The history of Bethel is part of the larger story of the Great Awakening which swept colonial America in the 1740s. In short, this movement sought to inspire individuals to develop a personal relationship
with God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. The movement’s impact on society
in general may be compared to the religious revival associated with American society of the late 20th century
when issues such as same-sex marriages, the teaching of creationism and the pro-life movement have become major political
platforms. At the same time, religious leaders from many faiths earnestly began
missionary work with Native American communities throughout the thirteen colonies. Perhaps
best known are the labors of the Moravians at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and their satellite Indian mission communities stretching
from Georgia to New York along the ever-changing frontier.
At the same time, Congregationalist Massachusetts set up the Mohican mission community of Stockbridge, in the Berkshires. Governor Jonathan Belcher of Massachusetts was instrumental in the formation
of Stockbridge in 1737 as a mission settlement, where Native Americans could learn the ways of European society, as well as
receive religious instruction. Belcher was governor of Massachusetts and New
Hampshire from 1730 to 1741, and governor of New Jersey from 1746 until his death in 1757.
He also founded the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, and like his efforts with Stockbridge, was an
important supporter of the mission work at Bethel.
Caught up in the emotional and personal
commitment to the ideals of the Great Awakening was a young Yale student, David Brainerd.
Born in Haddam, Connecticut in 1718, he was to lead a short, yet distinguished life.
Having experienced a personal religious revelation
at the age of twenty-one, Brainerd entered Yale with the expectation of becoming a minister. However,
the radicalism associated with the Great Awakening, coupled with the rebellion of youth, led to his expulsion from Yale during
his third year. He was overheard to say that one of the tutors "has no more grace
than a chair" and that he wondered why the Rector "did not drop down dead" for fining students for their evangelical zeal.
Barred from Yale, and greatly disappointed
that the ministry in Connecticut was closed to him, Brainerd was about to embark on a path of religious service that has inspired
subsequent generations of Christians. In the summer of 1742 a group of ministers
sitting in Danbury, Connecticut, licensed Brainerd to preach. Jonathan
Dickinson, a leading Presbyterian in New Jersey, took special interest in young Brainerd.
As a member of the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, Dickinson was able to secure an appointment
for Brainerd as a missionary to the Mohicans at Kaunaumeek (now named appropriately, Brainerd), midway between Albany and
Stockbridge. Here Brainerd embarked on what was to be his life’s work. For one year he lived alone and suffered severe privation in the wilderness of the
Taconic mountains. With the success of the
Stockbridge mission nearby however, the Mohican families removed to that settlement, and Brainerd directed his attention
toward the Delaware Indians of the New Jersey/Pennsylvania region.
In 1744, he established a mission at
the Forks of the Delaware (Easton, Pennsylvania), but met with little success. One
year later, he visited the scattered Indian families living at Crossweeksung in New Jersey.
This small settlement was located somewhere in the vicinity of Crosswicks Creek in the western Monmouth County area,
but it has never been definitively located. Here Brainerd met with great success,
and, in his first year, he baptized seventy-seven Indians, thirty-eight of whom were adults. Brainerd became fast friends with Rev. William Tennent
and Rev. Charles McKnight, both of whom lived within reasonable proximity to Crossweeksung, Tennent at the New Presbyterian
Church at Freehold (now Old Tennent Church), and McKnight alternating between Allentown and Cranbury in central New Jersey.
In spite of the
success of his missionary work, Brainerd recorded troubles at the settlement.
Jan. 28. 
The Indians in these parts have, in times past, run themselves in debt by their excessive drinking; and some have taken
the advantage of them, and put them to trouble and charge by arresting sundry of them; whereby it was supposed their hunting
lands, in great part, were much endangered, and might speedily be taken from them.
Despite the success of the mission, there were problems with the Crosswicks settlement. Clear title
could not be ascertained, and the land was not productive enough for the many new Indian families settled together.
March 24. [ 1746] …My people went out this day
upon the design of clearing some of their land, above fifteen miles distant from this settlement, in order to their settling
there in a compact form; where they might be under advantages of attending the public worship of God, of having their children
taught in a school, and at the same time have a conveniency for planting, &c.; their land in the place of our present
residence being of little or no value for that purpose.
Prejudice and mistrust between whites
and Indians permeated colonial society, no matter how much conversion or assimilation might occur within Native American culture. On April 9, 1746, just two weeks after the Indians began to clear their new land,
a disgruntled colonist appeared before the New Jersey Assembly. John Blain, of
New Brunswick, stated in a deposition that upwards of three hundred Indians were coming to Cranbury to settle a town under
Mr. Brainerd. The exact location was upon the land of John Falconer, a merchant
of London. The matter was reviewed by the Assembly, and the complaint dismissed
on the grounds of exaggeration; there were not even three hundred Indians left within the colony. The Falconer Tract, located several miles east of Cranbury village, was to be the location of the
Bethel mission, while other local Delaware Indians maintained a separate community closer to Cranbury.
Brainerd responded to this complaint
in his journal:
April 25. 
…And that we might also importunately pray for the peaceable settlement of the Indians together in a body, that
they might be a commodious congregation for the worship of God; and that God would blast and defeat all the attempts that
were or might be made against that pious design…There being at this time a terrible clamour raised against the Indians
in various places in the country, and insinuations as though I was training them up to cut people's throats. Numbers wishing
to have them banished out of these parts, and some giving out great words, in order to fright and deter them from settling
upon the best and most convenient tract of their own lands, threatening to molest and trouble them in the law, pretending
a claim to these lands themselves, although never purchased of the Indians.
|Crosswicks Creek, scene of Brainerd's early success with the Delaware.
The Crossweeksung mission was likely centered at what is still known as Brainerd's Spring, located north of Crosswicks
Creek, at the stream two-thirds of a mile east of the Old York Road. On this map, it is the stream north
of the Crosswicks, and to the left of the word, "Creek." The mission consisted of twenty Indian houses all within one-quarter
mile of Brainerd's cabin.
On March 5, 1746, David Brainerd wrote:
Their present situation is so compact and
that they are easily and quickly called together with only the sound of a conk-shell,
(a shell like that of a periwinkle,) so that they have frequent opportunities
of attending religious exercises publicly; which seems to be a great means, under God, of keeping alive the impressions of
divine things in their minds.