd’s letter continues, but is too long to reproduce here.]

About 1760, John Brainerd came to reside in Mount Holly, Massachusetts, where he had a meeting-house, which was later burned by the British in the Revolutionary War. Several other places also shared in his pulpit ministry. Finally, in 1777 he retired to Deerfield, and it was there that he died in 1781.

Words to Live By:
The 20th-century missionary to the Auca Indians, Jim Elliott, once said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” I can think of no better summary for the lives of David Brainerd and his brother John. We still have missionaries today who wholeheartedly expend their lives for the proclamation of the Gospel in foreign lands. Increasingly, those missionaries come from some of those foreign lands once destitute of the Gospel, now sending thousands elsewhere on the globe. Pray for our missionaries. Support them. Encourage them with your letters and visits.

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