David Brainerd’s Dynamic Theology Of Mission -- By: John F. Thornbury
RAR 7:2 (Spring 1998) p. 129
David Brainerd’s Dynamic Theology Of Mission
Jonathan Edwards’s Diary of David Brainerd has probably done more to inspire missionary endeavor and instruct missionaries on the field than any human writing. Brainerd became the model for several generations of evangelists and missionaries. A few examples can illustrate how Christians looked to his life of dedication and sacrifice as a model. When the American Board of Commissioners for Missions established its first Indian mission among the Cherokees in 1817 the missionaries named the post Brainerd. Early biographers of Adoniram Judson, who brought the gospel of Christ to Burma, could think of no higher tribute for him than to style him “The Baptist Brainerd.” The Northampton grave of Brainerd became a hallowed spot, where, as the nineteenth-century historian William Sprague reported, pilgrims beat a well-worn path. Joseph Conforti says, “On one occasion at mid-century when the General Association of Massachusetts met at Northampton, the ministers marched en masse to Brainerd’s grave.1
Although Brainerd (1718–47) is eternally fixed in the shrines of missionary heroes, I believe that not enough attention has been given to Brainerd’s theology. It is not uncommon for historians to focus on his personal dedication to God, his humility, his self-denying spirit, and his intense love for the souls of the “savage” Indians. Brainerd richly deserved this homage, and I would not want in any way to disparage the place his godly character has when we
RAR 7:2 (Spring 1998) p. 130
regard him as one of the great believers of church history. But I also believe that we cannot really separate Brainerd the Christian and Brainerd the missionary from Brainerd the theologian.
First let me point out, as one can very easily see by reading his published writings, that he was a man who was very sensitive theologically. No where do we find David Brainerd acting in such a way as to leave the impression that he believed that what a person believes about God, the Bible and conversion is not important. I know that he was primarily an evangelist, and that he did not produce any major theological works, but he believed that correct views of the great themes of the gospel were important in establishing a valid experience in the life of the believer. He expressed, at times, strong disagreement, not only with the Jesuit missionaries, but also the Quakers and the Moravians. He corrected those who were converted under his ministry when they were apparently being misled by what he considered false teachers.
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