An Untold Story

April 01, 2015

Westminster and the Gospel in Yucatan, Mexico

This story is one of two Westminster alumni, father and son, David Brainerd Legters, Sr., and David Brainerd Legters, Jr., and of God’s unfolding an amazing ministry over three generations. This story comes to us by kindness of Wayne Brauning (M.Div. ’60, D.Min. ’93), who compiled and wrote in collaboration with Jean and Daniel Legters, David Brainerd Letgers, Jr.’s son, in February 2015.

The Legter name came out of the Netherlands in the 1800s and survives by a thin line to the present day. Leonard Livingstone Legters (L.L. Legters) worked early in the 20th century with Cameron Townsend to develop Wycliffe Bible Translators. He served the Comanche and Apache people in Oklahoma and conducted the funeral service of Chief Geronimo who had become a member of a Reformed Church. L. L. Legters and his wife were given only one son, born in 1908, David Brainerd Legters. Brainerd caught his father’s vision for world missions.

L. L. Legters Three generations: David Brainerd Sr. and wife Elva, David Brainerd Jr, and L.L. Legters with wife Edna

After training at Moody Bible Institute, Brainerd entered Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and graduated in 1935. He was ordained to the ministry at J.R. Miller Memorial Presbyterian, Upper Darby, PA. That December, Brainerd married Elva McMahon, a nurse graduate of Johns Hopkins. Within a year, they were settled in the Mayan village of Xocempich in Yucatan, Mexico. They learned the Mayan language and maintained a ministry that lasted 44 years for Elva and 66 years for Brainerd. 

Today, the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula is best known for the magnificent beaches of Cancun and beyond, on its 700-mile eastern coastline, and the amazing Mayan temple ruins. Over hundreds of years of early peninsula history, a vast, indigenous pagan empire arose that worshipped ancient gods and organized in something like city-states with authoritarian governments and blood-sacrifice religious practices at temples. Then, Spain, with its Roman Catholicism, sought to subdue the Yucatan Peninsula over about 170 years. The influence of Roman Catholicism is widely evident and was always syncretistic. During this time, God was preparing a people for Himself while also preparing His ambassadors to bring the Gospel of Hope to the Mayans. When the biblical Gospel did come, it found fertile soil.

Brainerd’s passion was for the Mayan people to have God’s Word in their own language and to establish local churches for the true worship of the triune God and the training of their families. He almost became a Mayan, living among them for months at a time (sometimes neglecting his own family), translating the New Testament into Mayan, preaching in Spanish and Mayan, and founding one village church after another throughout the peninsula. The Mayan New Testament was dedicated in 1960, and a Bible society then undertook the translation of the Old Testament. It is difficult to determine what was Brainerd’s greatest legacy: the translation of Scripture, the preaching of those Scriptures and pastoral care he gave face to face to thousands, or the establishing of numerous churches throughout the land. Brainerd was a single-minded missionary in his devotion to the Mayans. He had such little interest in the United States that, even when an all-expenses-paid trip was provided for him to attend his 50th graduation anniversary celebration at Westminster and to receive an honorary doctoral degree, he sent his wife in his place. Westminster’s investment in Brainerd’s education, at a time when the seminary charged no tuition, has brought vast returns for the Kingdom of Christ and great joy to the Mayans. 

Brainerd and Alva had only one child, a son, whom they also named David Brainerd. He too grew up among the Mayans, tagging along with his father from village to village and living among the Mayans, again almost becoming a Mayan himself. Fluent in English, Spanish and Mayan, he then sensed the call of God to this needy people. In around 1951, his parents sent David to the USA for his high school training and to continue his education at Wheaton and Sterling Colleges. He enrolled at Westminster Theological Seminary, following his father’s path, and graduated in 1960. In 1961, he met Jean Edwards in Yucatan, when she came for a mission trip; they were married in 1962. During seminary and for several years afterwards, they assisted in inner-city church ministry in Philadelphia and held various jobs. Their first trip together to Yucatan was in 1963. Thus began decades of teamwork as they expanded the ministry of the Gospel through the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico.

Significant financial support for them soon came from several sources, and in 1965 they took up residence in Merida, Yucatan. God gave them three children, two of whom still live in Yucatan. Dave and Jean served the Mayan ministry for 46 years together until David’s death in 2013. Jean continues her service as her health permits.

Their accomplishments are staggering. David, with Jean’s constant help, engaged in many tasks: Preaching to, teaching, nurturing and organizing many rural and urban congregations; translating numerous Reformed books and articles, such as Edmund Clowney’s Syllabus on Biblical Theology into Spanish and Mayan; and training national pastors personally. They established the Itinerant Theological Institute with over 25 training centers for the study of God’s Word and preparation of pastors and leaders. David served as president of National Presbyterian Seminary in Mexico City for three years.

Together David and Jean established San Pablo Presbyterian Theological Seminary and its respected school of church music in Merida; a well-equipped campus was built in 1993.

David and Jean together delighted in serving the people of many village churches.
Students on San Pablo Seminary campus

The National Presbyterian Church of Mexico began to take its stand against liberal theological and social movements as early as 1970. In 2013, this denomination courageously terminated its relations with the liberal and wealthy Presbyterian Church USA.

Though it is difficult to evaluate all the factors independently contributing to the Letgers family ministry in Mexico, no doubt exists that the impact of the teaching of “whole counsel of God,” provided by the Legters family, over 75 years, continues to be a huge influence for good in the Presbyterian church of Maya and all Mexico. 

An examination of recent data from over seven decades among the Mayans shows God’s blessing on the labor of this father and son team and those who joined them. It reads a bit like the early chapters of Acts. When Brainerd and Elva Legters began their mission outreach in 1936, The Presbyterian Church of Southeastern Mexico recorded 50 unorganized and 12 organized congregations, one presbytery, and no ordained Mexican pastors. By 1967, after 31 years of ministry, there were 250 unorganized and 55 organized churches with 7 presbyteries and 30 ordained pastors. By 2011, just 44 years later, there was phenomenal growth with 2,000 unorganized and 500 organized churches, 32 presbyteries and 450 ordained pastors. No matter how we do the math, such growth by the quiet, sacrificial use of the means of grace can only be a supernatural product. Societal benefits also developed as the Gospel spread, making the State of Yucatan one of the safest and most stable of Mexican states.

This testimony is one of the quiet transformation of large numbers of real flesh-and-blood men, women, and children and of the corporate growth of the body of Christ in local churches.

Such accomplishments come only as God moves faithful men and women to lay their hands to the plow and not look back. The Legters’ family, called of God, educated at Westminster Theological Seminary, became tools in the hand of the Lord of the harvest. Without fanfare, they planted and watered the truths of Scripture that they learned at Westminster. They brought this “whole counsel of God” to a largely unreached and pagan people group, the Mayan Indians of Mexico. All over that land today, these dear people faithfully continue to build Christ’s churches, rejoicing in their newfound Savior as did the first church of Christ in Jerusalem upon hearing the reconciling Gospel from the Apostle Peter on Pentecost.

May God grant that we daily grow more like these people in dedicated and faithful perseverance over many years of committed service in his name.

Cornelius Van Til visiting with Elva Legters in Yucatan in the 1970s