Why “Brushfires?”

People sometimes wonder why we named this ministry The Brushfires Foundation. We most often cite a Sam Adams quote: “It does not take a majority to prevail, but a …tireless minority keen on setting brushfires of freedom in men’s minds.” For us, standing apart from the culture on sexuality issues is not a deterrent, but a motivation for greater prayer, planning, and engagement.

We are also inspired by that great Holy Fire of the Spirit, visibly gifted to believers in Jerusalem on Pentecost. Appearing as tongues of flame, the Holy Spirit enabled these Christ-followers to talk with travelers from all over the known world in their own languages. Three thousand believers were added to their number that day.

There is another influence on our choice of names that is little known outside of Wisconsin where we were formed.

Most people have heard about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. This calamity was supposedly started when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern. That theory has long been debunked, but the fire itself destroyed a significant part of the city and fundamentally changed the way modern cities were planned.

Unknown to most people is the story of a much larger and far more devastating fire that occurred on the same night 200 miles to the north. As the Chicago Fire killed up to 300 people and destroyed roughly 3.3 square miles, or 2,100 acres of the city, the Great Peshtigo Fire consumed 1.5 million acres of land in Wisconsin and Michigan and killed 3,000 people or more.

So, what does America’s deadliest forest fire have to do with The Brushfires Foundation? Allow me to explain.

In frontier Wisconsin, much of the state was covered in white pine. It was said that a squirrel could cross the entire state without touching the ground once. It wasn’t long before companies came to harvest this timber paradise. When the lumberjacks felled a tree, they lopped off the branches and created huge slash piles before moving on.

At the same time, farmers in the region were clearing out their 40-acre parcels. Much of this timber was also cut, set aside, and burned. A railroad was also being laid to access the iron mines of northern Michigan. The rail crews cut and burned thousands of trees as they laid the hundreds of miles of track.

Throughout the summer of 1871, hundreds of small slash piles were burning throughout northeast Wisconsin. It also happened that the summer of 1871 was one of the driest on record. Less than 2 inches of rain fell all summer. By October most of the crops, swamps, and grasses were dry and brittle.

On the night of October 8, a severe low-pressure system moved into the area. According to barometric readings, these low-pressure cells were tornadic in nature. When this weather system reached northeast Wisconsin, it whipped these hundreds of small brushfires into to blazing pyres. Almost instantly, they connected and began to consume the surrounding forest.

By the time the fire reached the town of Peshtigo, the fire was a hurricane of flames reaching thousands of feet into the sky. The fire was so hot that boulders split, sand turned to glass, and whole trees were ripped out of the ground and exploded in mid-air. The devastation was complete and the loss of life catastrophic.

For the Peshtigo Fire to occur, four elements needed to be present:

  • Flame
  • Favorable conditions
  • Powerful winds
  • Plentiful fuel

If any one of these were lacking, the tragedy would have been avoided. Yet, if a disaster could be sparked by such a combination of elements, couldn’t a transformational social change originate from them as well?

When I formed The Brushfires Foundation, I could see that God was already lighting “brushfires of freedom” in people’s minds. A tireless minority of pastors, therapists, ministry leaders, and ordinary Christians were already catching God’s vision to restore the church’s understanding of and engagement on sexual issues.

The conditions for change are certainly favorable. More and more people are being ground down by the gears of the Sexual Revolution, pornography is shaping an entire generation (or two) of youth, sexual exploitation is on the increase, and our culture is in a spiritual drought. People are thirsty for living water.

The Big Wind in this scenario is the work of the Holy Spirit. Over the past six years, I clearly see God’s Spirit at work in Brushfires and the larger movement. The recent Sexual Integrity Leadership Summit in San Antonio is just one of the ways God is launching a powerful renewal movement in our churches.

Today, passion for sexual wholeness is blazing, the spiritual condition of our culture is dry, and the Holy Spirit is gathering an army of workers willing to go into the dark with the light and warmth of Christ. If we are missing anything, it’s the fuel to take this blaze to the next level.

If just one of those four elements were missing in October 1871, Peshtigo would have continued as a thriving mill town. I believe we haven’t see a similar renewing fire in the Church on sexual issues because we have so little fuel to burn. Most sexual integrity ministries are sorely underfunded. Jesus told us to pray for more workers to bring in the harvest. But, now, we have workers standing by with no equipment. The harvest we could bring in is rotting in the field.

In Peshtigo, the initial fires grew into something almost unimaginable at the beginning of the storm. I believe something similar is possible in the spiritual realm on this issue. Whatever God is calling you to contribute, please do so with joy and expectation that something much greater than you can imagine is being unleashed.


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