Last month’s article on David Brainerd highlighted Jonathan Edwards’ esteem for his friend as an exemplar of authentic Christianity. Although dying when only 29, Brainerd was a classic role model for how the kingdom of God is extended.
In 1729 Jonathan Edwards had become pastor at Northampton, Massachusetts, then a town of about 1000 men, women and children. During 1734-35, around one third of the town was converted within the short space of six months.
At that time, ‘a great and earnest concern about the great things of religion, and the eternal world, became universal in all parts of the town’, especially among the youth.
Edwards was to experience further revivals and pen what are now well known words: ‘It may here be observed, that from the fall of man to our day, the work of redemption in its effect has mainly been carried on by remarkable communications of the Spirit of God.
‘Though there be a more constant influence of God’s Spirit always in some degree attending his ordinances, yet the way in which the greatest things have been done towards carrying on this work, always have been by remarkable effusions, at special seasons of mercy’.
Edwards does not say here that revivals are the only way of furthering God’s kingdom, but he does affirm that far more is accomplished during revivals than in more ordinary seasons.
But David Brainerd’s ministry was paradigmatic for both kinds of season: those attended by ‘a more constant influence of God’s Spirit’ and those marked by ‘remarkable communications of the Spirit of God’.
Brainerd experienced a deeply discouraging introduction to the uncertain world of Christian ministry while a theological student. This dark experience was followed by a gruelling pioneer ministry among pagan groups of indigenous Americans (‘Red Indians’), embarked on in 1743.
Often he would trek through the rough terrain of New England on horseback, seeking to make contact with the Indians, to gather them together and then preach to them. He travelled in all weathers and sometimes slept in the open. His body became faint with illness and later he was coughing up blood (due to the onset of tuberculosis).
Brainerd found it hard to get the roving Indians to meet at a set time. It was hard too to cope with their animistic traditions, idolatrous feasts and powows (witch doctors); and harder still to break through their frequent drunkenness.
Their addiction to alcohol was stimulated by the unscrupulous activities of white traders. Indeed, many of the white men proved a barrier to Brainerd’s witness by their hypocritical profession of Christianity coupled with their willingness to exploit the native Americans.
Brainerd laboured for two years, with little to show for his sacrificial efforts. But then, unexpectedly, the blessing — a special season of God’s mercy — broke in upon his work.
During the first half of 1745 there was a growing evidence of spiritual concern among the Indians, and even some conversions, notably of Brainerd’s interpreter and that man’s wife. But this was nothing to what happened next.
In August 1745, at Crossweeksung, in New Jersey, the floodgates opened. Brainerd’s journal says:
‘Aug. 3. [When] I visited the Indians in these parts in June last, and tarried with them some considerable time, preaching almost daily; at which season God was pleased to pour upon them a spirit of awakening and concern for their souls, and surprisingly to engage their attention to divine truths; I now found them serious, and a number of them under deep concern for an interest in Christ…’
‘The Lord … enabled me … to set before them the Lord Jesus Christ as a kind and compassionate Saviour, inviting distressed and perishing sinners to accept everlasting mercy.
‘And a surprising concern soon became apparent among them. There were about twenty adult persons together (many of the Indians at remote places not having as yet had time to come since my return hither), and not above two that I could see with dry eyes. Some were much concerned, and discovered vehement longings of soul after Christ, to save them from the misery they felt and feared…
‘Aug. 7. Preached to the Indians from Isaiah 53:3-10. There was a remarkable influence attending the Word, and great concern in the assembly … most were much affected and many in great distress for their souls; and some few could neither go nor stand, but lay flat on the ground, as if pierced at heart, crying incessantly for mercy.
‘Several were newly awakened, and it was remarkable that, as fast as they came from remote places round about, the Spirit of God seemed to seize them with concern for their souls…
‘Aug. 8. In the afternoon I preached to the Indians; their number was about 65 persons, men, women, and children. I discoursed from Luke 14:16-23 and was favoured with uncommon freedom in my discourse.
‘There was much visible concern among them while I was discoursing publicly; but afterwards, when I spoke to one and another more particularly, whom I perceived under much concern, the power of God seemed to descend upon the assembly “like a rushing mighty wind”, 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, that with its insupportable weight and pressure bears down and sweeps before it whatever is in its way.
‘Almost all persons of all ages were bowed down with concern together, and scarce one was able to withstand the shock of this surprising operation. Old men and women who had been drunken wretches for many years, and some little children not more than six or seven years of age, appeared in distress for their souls, as well as persons of middle age.
‘And it was apparent these children (some of them at least) were not merely frightened with seeing the general concern; but were made sensible of their danger, the badness of their hearts and their misery without Christ, as some of them expressed it…
‘A principal man among the Indians, who before was most secure and self-righteous and thought his state good … who, with a great degree of confidence the day before, told me he “had been a Christian more than ten years”, was now brought under solemn concern for his soul and wept bitterly.
‘Another man advanced in years, who had been a murderer, a powow and a notorious drunkard, was likewise brought now to cry for mercy with many tears…
‘They were almost universally praying and crying for mercy in every part of the house, and many out of doors, and numbers could neither go nor stand. Their concern was so great, each one for himself, that none seemed to take any notice of those about them, but each prayed freely for himself…
‘It seemed to me there was now an exact fulfilment of that prophecy, Zecheriah12:10-12, for there was now “a great mourning, like the mourning of Hadadrimmon” — and each seemed to “mourn apart”.
‘I thought this had a near resemblance to the day of God’s power mentioned in Joshua 10:14, for I must say, I never saw any day like it in all respects: it was a day wherein I am persuaded the Lord did much to destroy the kingdom of darkness among this people … all were afraid of the anger of God and of everlasting misery as the desert of their sins…
‘It was very affecting to see the poor Indians, who the other day were hallooing and yelling in their idolatrous feasts and drunken frolics, now crying to God with such importunity for an interest in his dear Son!’
Brainerd’s description of these astonishing scenes reminds us forcibly that, just as true conversion completely changes an individual’s ‘religious affections’, so true revival can completely change the religious affections of many people, all at the same time. Whole communities are brought to hate sin and to love Christ and his righteousness.
This narrative reminds us too that revival is not a human crusade or entertainment, nor is it a human generated event to be switched on and off at will, but a sovereign, unpredictable and powerful work of God, sweeping all before it.
Partly through Jonathan Edwards’ writings, including his edition of David Brainerd’s diary, a movement for prayer spread across America and Britain during the late eighteenth century. This in turn led to further powerful revivals and the genesis of the nineteenth century missionary movement. By 1833, around one third of Britain’s population was under an evangelical ministry.
We have every reason to pray, ‘Lord, you have, in the past, done great things for your people and granted them mighty victories. Now, please do the same again in our day, for the glory of your Son!’ (Psalm 44).