History's Headlines: Faith on the Frontier: 18th century Presbyterian missionary David Brainerd is remembered on Lower Mount Bethel Twp. property
On November 23, 1744, as the late fall darkness of the primeval Pennsylvania forest closed in around him. Presbyterian missionary David Brainerd had to admit one thing: he was totally lost.
“I came on my way to the Delaware River, though much disordered with a cold and a pain in my head,” he recorded in his journal. “About six at night I lost my way in the wilderness, and wandered over rocks and mountains, down hideous steeps, through swamps and most dreadful and dangerous places; and the night being dark I was greatly exposed.”
Just as Brainerd felt, “that I must lie in woods all night,” he saw a light, in the distance. It was not long before he realized there was a house ahead of him. The Lord had come to his aid with this shining sign of His grace in the darkness. Of that Brainerd had no doubt.
With a reaction that was natural to him, Brainerd thanked heaven with a prayer. “Blessed be God, that he makes the thoughts of my journey’s end a great comfort to me under my sharpest trials, and scarce ever lets these thoughts be attended with terror, but frequently with joy,” he wrote.
Where exactly Brainerd was that day over 250 years ago is not known. But it is known that year he would erect a cabin in what is now Lower Mount Bethel Township on a property that is owned by Tony Lelli.
Brainerd’s cabin disappeared long ago. But in 1884 the Brainerd Society, made up largely of Lafayette College students, decided to honor the missionary by erecting a monument to him near its site. It served as a marker to all those who passed it on Howell Road.
But time was not kind to the Brainerd monument. When Lelli, a 1961 Lafayette graduate and former engineer with the Alpha Portland Cement Company, moved into the property 57 years ago, he knew that the monument was starting to crumble. But it was not until 2006 that he was able to get support to have it restored.
In October, 2006, with the aid of Lafayette College, the Hunter Martin Settlement Museum of Lower Mount Bethel and Saul Restoration Artisans of Kutztown, the work was done.
“We have quite a few people who stop by and wonder about the monument,” says Lelli. “Some of them even want to go back to the place where the cabin was said to have been.”
Not all of them know about Brainerd but Lelli is glad to share what knowledge he has. “He was really an impressive person with his deep faith, working to convert the Indians,” says Lelli. “He also played a role in founding what is now Princeton University and was an inspiration for the Presbyterians who were part of the development of Lafayette.”
David Brainerd (1718-1747) was a part of a movement that in the 18th century shook the church establishment of New England and Pennsylvania to its foundation. Known as the Great Awakening, its chief voice was Jonathan Edwards, a fiery preacher who believed that the transforming power of God’s grace was an essential ingredient that was missing in the beliefs of the day.
Brainerd grew up in Haddam, Connecticut- one of nine children. According to an early biography he recalled having religious experiences even as a young child. The most intense was in 1739 when he had what evangelical scholars describe as a conversion experience. As a result he decided to leave the family farm and enter Yale to study for the ministry.
Brainerd was horrified at the lack of zeal and passion he felt was shown by many of his professors. He told a friend that one tutor “had no more grace than a chair.”
Yale’s rector established a series of fines for those students who called their professors “hypocrites, carnal or unconverted men.” Brainerd is said to have claimed he could not understand why God did not strike the college’s rector dead for fining students.
Later he apologized to the tutor and claimed he had never made that comment about the rector.
Brainerd was expelled from Yale and a law was issued by the colony of Connecticut that forbade anyone who had not graduated from Harvard, Yale or a European college from being a minister there. In 1742 he learned of a New Light group headed by Jonathan Dickinson in New Jersey. After a fruitless attempt to get readmitted to Yale, Brainerd decided to become a missionary to Native Americans.
He went to the wilderness first in what is now Nassau, N.Y. Here he started a school for Indian children and began a translation of the Psalms. He was there for a year.
In 1744 he moved to the area near what would become Easton. Having little success he moved a little further just northeast of Bethlehem. Here he converted the Native American leader Moses Tunda Tatamy, one of the best known Indians on the Pennsylvania frontier.
Brainerd’s most successful mission was in Crossweeksung-now Crosswick-in Burlington County, N.J. Here a small community of roughly 130 Christian Indians farmed and prayed. But no matter how Christian they became some whites would not accept them. When one complained that the mission was a plot to send 300 Indians into the area the authorities pointed out that there were not even 300 Indians left in the entire colony.
Some theologians have called Brainerd a Christian mystic on the order of the Catholic St. Francis Assai. His prayers and journal writings have become classics in American theology. It is impossible to know what Brainerd may have accomplished if he had not died so young.
David Brainerd, age 29, died from tuberculosis on October 9, 1747 at the Northampton, Massachusetts home of Jonathan Edwards, where he had lived the last two years of his life. He rests today as he has for 266 years in the town’s Bridge Street Cemetery, one of the pioneering American religious figures of the 18th century. And he is not forgotten in the Lehigh Valley.
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