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Bizarre History of Cape May: Early cape preacher lost much, but not his faith

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Fifty-five years after the Cold Spring Presbyterian Church was founded, a pastor arrived who has become an important part of Colonial history for his missionary work with American Indians and for his attempts to convert them to Christianity.

The Rev. John Brainerd, who filled a vacancy at the now 300-year-old church during the winter of 1769-1770, has gone down in history as having given his days and nights to the temporal and spiritual good of the American Indians.

“He followed them to their haunts over the whole country, preaching to them, catechizing them, protecting them from temptations to intemperance and from the cupidity of white people, training them to fence and saw their lands and often succeeding in settling their disputes,” wrote Princeton Professor George Macloskie in an 1879 introduction to Brainerd’s historic 60 page journal in which a reference was made to the church in the Cold Spring section of Lower Township.

In his journal Brainerd gives virtually a day-by-day account of his activities. At one point he reports that he warned the American Indians about “the great evil of idleness” and exhorted them to be honest, diligent and friendly.

A typewritten copy of Brainerd’s manuscript, prepared by the New Jersey Historical Records Survey Project, is now on file at the reference department of the Cape May County Library in Court House.

Brainerd was 49 years old when he assumed the pastorate of Cold Spring Church, succeeding the Rev. Daniel Lawrence who served from 1752-1766. (There is no church listing for a pastor for the period from 1766-1769.) The Rev. James Watts succeeded Brainerd from 1770-1789.

He was not to be the first of his family to help the American Indians. His brother, the Rev. David Brainerd, set the pace and when he died at the age of 29, John carried on. He lived through part of the Revolutionary War, succumbing in 1781 when he was 61.

John Brainerd, who like his brother was a native of East Haddam, Conn., had a tragic life. In addition to his brother, his first wife, Experience Lion, and their two children died early, leaving him only a daughter, Mary. He was to marry Elizabeth Price in 1766.

Brainerd persevered living among the American Indians for a while. He started some Presbyterian churches and there were times when he preached at two services, one for the American Indians in their language and another for the whites in English. At other times he brought the two groups together for a combined service.

His churches – or meeting houses as they were sometimes called then – were not always successful. In Mount Holly, where he lived for a while, his meeting house was burned down by the British during the Revolutionary War. Brainerd’s last church was in Deerfield where he died and is buried beneath the church.

Brainerd was a traveling preacher and he is said to have delivered more than 500 sermons, mainly in New Jersey. He stated in his memoirs that he occasionally grew tired, but he put in so much mileage in New Jersey and Pennsylvania that one wonders if his horses were more fatigued than he.

He writes in one account about riding 28 miles to the cape. (“Early in the century there was a church near Cape May,” a citation in his writing explains. “It is now called Cold Spring Church.”) He preached at a November evening service there and returned the next day for another sermon before he crossed the bay on his way to other churches and services.

Meanwhile, Brainerd was helping the American Indians. The following February, he reports, he spent part of the day “in trying to get justice done to some of the Indians. Some white men who owed them money, refusing to pay.” He also spent some time with laborers clearing land and “took care that they had not too much strong drink” and he defended American Indian lands where people were cutting down the trees and carrying away the timber.

On another occasion Brainerd encountered a man he described as an “Indian professor who had been unhappily overtaken with drunkenness.” He said the man “made a very penitent confession and promised reformation.”

One of his biggest approaches, not with success, occurred at an American Indian gathering in Lancaster, Pa. He had hoped to meet with them to spread the gospel on a Sunday in August when he spent the full day and more there. He said he waited for the chief to tell him what time he could speak.

“They told me they believed in an hour or two,” Brainerd reported in his journal. “But when I went to them again they said they could not attend till afternoon. And when the afternoon came I found they were so full of business that they could not attend that day. But as there was a great number of white people, who came out of curiosity to see the Indians; at the request of some, I preached to them, and many of the common Indians came and attended the whole exercise.”

Brainerd spent a few more days there and did manage to meet with some of the American Indians, but he could not win the approval of the chief to preach to them or even attend any instructions regarding Christianity. He was told there must first be a general consultation on the subject before any decision could be reached.

These events were not to deter him, however. He went on to preach in other places before whites and American Indians, often bringing the divergent groups together.

“Nor did he neglect the white people who were as sheep without a shepherd over the extensive district in which he itinerated,” wrote Professor Macloskie. “His congregations usually consisted of Indians and whites; and after praying and preaching for the Indians in their language he would repeat the same services for the whites in English.”

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