Part 2: Brainerd and His Contemporaries
This is a reprint of The Haystack Prayer Meeting. It was written by Edward Warren Capen, PH.D. president of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, now Global Ministries, and published as one of the 1906 Envelope Series. Subscribers paid 10 cents per year for the series.
PLEASE NOTE: This piece was written in 1906 and therefore reflects the language of that time.
The eighteenth century witnessed not only the remarkable religious movement known as the Great Awakening, but also a second period of missionary work. Again the efforts were directed towards the heathen who were in the midst of the colonists. Moravian missionaries labored for the Indians in the middle colonies, notably Pennsylvania, with a devotion and with a persistency in the face of opposition from natives and colonists that merited the highest praise.
Of the New England missionaries of this period, easily the first in influence was the saintly David Brainerd. His missionary career, first near Albany, and later in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, covered little more than four years; yet his life as portrayed in his published journals has had an influence surpassed by that of few, and was an important factor in the development of Samuel J. Mills. While he endeavored most earnestly to make the Indians Christians, he interested himself in all their life, secured a teacher for them, taught them habits of industry, and formed them into a Christian village.
What Brainerd did in the middle colonies, John Sergeant had earlier achieved in the Housatonic Valley in Massachusetts for the wandering Mohegan Indians, whom, in 1736, he gathered into a new village, Stockbridge. Here Jonathan Edwards preached to the Indians and wrote theological treatises, while the Indians repaid the labors in their behalf by loyal service for the colonies in the War for Independence. Nearly one-half of their young men then perished.
One of the prominent leaders in work for the Indians in the eighteenth century was Eleazer Wheelock of Lebanon, Connecticut, at whose school was educated Samson Occom, a Mohegan Indian. His success in educating Occom suggested to Mr. Wheelock the idea of introducing Indian pupils into his school, and of making it the training school for native missionaries to the heathen tribes. He believed that Indians must be converted by Indians, and that these could best be trained in Christian homes. The results of this effort were less than he had expected, largely because he had underestimated the danger of the Indians lapsing back into their old life when they returned into heathen surroundings. The removal of the school to Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1770, and its affiliation with the newly established Dartmouth College, with Wheelock as president of both institutions, marked the beginning of the end of the school.
At one time Mr. Wheelock and his friends had under their auspices three missionaries and eight teachers among the Indians, while twenty-two were dependent upon them for support. A pupil of Mr. Wheelock, Samuel Kirkland, was the most prominent Congregational Indian missionary in the latter half of the eighteenth century. He worked for a time among the unfriendly Senecas. He was for many years among the Oneidas and was largely instrumental in securing, in 1775, their neutrality in the impending war. Samson Occom was a faithful worker among his own people, laboring on Long Island, for the Oneidas in New York and in Connecticut. In 1765, he made a successful trip to England to raise funds for the work of Mr. Wheelock. Before and after the Revolution, he formed and executed plans for the removal to New York State of the Christian Indians of New England. The purpose was to establish a Christian community in the mist of the Six Nations and also to remove the Christian Indians from competition with the white man, and to a region where their lands would be inalienable and sufficient for their support.
Much of this Indian work was supported by the people of England and Scotland. The good people of Massachusetts were not satisfied with this, and in 1762, the Congregational ministers secured from the colonial legislature a charter for a “Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge among the Indians of North America.” The British crown disallowed this charter because the Episcopal clergymen of Boston, most of whom were supported by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, feared that it would endanger the interests of their society.