The Jonathan Edwards Center has invited Nathan Finn, newly appointed Dean of Theology and Missions at Union University, to write this note for the Jonathan Edwards Center.
David Brainerd (1718–1747) looms large in evangelical missions history. As John Griggs has demonstrated in his fine book The Lives of David Brainerd: The Making of an American Evangelical Icon (OUP, 2009), Brainerd’s life has been appropriated (and often adapted) by evangelical missionaries and mission promoters all over the English-speaking world. Anecdotally, nearly every missionary whom I’ve met has read some version of The Life of David Brainerd. Even those who haven’t read his diary are familiar with Brainerd’s story.
Readers of this website will know that Brainerd also looms large in the story of Jonathan Edwards and his family. Edwards edited The Life of David Brainerd after the latter’s death. It was Edwards’s bestselling book and has remained in print ever since. The Edwards family cared for Brainerd during the final months of his short life. This fact has given rise to the persistent (but false) legend that Brainerd was engaged to Edwards’s daughter Jerusha, his primary caregiver to whom he became close during his final days.
“The Life of David Brainerd: A Documentary” represents an excellent introduction to the life and ministry of the famed missionary. Pastor Joe Tyrpak, who produced the documentary, has also written a helpful 44-page companion volume titled The Life of David Brainerd: A Devotional. Both of these resources are available for purchase online from Church Works Media.
The documentary, which clocks in at a little less than one hour, was produced primarily for a church audience. It covers the basics of Brainerd’s biography, his tumultuous time at Yale College, his ministry successes and failures among Native Americans, his spiritual life, his battle with depression, his relationship with Edwards and other New England pastors, and his legacy. The film itself reflects quality craftsmanship and includes many beautiful shots of locations that were prominent in Brainerd’s life, original manuscripts of his writings, and portraits, statues, and other memorials of figures discussed in the documentary. The film should prove a helpful resource for use in local church Sunday School classes, small groups, and discussion groups. Homeschooling families and Christian private schools will also find it to be very useful.
Though intended for a more popular audience, “The Life of David Brainerd: A Documentary” should find wide usage in undergraduate and seminary courses in missions, church history, or Jonathan Edwards, especially if it is supplemented with lectures and class discussion. The interviewees include scholars who have written widely on Brainerd and/or Edwards such as Grigg, Michael Haykin, Ken Minkema, and Doug Sweeney. It also includes scholars with expertise in evangelical spirituality such as Andy Naselli and Don Whitney. Finally, the documentary also interviews thoughtful pastors who have written on Brainerd, including Vance Christie and Tyrpak. Together, these men paint a picture of Brainerd that is informed by the best scholarship, is honest about his various struggles and failures, but remains warmly sympathetic to Brainerd’s life, thought, and missionary zeal. If he were with us today, I think Brainerd would recognize himself in this documentary.
“The Life of David Brainerd: A Documentary” is both informative and inspirational. The companion devotional is a great way to go deeper into Brainerd’s story and make more personal application for spiritual growth. Pastors, professors, and other ministry leaders will find it a useful tool for introducing Brainerd and inspiring fruitful conversations about topics such as missions, revival, spiritual depression, and the place of biography in Christian formation.
Nathan A. Finn