The Windtalkers’ Bible


“It gives me a headache.” That’s what Leonard Brink said about translating the spoken Navajo language into a written form. Leonard Brink, affectionately called L.P., was a missionary to the Navajo people from 1900 until his death in 1936. A man of tireless energy, Brink created a written alphabet of Navajo, the language of the “wind talkers.” He wrote grammars and lexicons, and translated the books of Genesis and Mark, a catechism, and numerous hymns into the Navajo language.

Brink grew up near Fremont, Michigan, an area of beautiful lakes and rivers just north of Grand Rapids. His father, a devout man, would spend hours regaling little Leonard with stories of the Indians who still inhabited the nearby forests. Leonard Brink with his wife on the Navajo reservationLeonard was enchanted. Occasionally, an Indian would make his way along the wooded paths and lakes near their home, no doubt increasing the boy’s fascination with the mysterious natives. Whenever his father spoke of the Indians, he always told his son that these Native American neighbors’ biggest need was the Gospel message and that missionaries must be sent to win them to Christ. Those words struck Leonard, and his fascination with Indians grew from childish curiosity to a genuine passion for their souls. Once, when Leonard was only eight, he gathered all the kitchen chairs, arranged them in a semi-circle, and preached enthusiastically to his congregation of pretend Indians. Brink’s desire to be a missionary garnered strength as he grew. Brink and his father often spoke of it, but his father was quick to point out that a missionary must be called, that he must be presented with an open door to the mission field—a door that God opened. When Brink was sixteen, it looked like that door was about to swing wide.

Brink came home from church one afternoon, distressed. The “dominie” told the young men of the congregation that if any of them were interested in studying for the ministry, but could not afford to do so, he should come before the Consistory that week. Leonard was young, just sixteen, and he was not even a full communicant member. He was unsure how the elders of the church would respond to his desire to be a missionary, and he was careful to consider his father’s words about an open door. As Leonard walked home from church that Sunday, he Class of 1900stopped along the lonely forest paths and prayed, “Lord, if you want me to do this thing, I am in your hands, open the door for me; but, if Thy will be otherwise, close the door tight.”{footnote}Huizenga, Lee S. Leonard Peter Brink: Thirty-Five Years Among the Navaho Indians, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1937).{/footnote}

Leonard appeared before the Consistory later that week, and they were surprised to see him, exclaiming, “Brinkie! What are you doing here?” Leonard, however, was satisfactorily examined for church membership, as well as to be a ministerial candidate. But he still had one other hurdle to clear: “Classis.” “Classis” in Brink’s Christian Reformed Church is similar to “presbytery” in Presbyterian circles, a regular gathering of pastors and elders from a geographic region charged with, among other duties, the examination and care of students for the ministry.

Brink’s pastor recommended him to Classis, and before too long, he found himself and other young candidates at a Classis meeting surrounded by more ministers than he’d ever seen. He was nervous. The Classis’ decision would determine which young men would receive financial support to enter seminary. Brink understood that though he had the desire to enter the ministry, without the financial aid of Classis, Herman Frylinghis door to the mission field would shut tight. As part of the examination, the hopefuls had to write an essay on the Apostle Peter. Though he was a diligent student, Brink confessed, “I had never written an essay in my life and did not know how to tackle the job.” So he sat down at a large table with the other applicants and plunged in. After quite some time, and much anguish, Brink had four pages down and “couldn’t think of another thing to write” while the young man next to him was twenty pages into his essay and still adding furiously to his page count. Brink lost all hope at that point, for he felt that his comparatively meager essay would not impress the Classis. He was wrong. Brink was the chosen favorite. Reflecting back on the surprise of Classis’ choice, Brink says, “I felt like one stricken dumb. I felt that it was all undeserving—nothing but sovereign grace—that this choice should fall upon me.”{footnote}Ibid. 21.{/footnote} That next fall, he found himself at Calvin College.

In 1900 Brink began his work at the CRC mission in Tohatchi, later working in the towns of Toadlena and Farmington, in the New Mexico Territory. He was also instrumental in establishing a Christian school at Rehoboth that still exists today. He worked alongside Herman Fryling, a fellow classmate, visiting the natives, teaching in the government-sponsored school, and busily learning the language. Navajo, up to that point, was primarily an unwritten language and a complicated one at that. Though many missionaries and other non-natives, particularly Catholic Franciscans, had made attempts at creating a written Navajo language, there was no unified alphabet or lexicon that scholars could appeal to until the late 1930s. Brink was an able scholar himself, though his large, clumsy build and backwoodsy demeanor belied that fact. He was friendly and many of the people seemed to take notice of this new preacher and his genuine interest in them. The more time Brink spent with the Navajo, the more he became convinced that they needed to be able to read the Scriptures and sing the great hymns of the faith in their own language. While he, like many other missionaries of the time, believed that the Indians needed to accustom themselves to the ways of white men, Brink understood the importance of a peoples’ mother tongue. The Dutch had long preserved their native language in the New World, preaching largely in Dutch into the Twentieth Century. Brink felt that the most lasting way to reach a people was not to erase their culture, but to understand it and to communicate effectively in its context. Brink was committed, then, to giving the Navajo people their own Bible. With the help of native interpreters and other missionaries, Brink began his work of translating—or rather creating a written representation and then translating—the books of Genesis and Mark. But Brink ran into some rather interesting problems.

The American Educational Review, a monthly review of higher education in America at the turn of the century, reflects upon the challenge of Brink’s chosen task: “the translation from English into the Navajo vernacular is said to be attended with peculiar difficulties … The Navajos have no less than 12 verbs meaning ‘to give,’ the one used in any particular case depending upon the nature of what is given … To listen to a conversation carried on between two Navajos, one unfamiliar with the language would think that it consisted mainly of inarticulate grunts; but a difference of sound so slight as to pass undetected by the untrained ear makes a vast difference in meaning.” What Brink also discovered was that he would have to create completely new phonetical symbols for the Navajo language to accurately translate the Scriptures, since for “several sounds common in Navajo there are no English equivalents.” Not only did this require a clear understanding of the subtleties of Navajo (it is an extremely nuanc-ed language—as in English, the same word can have a multiplicity of meanings), it demanded of Brink an excellent grasp of Biblical Greek and Hebrew. It was painstaking work, work that often came after long, hot days traversing the dusty tracks of arroyos and plateaus be-tween the distant hogans of the Navajo—on the jolting seat of a horse-drawn wagon. No wonder Brink had a headache!

Though Brink was not much of a diary-keeper, he was a prolific writer. He translated numerous hymns from Dutch into English and wrote many hymns and poems. Brink produced a steady stream of articles for his denomination’s magazine The Instructor, and founded and edited the publication, The Christian Indian. The church’s young people back in Michigan were treated regularly to his colorful descriptions of Navajo life out in the “wild and wooly west.” In one such article, Brink unpacks the word “hogan,” or dwelling, for his young Dutch-American readers. He describes the construction and use of the hogans and what daily life is like in these Navajo homes. But Brink does not stop with a mere social studies lesson, but invites his readers to join him in a “trip to bring the Gospel to the hogans.” He writes:

With my interpreter I arrive at a Navajo hogan, the dogs usually announcing our coming. We walk up to the door, greet the members of the family and are seated. We tell them that we are on a friendly visit and would like to talk with them a little while. They will naturally ask us who we are, and where we are from. We may have brought a chart with us and likely a Navajo bible. It is usually easy to begin our conversation by talking about the things that happened in the beginning, aboutLeonard Brinks enjoying a coffee break. the creation of the world, and of man, and then about the Fall and its dire results for the world and the human race, white people and Indians included, and then come to the story of the Son of God, the Savior, and talk about Him as the Savior of all kinds of people, Navajos included. We are in no hurry, we take our time and explain as we go along. {footnote}Brink, L.P., “Bringing the Gospel to the Hogans” Bringing the Gospel in Hogan and Pueblo, Ed. Dolfin, John. (Grand Rapids: Van Noord, 1921), 140-159.{/footnote}

Brink ends his article with an observation that is reminiscent of Paul’s list of missionary obstacles in 2 Corinthians 11:

We have not planned in this article to give a detailed account of hardships and such like which a missionary’s life among the Navajos entails, about camping out and sleeping in the open, about sandstorms and quicksands and blizzards and swollen streams, about scanty fare oftentimes, about broken rigs and played-out teams, about losing our way in this great expanse of territory, and about multitudinous delays and disappointments. After all, these are all in the day’s work when we bring the Gospel to the hogans. {footnote}Ibid. 159.{/footnote}

Recruiting and training interpreters was for Brink an extremely important component in his missionary venture. Although Brink’s work was centered on translating a written Bible, he understood the necessity of oral communication since many Navajo were illiterate. In light of this, Brink was never content to hire any Navajo who had a better smattering of English than his counterparts, nor was he content to let his interpreter be his mouthpiece. Rather, Brink made it his mission to shape his interpreter—a willing Navajo convert—into a fellow laborer who was invested in the mission work just as much as Brink himself. But Brink wasn’t above employing clever ways to help get his interpreters a little more “invested.” One of his interpreters was J.C. Morgan, who would later become an influential voice for the Navajo people in the face of the New Deal’s Indian policies. Morgan was Brink’s right hand for many years. And he was, by all accounts, a somewhat stubborn man. One missionary reminisces that if Brink wanted to go west, he would tell Morgan that they should go east. Morgan would automatically protest and reply they should go west. Brink would then quickly agree with Morgan and get what he wanted in the first place.

Although Brink often made his visiting rounds with Morgan or another of his interpreters, he often spoke to the Navajo in their own language when he visited them in their hogans. At formal church gatherings, however, he always preached Brink family portraitthrough an interpreter. He did not want a misspoken word to derail the attention of his hearers or send them into a tailspin of laughter. Sometimes, if an interpreter wasn’t too happy with the “Big Preacher’s” message, he would add an animated aside to the listeners, “This is what the preacher says. I do not say it!” But Brink was always determined to preach simply and clearly. He had little use for eloquence in preaching: the point, for Brink, was that people should be able to understand the Gospel message. In Brink’s preaching there was “no chitter-chatter, no obtuseness, no high-sounding words, no involved sentences. Plain words to plain people, carrying a direct message.”

Brink was himself a plainspoken man, yet full of pithy sayings. Huizema, in his short biographical work on Brink, lists a number of them—many of which are insights into the pioneer missionary’s frank nature. Consider these words from Brink:

“We may not all be eloquent, but we can all be earnest.”
“People who really love Jesus don’t put down twenty-five cents a year to help carry the Gospel to the heathen. A man with one leg and no eyes whose heart is on fire for God would find a way to do more than that.”
“The man who tries to go to heaven on stilts will have a good many tumbles.”

One of Brink’s greatest desires, however, was for Navajo young men—starting oftentimes with his interpreters—to be trained and sent out as Christian missionaries to their own tribe and to the world beyond. With that in mind, he worked tirelessly to establish training stations to prepare a new crop of fellow laborers in the Indian mission field. Speaking of his great vision, Brink writes:

Toadlena is an Indian word meaning “Outflowing Water.” Our aim and prayer is that the Missionary and his helpers may be such as those of whom the Savior said, “From the midst of them shall flow rivers of living water. That we may be the channels through which the waters of salvation may flow to those who are dying for the lack of it. And may the Lord speed the day when the Navajos in turn may become the bearers of the Gospel message to others.7{footnote}Ibid, 372.{/footnote}

Many Navajos remember Brink as the missionary who took time with them. He never rushed from one home to another and never considered his missionary activity complete with just a short visit or two to the Navajo hogans. He spent long hours visiting with families, taking an interest in their children, and sharing meals and stories on the beautifully woven blankets offered to him by the Navajo wives. For the Navajo people, he dug wells, built church buildings, sang hymns, planted new mission works, and put nearly 8000 miles on his car (when he finally got one!) going from hogan to hogan in just a few short months. In 1917, the American Bible Society printed Brink’s translations of Genesis and Mark, later followed by portions of the Psalms, Isaiah, and the Pauline Epistles. It is very likely that some of Brink’s translation made its way to the linguists who finally unified the written Navajo language in the late 1930s, and to the military minds who enlisted the Navajo Code Talkers in the Second World War. The extent of Brink’s success in the Navajo mission field will never be known until Glory. Brink’s own estimation of his thirty-five years with the Navajo? “Looking back over all the paths I’ve come, I can see where his hand has led me all the way, and opened and closed doors for me again and again. Let me say in all earnestness, that I cannot get away from the conviction, that it was all undeserved, all sovereign grace, every step of the way.” {footnote}Huizenga, 21.{/footnote}

Unless otherwise noted, all photos are courtesy of the Archives, Calvin College.