‘Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ’
1 Corinthians 11:1
I was listening to a podcast recently on the Scottish missionary John Paton (see Christian Podcast Network). John Legg suddenly said something which struck me in response to a question by the interviewer: ‘We’re too sensible these days’. I think he’s right! History reveals a panoply of ‘radical’, or dare I say the word, ‘extreme’ men and women who took the things of God seriously. One of these was a young New England missionary called David Brainerd (1718-1747).
One of Brainerd’s biographers, Vance Christie, states that, ‘On the whole, his radicalism was of a type worthy of emulation.’ Therefore, to mark 300 years since his birth, I thought about how I, as a Christian in my twenties, could imitate or even emulate Brainerd’s so-called ‘radicalism’ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Instead of giving a detailed biography, I have produced three short vignettes which may help us.
New Haven 1740 — Extreme devotion
The first scene is set in the countryside near Yale College. David is wandering in the fields. Like Augustine, his heart is restless until he meets with God:
One day I remember in particular (I think it was in June, 1740), I walked a considerable distance from the college, in the fields alone at noon, and in prayer found such unspeakable sweetness and delight in God that I thought, if I must continue still in this evil world, I wanted always to be there, to behold God’s glory: My soul dearly loved all mankind, and longed exceedingly that they should enjoy what I enjoyed.
The young Brainerd would often wrestle in intercessory prayer over individuals, and later, over what he termed ‘his people’, the Native Americans. He would go to a patch of woodland or search out some quiet place in order to pray or meet with his Beloved. This was the experiential engine that drove his ardent evangelism: a personal relationship with a living God.
But this emphasis did not make him a spiritual recluse. On the contrary, these private times led to public proclamations of the old, old story of Jesus’ love.
Opeholhaupung 1744 — Extreme evangelism
Four years later and it’s a frosty autumnal day. The young missionary and his team are weary after a cold night sleeping under the stars. The wolves have been howling all night. Sound travels a long way in these forests, and they are somewhat fearful of what they’ll encounter around the next corner.
They slowly progress through the leaves and approach a Native American settlement called Opeholhaupung, located on the east bank of the North Branch of the Susquehanna River. Brainerd’s mission is to take the good news of Jesus Christ to a spiritually dark group of people.
They arrive as the Natives are preparing for a hunt. All the tribes in the area look slightly different. Their paint marks, their dwellings, their clothes, their rituals and the clicking sounds of their myriad languages. But in Brainerd’s eyes, they’re all souls who haven’t heard about the Nazarene; they’re souls that he has a duty to witness to. He’s able to preach to them twice daily, and they even postpone their important hunt in order to hear more about this Galilean Lord. But once he finishes, they move on. Brainerd muses on their spiritual state:
Their minds are filled with prejudices against Christianity, on account of the vicious lives and un-Christian behaviour of some that are called Christians […] they are extremely attached to the customs, traditions, and fabulous notions of their fathers […] they are much attached to idolatry […] and they are much awed by those among themselves who are called Powwows, who are supposed to have a power of enchanting, or poisoning them to death.
To reach such a people would appear extreme, radical and even brave for most modern ears. Brainerd leant on his Saviour, but it was still frightening. The powwows (a kind of witchdoctor) would always be a thorn in Brainerd’s side. They still exist, don’t they? In universities or workplaces, the powwows have different names now. Whether they’re the atheistic intelligentsia or an influential child in a classroom, the Kingdom is always being opposed. We live in a nation which is prejudiced against Christianity, and unfortunately, the un-Christian behaviour of some of our own brothers and sisters does not help the situation. Furthermore, we are as idolatrous as the Native Americans – bound by both sacred and secular traditions.
However, the gospel of Christ has to be proclaimed. Brainerd carried on. Like Elijah, he openly challenged the powwows. He was unwilling to be shut up. One Indian woman noted that ‘she loved David very much because he loved his heavenly Father so much that he was willing to endure hardships, travelling over mountains, suffering hunger, and lying on the ground that he might do her people good.’ Oh, that we would love our heavenly Father and also seek the good of our people.
Crossweeksung 1745 — Extreme results
The first two years of his ministry had seen very little fruit. Things were about to change. It is Thursday, August 8th, 1745. Sixty-five Indians gather around the preacher. Brainerd gives his text: Luke 14:16-23 — it is the invitation to the heavenly banquet. Suddenly, came the gracious moving of God’s Spirit, which Brainerd had been waiting for:
There was much visible concern among them while I was discoursing publicly; but afterwards when I spoke to one and another more particularly […] the power of God seemed to descend upon the assembly like ‘a rushing mighty wind’ (Acts 2:2), and with an astonishing energy bore down all before it.
I stood amazed at the influence that seized the audience almost universally, and could compare it to nothing more aptly than the irresistible force of a mighty torrent, or swelling deluge […] Almost all persons of all ages were bowed down with concern together, and scarce one was able to withstand the shock of that surprising operation!
It sounds like Llangeitho in 1738, doesn’t it? A deep conviction of sin seems to envelop the gathering. They’re of all ages; this isn’t an outpouring related to a particular age group. Nor is it culturally motivated; this isn’t something Welsh! God, in his gracious love and mercy, was moving in this corner of the vineyard.
Many would state that Brainerd’s extreme behaviour is no longer appropriate. I disagree. Certainly, some of his habits were detrimental to his health and he died at the young age of 29. But on the whole, his ‘extremism’ does remind me of Paul, who was both brave and bold in his ministry. He too experienced ‘perils’ (2 Corinthians 11), but he could say with authority: ‘Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ’ (1 Corinthians 11:1). May we, like Paul and Brainerd, adopt that extreme motto: ‘for to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain’ (Philippians 1:21).