Review of <em>The Lives of David Brainerd</em>

Grigg, John A. The Lives of David Brainerd: The Making of an American Evangelical Icon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 276 pages. ISBN: 978-0-19-537237-3.

As John Grigg observes, David Brainerd is second only to Jonathan Edwards in evangelicals’ memory of the Great Awakening. His often-republished diary has been a staple of evangelical devotional literature since Edwards published his Life of Brainerdin 1749. Academic historians take note of Brainerd too, both for his role in the controversies surrounding the Awakening and for his missionary efforts among the Delaware Indians. Grigg’s The Lives of David Brainerd is a history of both Brainerds. The book’s first section contains a careful reconstruction of Brainerd’s life, while the second section examines the memory of Brainerd since his death.

To write his life of Brainerd, Grigg has recovered fragments and leaves of Brainerd’s writings, very little of which is extant. He fills in the details with accounts of Brainerd’s hometown, of Yale, and of other missionary efforts to the Indians. Grigg’s argument is that Brainerd stood uneasily on the boundary between the radical and the moderate supporters of the Great Awakening. Brainerd’s expulsion from Yale was not precipitated solely by his intemperate outbursts against Yale leaders, but was a consequence of Brainerd’s attempt to minister to New Haven’s separatist congregation while trying to receive the imprimatur of a Yale degree. Nor was Brainerd forced into a mission to the Indians because he could not get a ministerial position. Rather, Brainerd turned down two offers of a position to continue his mission. Brainerd intentionally based his missions work on a mix of the radical and moderate Awakening. By the time of his death, Brainerd had mostly learned to shed the racist assumptions of his day and to think of people in terms of religion and not race, identifying himself with “godly Indians” rather than “white heathens.”

Grigg’s history of the memory of Brainerd runs from his death to the late twentieth century. He demonstrates that Jonathan Edwards used his Life of Brainerd as an argument in several debates, presenting Brainerd as an opponent of the enthusiastic excesses of the Awakening, as a denouncer of Arminianism, and as a model of life after conversion for his congregants. John Wesley, on the other hand, did his own editing of Brainerd’s journals to provide a model to itinerant Methodists of a minister who was unmarried, ascetic, a proper steward of money, and inured to hardship. Early nineteenth-century evangelicals, notably William Carey in Britain and Adoniram Judson in the United States, also claimed Brainerd, adding a mythical bethrothal between Brainerd and Jerusha Edwards in support of their belief that missionaries should be married. The student missionary movement at the turn of the twentieth century, led by men such as E. M. Bounds and A. J. Gordon, held up Brainerd as a model of prayer. In the second half of the twentieth century, Brainerd inspired missionaries like Jim Eliot, and also stood as a prototype of the campus radical and the civil rights leaders. Grigg thus uses Brainerd’s to reveal significant changes in American evangelicalism and missions.

This book is a revised dissertation, and readers unaccustomed to the genre will be jarred by the historiographical debates, not all of which have been excised from the main text. Because Grigg is obligated by the scarcity of Brainerd’s writings to turn to other sources, the text occasionally wanders from its topic, as in the needlessly long summary of Edwards’s writings. One wishes that the author had not been so generous with people who made up the versions of Brainerd out of whole cloth as to insist that there runs a “thread of truth beneath the surface” (190) of their fabrications.

Quibbles aside, Grigg’s book is precisely the critical study of Brainerd that has been needed by both historians and evangelicals. As such, it is likely to become the standard work on Brainerd.