Shelly Peters

Professor Westblade

26 November 2013

Final Paper


“Barbarous and Barren vs. Moral and Divine”:

Edwards, Education, and ESL


            Shaking off the dust from his feet, Jonathan Edwards left the stiff-necked congregation in Northampton to evangelize the Indians in Stockbridge who had not yet had the opportunity to hear the Gospel. Edwards blended the missionary methods of the French and English by wishing to live among the people and teach them in English. To Edwards, teaching English to the Indians was his primary goal because he saw that English was one of the primary vehicles to understand the divine and sublime nature of God. Edwards believed that the Indian tongue was too barbarous to be able to fully understand the wonders and glory of God.  David Brainerd, who while living among the Indians, shared the same poor view of the Indians, their culture, and their language. Both Brainerd and Edwards could not identify the religion of the Indians through their hazy British worldview lenses. If Brainerd and Edwards would have understood and utilized the Indian’s all-encompassing view of the divine in nature to speak to the Indians, then the Indians would no longer be “barbarous and barren” as Edwards believed but able to understand the “moral and divine” nature of God in their own tongue.

             As Edwards turned from Northampton and surveyed the barbarous lands, he recognized the failure of the English and French in reaching the Indians because they wanted to increase their personal gain by showing their British superiority over the Indians in different ways. The French excelled by living among the Indians to be a part of their culture but did not want to teach the Indians how to read the Bible because they wanted to still be able to fool them with trading. Marsden highlights the self-interest of the French as Edwards commented saying,“ They pretended to teach the Indians religion, but they wont teach ‘em to read. They wont let ‘em read the Word of God…For as long as they keep you in ignorance, ‘tis more easy to cheat you in trading with you” (Marsden 385, 386). The French realized that if they taught the Indians to read the Bible, then not only would they be able to read and think for themselves, but they would be equipped to discern between what is morally right and wrong, and would identify the robbery of French. The French dishonored the name of Christ as they greedily took advantage of the Indians for their own gain.

            While the French lived among the people and manipulated them by withholding education, The English educated the Indians but lived isolated from the Indians. Therefore, the English dominated over the Indians by instituting that they must learn English and adopt the British way of life. Edwards saw the pathetic and hypocritical manipulation of the French and the English over the Indians. Edwards believed he was called to these people to live, speak the Gospel consistently before them, and bring the hope of Christ to the Indians. He hoped to bridge the gap and complete the success of the French and the English and live among the people and to teach them how to read and understand God’s truths.

            While Edwards’ motive seemED to be noble to reach the Indians, Edward’s commentary on the inferiority of Indian language and the superiority of English tongue undermines his mission and purpose as an evangelist. Edwards stated boldly that the language of the Indians does not afford for a deeper understanding of the divine saying, “Indian languages are extremely barbarous and barren, and very ill fitted for communicating things moral and divine, or even things speculative and abstract. In short, they are wholly unfit for a people possessed of civilization, knowledge and refinement” (Marsden 398). Neither did Edwards understand the beauty nor complexity of the Indian language, but also from this quote he does not even seem to want to understand the complexity of their native tongue. Edwards understood matters of the divine through the realm of his study and pulpit. A language without written texts, creeds or confessions was a completely different world to Edwards. His children adapted well by playing with the other Indian children conversing in Indian. But he himself went into seclusion and wrote most of his works while he was in Stockbridge. Marsden recorded the quantity of work that Edwards produced saying, “In Stockbridge, in addition to his preaching and pastoral duties, he produced four major treatises, two of which are often regarded as classics in the history of Christianity and in the history of American intellectual life” (Marsden 389). Edwards purposed to go out, learn the language, and live among the Indians but he stayed in his study, developed English treatises, and his family lived among the Indians. Edwards decided the Indian language was barbaric and unfit for understanding the divine. His house was among the Indians, but he spent most of his days in his study writing in English on birch and scraps of paper but not speaking and communing with the Indians. His treatises helped historians and theologians but not the Indians next door.

            A few years earlier in 1743 David Brainerd, having been kicked out of Yale, set out to reach the Indians by striving to live with and among the people and learn their language for the sake of the Gospel. Brainerd gave up all worldly pleasures to survive in the woods among the Indians, but however, he likewise holds a similarly horrible view of the Indians as Edwards does.

            “They are in general unspeakably indolent and slothful. They have been bred up in    idleness, and know little about cultivating land, or indeed of engaging vigorously in any other business…They have little or no ambition resolution. Not one in a thousand of them has the      spirit of a man. And it is next to impossible to make them sensible to the duty and           importance of being active, diligent, and industrious in the management of their worldly            business; and to excite in them a spirit of promptitude of that nature” (Brainerd 460).[1]


While Edwards failed to recognize the Indian’s capacity to worship the Lord in their own tongue, Brainerd failed to recognize the dignity of the Indian as a human being. Brainerd’s descriptions begin by bashing the Indian’s work ethic. He continues to say that in one in a thousand might have the spirit of a man. Such a statement shows Brainerd’s heart without charity for the Indians. This attitude makes the historian wonder why he would even want to reach these Indians who do not have the spirit of the man? It seems improbable that Brainerd would want to really risk his life and health for these “slothful” beings. While Brainerd gave of his life, his attitude along with Edwards shockingly reveals a cultural and national superiority that seems to undermine their work.

            Brainerd often felt alone in his missionary travels and records his deep loneliness in his missionary work. Edwards longed for the ability to speak about the divine to Natives, while Brainerd longed for another companion who could encourage and strengthen him in his exhausting work. John Piper on a sermon on Brainerd shares from Edward’s book on Brainerd in The Life of David Brainerd saying, “Most of the talk I hear is either Highland Scotch or Indian. I have no fellow Christian to whom I might unbosom myself and lay open my spiritual sorrows, and with whom I might take sweet counsel in conversation about heavenly things, and join in social prayer” (Edwards 207). Brainerd left Yale in pursuit of seeking God’s work among the Indians. Edwards had Sarah as his companion and pillar of strength, while Brainerd did not have a Sarah, nor a companion to speak the same language and gain his much needed spiritual encouragement. Brainerd found it difficult to penetrate the culture and the language.

            If Brainerd and Edwards understood the language, they would have been able to understand the culture of the Indians. The religion of the Indians saw everything around them as a part of the divine. They worshipped a great and powerful god and many little gods, feared the evil god, and had a view of the afterlife. Linford D. Fisher in his book, The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America , describes the spirituality and culture of the Indians saying,

             “At the most basic level, Native Americans did not separate out something called    “religion,” nor did they have ideas about the world that might resemble a creed of     systematized belief system, or any other religious convention like written scriptures       that      contemporaries might have identified with European religions. Native religious traditions       were virtually synonymous with their cultures. Ideas about the earth, humans, animals,             nature, and the gods, as well as the relationship between these various components, were     intertwined with the daily rhythms of life and lived out in ways that seemed nonreligious to    many Europeans” (16).


Fisher shows how that “religion” of the Indians did not look like the English view of “religion” at all. To the English, the Indians did not even have a “religion” because the Indians did not have a creed or written scriptures, which canonized what the Indians appealed and worshipped the divine in every part of their lives as an integral part of their worship. The English would discover a scientific way to understand the animals and nature, while the Indians believed that the gods were in and through all aspects of creation. The English and Indians both saw nature and the relationship to god/gods through different lenes.

            In Fisher’s account, he comments that the Indians seemed to be almost atheists to the Europeans, but apparently, they worshipped the great god, Cautantowwit” as Roger Williams reported in 1643. The Algonquians in southeastern New England revered “Cautantowwit” as the creator of the lands that the Indians call home. This god created man and woman first out of stone then "broke them into pieces and made another man and woman out of a Tree”(Fisher 18). The Natives believed that the first corn and beans came from Cautantowwit’s field. In this cosmogony, anything physical in which the Indians could not comprehend took on a deified form in which some gods controlled the four corners of the earth, others controlled the productivity of the harvest, propagating human life, and protecting women and children.

            The Indians worshipped their immanent and transcendent gods, and feared the evil, mischievous god, “Mutchesheunnetooh” and sought in their power and beseeched the gods for protection from him. Fisher comments on the the eighteenth-century Mohican Minister Samson Occum who commended on the Indian’s devotion and lifestyle saying, “To these gods they call for help under every difficulty and to them they offered their sacrifices of various kinds “ (Fisher 16). The natives fully understood that they were completely incapacitated from understanding the physical or invisible world, and so they would ask the gods for their divine aid and revelation. The people looked to the “poowaws” or shamas for revelation mediating between the gods and the people. Roger Williams translated this position as a “priest”. Fisher describes the office of the Indian priest saying,Shamas serves as community leaders, offering invocation at various feasts and dances and performing intricate public rituals and dances”(Fisher 17)[2]. The culture surrounded them in the dance inspiriting the spirits of the gods to descend and work for them.

            Not only did the Indians believe in a dichotomy of good and evil in the spiritual world, they also believed in an afterlife as well. The Algonquin Indians believed that the righteous and unrighteous would go to the same place, but the righteous would receive rewards while the unrighteous would work under physically impossible conditions. Fisher describes the Indian’s view of the afterlife saying,

             “Upon death, Indian souls traveled southwest to Cautantowwit’s house…where the           righteous, or those who behaved themselves in this world will exercise themselves in      pleasurable singing and dancing forever, in the presence of their Sawwonnutoh…the wicked             are to be exercised in some harsh servile labour, or some perplexing exercise, such as     fetching water in a riddle, to making a canoe with a round stone” (21).


The Indians had a notion of understanding that the actions that happen in this life have an effect on the life after death. For the Indians, all go to the same place, but they believed that they just have different experiences there. With this view of the afterlife, the Indians showed their respect for the deities and live according to a standard of behavior on earth in preparation for the consequences of the next life.

            Although Edwards believed that the Indian culture was devoid of the realm of the deities,

He did understand that images, narratives, and symbols shape a culture. Even though he still preached in English with European phrases and metaphors, he tried to speak plainly and conscientiously to his audience saying, “For one thing, he did not just preach simpler versions of his sermons to the English which were almost all old Northampton sermons. Rather, consistent with his advice regarding Indian education, he picked themes that involved narratives and plain vivid metaphors” (Marsden 393). Edwards preached his sermons using simple words and word pictures, even though they were still in English. “His sentences were concise and full of meaning; and his delivery, grave and natural”(Hawley 51).[3] Edwards knew that the Indians in his congregation were not philosophers and understood the world around them by the natural forces of animals, nature, and human relationships. Therefore, he switched the illustrations of his sermons, but still Edwards still saw the Indian world through the lens of his study and pulpit.

            Edwards believed the Indians’ “simple” minds could not grasp the divine, but in reality, Edwards was using foreign terms of religion that made them unable to understand him. The Indians worshipped a creator. They, however, did not understand this creator as the covenantal Yahweh or know of Jesus his Son. If a pagan god would refer to a “Christian” god, then the story of redemption comes to life through the resurrection of language. When something is redeemed, it once was dead and becomes alive. If an Indian learned that the creator god, Cautantowwit, actually wanted to be in a relationship with him and loved him that he sacrificed himself for him, this message would transform an Indian because of the existing connotations associated with the creator god and the implications of this love. If a missionary told a man to believe in a random, foreign name without any cultural implications behind it, of course he would appear to be “barbarous and barren” as Edwards stated. In the story of the five missionaries who were slaughtered in Equator, the missionaries learned the Waodani language and told the Gosepl to the people in terms they would understand. They told the people, “Waegongi (God) has a son who came to earth. He was speared, but did not spear back, so that one day, those who speared him could live well.” In that spear-or-be-speared culture, the message of “living well” by laying aside the spear was radically opposite to the tribe’s entire worldview. To refuse to retaliate and make oneself vulnerable to one’s enemies meant weakness. After the slaughter, when one of the warriors begins to listen to the message and becomes so sick of the killing that he joins the missionary women in building a “house for Waegongi,” others also begin to embrace this new teaching. Finally, Mincayani, the tribe’s most steadfast warrior who was among those who killed the missionaries, comes to believe and proclaims, “Waegongi doesn’t want anyone to kill!” The transformation begins in the tribes. When the tribe learned and embraced the message of sacrifice, love, and forgiveness of Maegongi, they learn that “living well” is not retaliation but sacrificial love.[4]

            Edwards could have preached the message of love and sacrifice of Cautantowwit to the Indians, but Edwards like many of the British missionaries in the 18th century, lead a missionary crusade of imperialistic “English teaching as a path to salvation”. Today, many Western Americans including myself have wanted to sign up and join in this mission of evangelizing the world with English. On one website, mission Finder, they promoted their TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language)[5] program encouraging others to join in this movement saying, “Christian missions TESOL specialists are an invaluable part of the body of Christ. Not only giving the gift of new forms of communication to speakers of other         languages, these priceless teachers offer the gift of friendship . . . and most importantly the gift of amazing grace.” Based on the argument of the TESL that teachers are essential to the mission of helping people learn English, and that through teaching English the teacher can offer the “gift of salvation” because the student learned English. The Bible was not written in English but however through the west, the spread of English accelerated simultaneously as the Gospel spread. English, however, is just a vehicle of spreading the Gospel. The Great commission is not “Teach English to all peoples, indoctrinating them in the way of the Western Church,” but “Go, make disciples of al nations, baptizing in the name of the name of the Lord Jesus.” Christians are called to go into or remain in their own cultures to redeem their incomplete understanding of the world around them. Christians do not have a unified language here on earth, but because of the tower of Babel, many languages and cultures exist. The Gospel unifies all nations in Christ not English, and each culture is different like the body of Christ. The Gospel should be brought to the nations in the context that the natives themselves would understand. The message of the Gospel is not for the one preaching, but it is for the audience to hear their paradigm of the world explained, redeemed, and transformed. The story of the Gospel transforms societies in their own time in their own way under Christ’s headship. This is the message of the Gospel and of the cross.

            Edwards, a man of God, gave his life to searching the Scriptures and desiring to know God fully. Edwards’s greatest hearts desire was to see God’s children to come to a full knowledge of the Lord and to love him. From his study and from the pulpit, Edwards spread the Gospel. Even though Edwards lived among the Indians in Stockbridge, he was a better evangelist in his cerebral, scholarly work than in socializing and understanding the culture of the Indians. For the past 300 years, Modern Christianity today cannot fully appreciate the ways that Edwards has taught, defined and shaped the way that Christians today understand the Gospel. Edwards, however, in Stockbridge did not understand the culture for which he came to give the Gospel. If he would have understood the Indian’s worship of the divine, Edwards would have presented the Gospel in a way that would have transformed the Indians worldview and paradigm shift so that they could fully understand and live the gospel as it pertained to their culture. In the scholarship world, Edwards evangelized the English-speaking world from his study. Edwards was not a model of an evangelist reaching his Indian neighbors because he failed to go out to understand the people’s culture and share the gospel story in in their language with their symbols in order to redeem their understanding of the world and the “moral and divine”.

























Brainerd, David, Jonathan Edwards, and Sereno Edwards Dwight. Memoirs of the Rev. David Brainerd            Missionary to the Indians on the Borders of New-York, New-Jersey, and Pennsylvania. New Haven, CT: S.      Converse, 1822. 

Calloway, Colin G. After King Philip's War: Presence and Persistence in Indian New England. Hanover, NH: University of New England, 1997. Print.

Edwards, Jonathan. Jonathan Edwards on Evangelism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958. Print.

Fisher, Linford D. The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.

Gale, Sylvia. N.p.: ProQuest, 2008. Print.

Gale, Sylvia. Resisting Functional-critical Divides: Literacy Education at Moor's Indian Charity School and Tuskegee Institute. N.p.: ProQuest, 2008. Print.

Marsden, George M. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale UP, 2003. Print.

Piper, John, and Jonathan Edwards. God's Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards, with the Complete Text of The End for Which God Created the World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1998. Print.




[1] Brainerd, David, Jonathan Edwards, and Sereno Edwards Dwight. Memoirs of the Rev. David Brainerd Missionary to the Indians on the Borders of New-York, New-Jersey, and Pennsylvania. New Haven, CT: S. Converse, 1822. 


[2] Fisher, Linford D. The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America

[3] Gideon Hawley, “A Letter from Rev. Gideon Hawley of Marshpee, Collections of Massachusetts Historical Society, 1st ser, 4 (Boston, 1794)

[4]“End of the Spear” Movie Review at :


[5] Teaching English Second Language TESL Missions