David Brainerd was a puritan missionary whose diary changed my life. Brainerd was the almost son-in-law of Jonathan Edwards due to his untimely death. He was devoted to Christ, he desired to see Jesus’ fame spread to the ends of the earth, longed for more of God’s grace, and honestly struggled with the sin that he saw in himself. He often said something like this in his diary:
No poor creature stands in need of divine grace more than I, and none abuse it more than I have done, and still do.
Many people would think that this comment would come from a man or woman who was behind bars for life for horrendous crimes, but yet it comes from a puritan missionary who knew two things very well: his savior and his sin. Because of this, reading his journals has been life-giving to my bones, and it will be to you too if you take it up and dig in.
David Brainerd was born in Haddam, in the County of Herford, Connecticut, on April 20, 1718. His father, Hezekiah Brainerd, died when David was nine, and his mother, Dorothy, who was the daughter of the Reverend Jeremiah Hobart, died leaving him an orphan when he was 14. His was a strict religious home of the Congregational Church persuasion. Bible reading, prayer, Sabbath observance, and Christian classics such as Bunyan’sPilgrim’s Progress and Baxter’s A Call to the Unconvertedwere the order of the day. But it was not until he was 21, while living in the home of Phinehas Fiske, who was pastor of the Congregational Church at Haddam, that one evening in solitary mediation he saw his lost and helpless condition. It was as though he saw a vision—not external but in the heart—of the glory of God. “I was even swallowed up in Him.” A new peace engulfed him. Joy overwhelmed him. He had become a new creature in Christ. He said, “One hour with God infinitely exceeds all the pleasures of this lower world.” Even before this experience he had been prone to spending long hours in prayer, fasting, and meditation. He was always somewhat of a mystic.
In 1739, at the age of 21 he entered Yale College, considerably older than most students who, at that time, entered between ages 13 and 17. It was during this time that he came under the influence of the preaching of George Whitefield. This was known as “the time of the Great Awakening,” when great revivals swept the communities all throughout the colonies. Some of the students at Yale became enthusiastic adherents to what was referred to as the “New Light Movement.”
In 1741, due to illness, he had to withdraw from school for a period of time, and it was then that the first signs of tuberculosis evidenced themselves. It led to times of melancholy and depression. He was able to return to Yale and applied himself most diligently to his studies. From an academic standpoint, he was the head of his class. Because of the emotion and fervor of the revivalists, he looked upon some of his tutors who were much more staid as being spiritually dead. On one occasion, he referred to Mr. Whittelsey, a tutor at Yale, as having no more grace than a chair. For this statement he was expelled from Yale. Brainerd was devastated by this action, and even though he asked forgiveness and such men as Jonathan Edwards interceded in his behalf, he was never reinstated, nor did he graduate from college.
Through some of his friends, he became interested in the American Indians, and it was at this juncture that the Lord laid a burden upon his heart to minister to them. He was introduced to the Society in Scotland for the Propagating of Christian Knowledge and was invited to become an agent under that mission society. He was then commissioned to minister to the Indians living near the forks of the Delaware in Pennsylvania and to those along the Susquehanna River. He began his work in April of 1743. April 20th was his 25th birthday. He set it aside not for celebration but for fasting and prayer. He reflected on God’s goodness to him. He prayed that God would sanctify his spiritual afflictions and soul distress. Wandering along in the woods, he poured out his complaint to God: “My soul is concerned not so much for souls as such but rather for Christ’s Kingdom that it might appear in the world, that God might be known to be God in the whole earth.”
Brainerd was not the first, nor the most successful missionary to the Indians. It was John Eliot [1604-1690] who was called the Great Apostle to the Indians. Eliot labored as a pastor in Roxbury, two miles outside of Boston. When he was 40 years of age, he saw the great need of the Algonquin Indians. He began to study their language, which was a very difficult one, and applied himself to those studies for two years. Then be began to preach in their language with real success among these degraded people. He also began to translate the Bible. He was often ridiculed by his peers, who thought he should rather teach the Indians English, but he persisted, and by 1663 he had translated the entire Bible into their tongue. He faithfully labored among them, establishing Christian Indian communities until his death at the age of 85.
In contrast, Brainerd was first and foremost a preacher. The central theme of his preaching was the cross of Jesus Christ. During these years of ministry at the forks of the Delaware and along the Susquehanna, David Brainerd was frequently soaked to the skin by rain and chilled to the bone by the snow and wind. He often slept in the forest with little or no protection from the elements. A very inadequate diet left him frequently weakened. Long sessions of fasting and prayer fed his soul but weakened his body. The long weeks on horseback or on foot, living under very primitive conditions, were most difficult and debilitating. His ministry was interspersed with frequent illnesses. He was also prone to periods of deep depression as well as heights of spiritual emotion. By June of 1745, Brainerd felt very discouraged at the hardness of hearts and so little evident fruit. He then heard of some Indians living in Crossweeksung, New Jersey. They were much more responsive to the fervent preaching of Brainerd and fell under conviction of sin, which caused real anguish of heart and at times bitter weeping. In July of that year Brainerd wrote, “My soul, my very soul, longs for the in-gathering of the heathen, and I cry to God most willingly and heartily.”
August 8, 1745, the windows of heaven opened and revival fire fell on these seeking hearts. He had preached fervently and frequently, and the joy of seeing souls born into the Kingdom of God brought great joy to his heart. But his health was failing, and frequently he was very ill. He did not seek to educate the Indians into the Kingdom or reform them into the Kingdom—they were born into the Kingdom, often after violent emotional struggles. He wrote in his diary, “Here am I, Lord, send me. Send me to the ends of the earth. Send me to the rough, the savage pagans of the wilderness. Send from all that is called comfort in earth or earthly comfort. Send even to death itself if it is be in Thy service and to promote Thy kingdom.” More than a century later, David Livingstone said, “In Christ’s service I wish to live; in it I wish to die.”
The revival that took place in August of 1734 brought him great joy, but it also brought him an increased burden of work as he discipled the new believers and helped them establish Christian communities. He was oftentimes severely criticized and opposed by the white colonists, many of whom called themselves Christian but showed no Christian compassion, love, or concern for the Native Americans.
One of the happiest days of his life was when he was able to baptize some of these new believers and then partake of the Lord’s Supper, sharing the bread and wine with those he had seen come to the Lord through his ministry.
In the spring of ’47, he was so ill that Jonathan Edwards invited him to come to his home in Northhampton,Massachusetts, to recuperate. Although there were periods of some slight improvement, his condition continued to deteriorate. Completely burned out in the service of God, David Brainerd died at Northhampton on October 9, 1747, at the age of 29. Edwards’ daughter Jerusha, the flower of the family, who attended the dying young man during his last year, contracted the same disease and died a few months later at the tender age of 18. Though never confirmed, it is thought that they were engaged. They are buried side by side in the graveyard at Northhampton. Jonathan Edwards, who had befriended Brainerd and in whose home he died, was greatly impressed by the life of David Brainerd, and it was he who gave the world his diary and journals.
We can easily understand how the life of David Brainerd, one that exemplified such spiritual intensity and zeal for the salvation of souls, would have a profound impact on all who read about it. We will mention only a few. The three beloved heroes of William Carey [1761-1834], who is referred to as the Father of Modern Missions, were the Apostle Paul, John Elliot, and David Brainerd. One of the rules of the mission group in India, of which he was the leader, was to read The Life and Diary of David Brainerdthree times a year. Carey’s oft-quoted statement, “Attempt great things for God. Expect great things from God” sounds very much like the following entry in Brainerd’s diary of almost 100 years earlier where it is recorded, “Nothing seems too hard for God to perform, nothing too great for me to hope from Him.” Henry Martyn [1781-1812] was a brilliant scholar at Cambridge and intended to pursue a legal career, but after reading The Life and Diary of David Brainerd, he wrote, “I long to be like him. Let me forget the world and be swallowed up in desire to glorify God.” Martyn’s statement, “Let me burn out for God,” could very well have been inspired by the words of Brainerd when he wrote, “Oh, with what reluctancy did I feel myself obligated to consume time in sleep. I long to be a flame of fire, continually glowing in the divine service in building Christ’s Kingdom to my last and dying moment.” Both of these men died at a very early age. The saintly young pastor of Aberdeen, Robert Murray McCheyne [1813-1843], was deeply moved and influenced by studying the life of David Brainerd. John Wesley and Francis Asbury, early Methodist leaders, both held him up as models of meekness, labor, and self-denial and challenged their followers to pattern their lives after that of Brainerd. Many other well-known missionaries, such as Samuel Marsden, Robert Morrison, David Livingstone, Andrew Murray, and Sheldon Jackson, all testified to the tremendous impact that David Brainerd had upon their life and ministry.
Seldom in the annuls of Christendom has there been a man like David Brainerd who sought so earnestly to be filled with the Spirit of God and who gave himself unreservedly to the glory of God as did this young man. It has been said that “David Brainerd dead” more greatly influenced the missionary cause than did “David Brainerd alive.”
Here’s a few more items from Brainerd’s pen:
“I love to live on the brink of eternity. May I never loiter in my heavenly journey.”
“All my desire was the conversion of the heathen and all hope was in God”
“I want to wear out my life in His service and for His glory.”
“Let me forget the world and be swallowed up in the desire to glorify God.”
“All I want is to be more holy, more like my dear Lord.”