From the JEC Blog

Archive for June, 2015

Sweeney’s Booknotes: The Life of David Brainerd: A Documentary

The Life of David Brainerd: A Documentary (ChurchWorks Media, 2015), DVD.

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
Union University

Sweeney’s Booknotes: First American Evangelical

Rick Kennedy, The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather, Library of Religious Biography (Eerdmans, 2015)

CottonMatherIn one of my recent entries, I referred to three learned scholarly monographs on Mather written by members of the editorial team slogging away on Mather’s biblical magnum opus, Biblia Americana: America’s First Bible Commentary, a Synoptic Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, 10 vols. (Mohr Siebeck and Baker Academic).

The first of those three monographs has made it into print.

The following booknote, refashioned and abbreviated for posting on, may prove useful to students of Edwards as well.

Cotton Mather (1663-1728) is widely “known” as a moralistic hypocrite, a meddler more concerned about his own reputation for intelligence and piety than the people killed for “witchcraft” in Salem on his watch or the slaves held in bondage in his hometown of Boston.

But as Rick Kennedy argues in this lively new biography, Mather was much more noble, even socially progressive, than his reputation suggests.

He knew his share of real suffering. Picked on as a child, he would stutter for years to come—a painful thorn in the flesh for one who wanted to be a preacher. He buried two wives and thirteen of fifteen children. But his faith rarely wavered. He rested on the promises of God made in Scripture, compensating for hardships by edifying others. He led in public education, outreach to Native Americans, and ministry to prisoners, widows, orphans, slaves, and sailors. His congregation loved him dearly “for exuberantly modeling a lively relationship with Christ that was grounded in the Bible.” Mather’s Old North Church, in fact, would shine as a beacon of vital Christian faith and practice long after its famous minister and role model died.

Mather is most often pictured as the last of the Puritans, a backward-looking Calvinist who chafed at modern life. But Kennedy portrays him as the first evangelical, a forward-looking polymath, warm-hearted herald of pure and undefiled religion, and doyen of what he calls Britain’s “biblical enlightenment.” By the late seventeenth century, New England outgrew its narrow Puritan identity. It became more ecumenical and shared in what was known as Great Britain’s “Protestant interest” vis-à-vis the Catholic French. Mather joined in this transition, forging partnerships with a wide range of European Protestants. But he worried about the spiritually tepid, covetous conformity that all-too-often shadowed its cosmopolitan ambitions, promoting what he liked to call the “evangelical interest,” an “all day long faith” that transcended the “Protestant interest” and could take one “to the . . . top of Christianity.”

Kennedy clearly loves Mather, which is a breath of fresh air in a day and age when Christian scholars usually treat their kin with an air of superiority and more than a hint of irony. It seems a stretch to me to trace the history of the modern American evangelical movement to the work of one man (as Kennedy does repeatedly), but not to remind readers of the movement’s cultivation in the greenhouse of Puritanism and continental Pietism (which Kennedy points out well). It seems ill-advised today to gloss over Mather’s complicity in the persecution of “witches” and the enslavement of Africans (as Kennedy sometimes does), but not to remind readers that Mather urged great caution among the civic leaders at Salem, called for loving, personal ministry to those accused of witchcraft, spoke out against the slave trade, and eventually permitted his own slave to buy his freedom (which Kennedy notes well). Kennedy’s handling of his subject, in short, shields our view of Mather’s most notorious personal failings. But it also serves to rectify his subject’s reputation. Mather has languished for so long in the pillory of late modern moral indignation that we’ve lost sight of the things that he can teach us about ourselves and our own moral struggles.

This book is fun to read. I hope it gains a wide hearing. It offers readers a better feel for Mather’s vibrant, quirky, learned, evangelical spirituality than any book before. It is full of Christian wisdom. Indeed, it shows us what we can learn from Christian leaders of the past when we humble ourselves and heed them not as spotless moral saints, but as humans—just like us—who sought to do the best they could with the gifts that they received.

I highly recommend Kennedy’s interview with Eerdmans about Mather and the book filmed aboard Rick’s boat (a boat on which I myself have sailed or, rather, sat while Rick sailed my wife and me around the San Diego Bay—what a delight). Rick may be the coolest historian I know!