Thursday, 18 February 2010

A new biography of David Brainerd

David Brainerd (1718-47) is one of those names that figures heavily in evangelical folklore; his story being told and retold, both for adults and children, in the centuries since his death in the middle of the eighteenth century. In these versions of his life he invariably appears as one of those idealised heroic missionaries, mentioned almost in the same breath as David Livingstone and William Carey, on account of his success in taking the gospel to some tribes of Native American Indians in Delaware. I first read his life story, in the form of Jonathan Edwards' edition of his journals during my first year at university, and can remember being captivated not only by the names of the Indian tribes that he worked among, but his example of godly self-sacrifical ministry. So it was with some anticipation that I started reading John A. Grigg's new biography; The Lives of David Brainerd: The Making of an American Evangelical Icon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Grigg's biography does an admirable job in getting past many of the myths that have grown up around Brainerd's life and ministry. Through complete absorption in the widely scattered primary sources, Grigg has probably reconstructed the most thoroughly contextualised, realistic and nuanced life of his subject to date. The picture that emerges from Grigg's narrative is neither that of the tortured missionary nor the plaster saint. Brainerd was from a very well-connected Connecticuit family, and so the sense of shame that haunted him following his expulsion from Yale in 1742, at the height of the excitement that accompanied the Great Awakening, for questioning the reality of the faith of some of its faculty, cast a fairly long shadow over his short life. Grigg deals with this aspect of his life in some detail, particuarly Brainerd's efforts to distance himself from his somewhat rash judgements. In a sense though this was merely a further manifestation of the divisions that the Great Awakening opened up within colonial New England, as itinerant evangelists became divisive figures in many communities. Brainerd himself was not immune from these problems, flirting at times with the more ecstatic side of the revival, and arousing suspicion becuase of his experiences at Yale. Grigg discusses Brainerd's ministry to the Native Americans at length, of course, but again the Brainerd that emerges is much more enlightened in his attitudes to the Indians than many of his contemporaries. Brainerd was sensitive to the culture of the Indians whom he worked with, willing to abandon much of his own cultural baggage to reach them for Christ. His early death at the age of just 32 in only added to the mystique that had already begun to surround him.

However, Grigg's biography of Brainerd makes up only half of his narrative, the second half of his book looks at how Brainerd's memory was used subsequently by evangelicals. In many ways I found this the most fascinating part of the book. Evangelicals have been champions at making saints out of their leaders, and Brainerd has not escaped beatification! Beginning with Jonathan Edwards' Life of Brainerd (1749), constructed largely from his own diaries, Brainerd's life has been written and re-written to meet the needs of various types of evangelicals. Edwards, whose Life, has been the most influential account, portrayed Brainerd as a model of the 'right way of practicing religion' (p. 163), while John Wesley's Extract of the Life of David Brainerd (1768), shorn of any references to Calvinism, went through multiple editions immediately following its appearence, portrayed Brainerd as an example to his own itinerant preachers. In the nineteenth century, Brainerd became the prototypical missionary, looked up to by both William Carey and Henry Martyn. Later in Antebellum America, another Brainerd was invented, this time the self-sacrifical missionary, an 'example of self denial, or patience under privations and sufferings' (p. 172). Later as the number of American Protestant missionary agencies mushroomed in the 1880s, in the hands of Moody and A. T. Pierson, so Brainerd was again reinvented as the man of prayer, who's example would inspire many others to take up the missionary call and complete the evangelisation of the worlld in that generation! Finally, and maybe most remarkably, in the late twentieth century, Brainerd the proto-civil rights activist was born!!

Grigg's book while an excellent study of Brainerd's life, now the definitive study without a doubt, also raises some very important issues about evangelical identity and re-invention. Contemporary evangelicalism is awash with hagiographical accounts of past luminaries, and plenty of writers intent on writing biographies that bolster their reputation; my own work on George Whitefield has shown the continuing persistence of that approach. Grigg's biography is a wonderful example of how to write a sympathetic, but critically informed life. As good, I would suggest, as George Marsden's, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (2003), a book I still think is the best example of how one evangelical should write the biography of another evangelical.

But in the case of Brainerd, maybe there was something remarkable about the depth of his personal sanctity, although I wouldn't want to go as far as two American missionaries who, while thinking about who they would want to welcome them at the gates of Heaven, chose Brainerd, bypassing Peter, Paul and all of the Old Testament patriarchs!!

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