A Long Post on a Dead Man: The Legacy of David Brainerd

David-BrainerdToday in 1747 David Brainerd, puritan missionary to the Native Americans, died.  He is my hero.  To honor this man, I’ve put together a long post detailing his life and thought.  In summary his life was one of ‘pleasing pain.’  To find out why read on:

John Piper says, “Hebrews 11 is a divine mandate to read Christian biography. The unmistakable implication of the chapter is that, if we hear about the faith of our forefathers (and mothers), we will “lay aside every weight and sin” and “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (12:1). If we asked the author, “How shall we stir one another up to love and good works?” (10:24), his answer would be: “Through encouragement from the living (10:25) and the dead” (chap. 11). Christian biography is the means by which “body life” cuts across the generations.”

There are two ways of representing and recommending true religion and virtue to the world.  First, by doctrine and teaching, and the second, by example.  Both are used in the Scriptures. One example, David Brainerd, was not worthy of this world (Hebrews 11:38). But at the same time, David Brainerd’s story needs to be told to the world to see exactly what the world was so unworthy of.

It is true to say that no one would know who David Brainerd was if not for Jonathan Edwards. I say this because after Brainerd died, Edwards took Brainerd’s diary and made a book that has stood the test of time, ‘The Life and Diary of David Brainerd.’ Ed Reese made a great claim of this book, “In truth David Brainerd’s life and sacrifice reached out and touched the whole world, challenging more people into Christian service than perhaps any other man that ever lived.” Francis M. Dubose said, “Almost immediately upon (the Diary’s) publication, it captured the hearts of the protestant world. For over a century it was one of the most popular documents in evangelical circles. Its influence has been enormous.” Brainerd, a Congregationalist, lived a short life of only 29 years, from 1718 to 1747. For only being a Christian eight of those years, and a missionary to the Indians for only four, Brainerd’s life will not soon be forgotten.

Born on April 20, 1718, in Saddam Connecticut, Brainerd entered the world. In that year John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards turned fourteen, and Benjamin Franklin turned twelve and George Whitfield had his third birthday. Edwards commented once, “From birth, Brainerd was by his constitution and natural temper, so prone to melancholy and dejection of spirit…in which he exceeded all melancholy persons that ever I was acquainted with.” His father, Hezekiah, died when he was only nine years old, his mother, Dorothy died when he was thirteen. The parents were not the only ones to die early; his older brother Nehemiah, died when he was thirty-two, another brother Israel, died at twenty-three, a sister Jerusha, died at thirty four, and David himself died at twenty-nine. Brainerd said in his diary “I was from my youth somewhat sober, and inclined rather to melancholy than the contrary extreme…” Right before his mother’s death he was almost convinced to be a Christian, but was so distressed after her death that his religious concern began to fade away. He moved in with his sister, Jerusha, and after trying his hand at farming, grew a desire to attend Yale.

His language would sound very Christian to a modern believer, but puritans often described themselves as yearning to enter the ministry while they were unconverted. This was David’s experience as well. He struggled with his religious duties that he learned from his father and saw nothing in himself that would ever be pleasing to God. He was frightened so much at times he thought the ground would give way and send him to hell before he could make it home. He fought with his depravity, the law of God, the sovereignty of God, and the idea of faith but was brought by God to repentance and a right view of these things. Soon after these struggles he said this, “Thus God, I trust, brought me to a hearty disposition to exalt Him and set Him upon the throne, and principally and ultimately to aim at His honor and glory, as King of the universe.” He was now soundly converted and getting ready to prepare for his liberal education at Yale.

He entered Yale to prepare for the ministry but found it harder than he had anticipated. “There was hazing by the upperclassmen, little spirituality, difficult studies, and he got measles and had to go home for several weeks during that first year.” On his return after the measles had passed, during his second year, he had to return home again because he was so sick that he was spitting blood. He already had the tuberculosis that would take his life seven years later. He returned to Yale in 1740 and was happy to see that the campus had changed. George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennent, Ebenezer Pemberton, and James Davenport had been there to preach, and students were in awe of the gospel through their fiery preaching.

Then began what would eventually get Brainerd kicked out of Yale for good, never to return.

During the awakening on campus, tensions grew between the students and the faculty. The faculty brought in Jonathan Edwards to preach at a commencement ceremony with hopes that he would side with the faculty and tell the students they were out of line. He did not. He preached a sermon titled “The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God.” Edwards tried to persuade that what was happening among the students was true, in spite of their seemingly unrestrained behavior. The students were so stirred up at this time they were rebuking the faculty by calling them unconverted men. That very morning the faculty had decided that if any student called them unconverted, they should have to make a public confession before Yale. If they did this twice, they would be expelled. David Brainerd was in the audience that day Edwards preached. Although his grades earned him a spot at the top of his class, he was expelled from Yale during his third year. Why? He was overheard saying two comments that enraged the faculty. First, he said that Chauncey Whittelsey, one of the tutors, “has no more grace than a chair.” Second, he had wondered aloud why the Rector had not dropped down dead for fining students for their evangelical zeal.

Because Brainerd was expelled from Yale, his entire life would change direction. He had wanted to be a pastor in a quiet town and left alone with his books. A law had been passed that you could not be a minister unless you had graduated from Yale, Harvard, or a European university. This severed the pastorate from Brainerd, even after several pleas by other men and himself for re-admittance.

Before we go on we must address two huge things that happened from Brainerd’s expulsion from Yale. First: directly after he left, he labored to make peace and get back into Yale. Jonathan Dickinson and Aaron Burr took up his cause with Yale as well. Yale stood their ground and would not let Brainerd back in. This news eventually got to the New York and New Jersey Presbyterian Synods. These two synods were fed up with Yale, and began a new school in 1746 called, The College of New Jersey, or later named Princeton. Dickinson and Burr were the first leaders of the new school. Later in life while Brainerd was ministering to the Iroquois Indians, which he moved on from due to lack of fruit and frustration, a man named Eleazar Wheelock got a hold of Brainerd’s journal during his time there and was so inspired he moved to the Iroquois and began to minister to them. Soon, after much success, Wheelock founded a school for the Indians and the Whites. He moved the school to Hanover, then to New Hampshire, where he named the school, Dartmouth College. Do you see the significance of this? If Brainerd had not been expelled from Yale, neither of these two universities would have been started. We see that God is always at work even in the darkest of times.

Second, John Piper comments on Brainerd’s ordeal with Yale by drawing out this massive lesson. “There is a tremendous lesson here. God is at work for the glory of His name and the good of His church even when the good intentions of His servants fail – even when that failing is owing to sin or carelessness. One careless word, spoken in haste, and Brainerd’s life seemed to fall apart before his eyes. But God knew better, and Brainerd came to accept it.”

This is right. God knew better. Brainerd struggled with it, but came to embrace it. God, behind the scenes of this horrible expulsion and agony of failure, was weaving a story out of a young man’s life that would shape history forever. I can say that because after leaving Yale, Brainerd began to sense a leading to give his life away for the sake of the gospel among those who have never heard it. He said in his journal that he “found himself willing, if God should so order it, to suffer banishment from my native land, among the heathen, that I might do something for their salvation, in distresses and deaths of any kind.” Why did young David begin to find “himself willing?” Because God was ‘so ordering it.’

David Brainerd spent the rest of his short life laboring among the Indians for their salvation. Under the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, he went to the most of the tribes around the Kaunaumeek and the Crossweeksung areas. He suffered the entire time due to his tuberculosis and eventually died on October 9, 1747 in Jonathan Edward’s home. Jerusha (Jonathan Edwards’ 17 year old daughter) was his nurse for 19 weeks, devoting herself with great delight because she looked on him as a powerful servant of Jesus Christ. During this time the two, Jerusha and Brainerd, fell in love. Five days before his death, October 4th, “he recorded this touching conversation with Jerusha, in appreciation of her constant companionship and love.

“Dear Jerusha…though, if I thought I should not see you, and be happy with you in another world, I could not bear to part with you. But we shall spend a happy eternity together.” Four months later, the saddened Jerusha, became sick and died on February 14, 1748. She was buried next to him. Jonathan Edwards knew Jerusha caught the disease that killed her from Brainerd, and was not bitter. He said, “I would not conclude my observations on the merciful circumstances of Mr. Brainerd’s death without acknowledging with thankfulness the gracious dispensation of providence to me and my family in so ordering that he…should be cast hither to my house, in his last sickness, and should die here: So that we had opportunity for much acquaintance and conversation with him, and to show him kindness in such circumstances, and to see his dying behavior, to hear his dying speeches, to receive his dying counsel, and to have the benefit of his dying prayers.”

Edwards later said, “It has pleased a holy and sovereign God, to take away this my dear child by death, on the 14th of February…after a short illness of five days, in the 18th year of her age. She was a person of much the same spirit with Brainerd. She had constantly taken care of and attended him in this sickness, for nineteen weeks before his death; devoting herself to it with great delight…”

Is it not awe-inspiring to see this come out of Edwards, in full view of the cost it would take on his daughter’s life? Remember, if Brainerd was never expelled from Yale, only God knows if this would have happened.

Now, I said earlier that no one would know who David Brainerd was if it weren’t for Jonathan Edwards. I say that because after Brainerd’s death, Edwards took all his journals and diaries and wrote what we now call ‘The Life and Diary of David Brainerd.’ I say we now call it that because in 1749 Edwards first called it; ‘An Account of the Life of the late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd, Minister of the Gospel, Missionary to the Indians, from the honorable Society in Scotland, for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, and Pastor of a Church of Christian Indians in New Jersey. Who died at Northhampton in New England, October 9, 1747, in the 30th year of his Age : Chiefly taken from his own Diary, and other private Writings, written for his own Use; and now published by Jonathan Edwards, A.M., Minister of the Gospel at Northampton.’ Gotta love long Puritan titles huh? To this book we now turn.

The Life and Diary of David Brainerd was published in 1749 and has never been out of print. In fact out of all the books that Jonathan Edwards wrote, this diary of Brainerd’s life has been reprinted more than any of his other books. John Wesley said, “Let every preacher read carefully over the Life of David Brainerd.” Henry Martyn, a missionary to India and Persia said while he was “perusing the life of David Brainerd, his soul was filled with a holy emulation of that extraordinary man; and after deep consideration and fervent prayer, he was at length fixed in a resolution to imitate his example.” The list of other people who were inspired by this book are: William Carey, Robert Morrison, Robert McCheyne, F. W. Robertson, Ion Keith Falconer, Francis Asbury, A. J. Gordon, Thomas Coke, John Mills, Frederick Schwartz, David Livingston, Andrew Murray, and Jim Elliot to name a few. Gideon Hawley, a missionary during the time of Jonathan Edwards wrote, “I need, greatly need, something more than human to support me. I read my Bible and Mr. Brainerd’s Life, the only books I brought with me, and from them have a little support.” John Piper says, “Brainerd’s life is a vivid, powerful testimony to the truth that God can and does use weak, sick, discouraged, beat-down, lonely, struggling saints who cry to Him day and night to accomplish amazing things for His glory.”

Clyde Kilby described it like this, “It is not Brainerd’s accomplishments as a missionary, significant as they were, that have perpetuated his influence. It certainly is not his perturbations of spirit or his sense of vileness or his flagellation “complex” or his morbidity. I venture to say that it is not even his diary so much as the idea back of all which eventuated in molding the man. In our timidity and our shoddy opportunism we are always stirred when a man appears on the horizon willing to stake his all on a conviction.”

The conviction Brainerd was willing to stake all on was not any conviction, but the conviction that we all must have. It was a desire for the glory of God in the salvation of the world.

The Life and Diary of David Brainerd has affected me in a substantial way. I have scarcely found the amount of interwoven passion and struggle in one man. You can not only understand what he is saying as you read, you can feel what he is feeling as he penned the words. Few writers have felt so close to my soul as David Brainerd has; the more I read him, the more knit to him I feel.

Here are my favorite quotes so far:

“Towards night, enjoyed some of the clearest thoughts on a divine subject (viz., that treated of 1 Cor. 15:13-16) that ever I remember to have had upon any subject whatsoever; and spent two or three hours in writing them. I was refreshed with the intenseness: My mind was so engaged in these meditations I could scarcely turn it to anything else; and indeed I could not be willing to part with so sweet an entertainment.”

“No poor creature stands in need of divine grace more than I, and none abuse it more than I have done, and still do.”

“At night God enabled me to give my soul up to Him, to cast myself upon Him, to be ordered and disposed of according to His sovereign pleasure; and I enjoyed great peace and consolation in so doing. My soul took sweet delight in God; my thoughts freely and sweetly centered in Him. Oh, that I could spend every moment of my life to His glory!”

“Saw so much of the wickedness of my heart that I longed to get away from myself. I never before thought there was so much spiritual pride in my soul. I felt almost pressed to death with my own vileness. Oh what a body of death is there in me…Oh the closest walk with God is the sweetest heaven that can be enjoyed on earth!”

The past four quotes are very good illustrations of what his life was like. Remember he was prone to depression, but his loathing over his own sin was profound, as was his praise. He always was either up or down in his spiritual life with God. Often he found himself very down or very high. Is this not so much like us? How often are we either very up in exultation and praise to Christ, and then the next day, (or next hour!) be very down in longing to get away from ourselves? This is one reason that history has so much to teach us, and why every Christian should dive into biographies. Because we are like people who have gone before us, and our struggles are not new. If they got through them, by God’s help, we can too. This is the whole point of Hebrews 11 – 12:1. That we would be encouraged to press on by seeing the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us.

Here are some other quotes:

“I saw so much of my hellish vileness that I appeared worse to myself than any devil. I wondered that God would let me live and wondered that people did not stone me, much more that they would ever hear me preach! It seemed as though I never could nor should preach anymore; yet about nine or ten o’ clock the people came over, and I was forced to preach.”

“God is unspeakably gracious to me continually. In times past, He has given me inexpressible sweetness in the performances of duty. Frequently my soul has enjoyed much of God; but has been ready to say, ‘Lord, it is good to be here,’ and so to indulge sloth while I have lived on the sweetness of my feelings. But of late, God has been pleased to keep my soul hungry almost continually, so that I have been filled with a kind of pleasing pain. When I really enjoy God, I feel my desires of Him the more insatiable, and my thirsting after holiness the more unquenchable. And the Lord will not allow me to feel as though I were fully supplied and satisfied, but keeps me still reaching forward. I feel barren and empty, as though I could not live without more of God; I feel ashamed as guilty before Him. Oh! I see that “the law is spiritual, but I am carnal.” I do not, I cannot live to God. Oh for holiness! Oh, for more of God in my soul! Oh, this pleasing pain! It makes my soul press hard after God…Oh that I may feel this continual hunger, and not be retarded, but rather animated by every cluster from Canaan to reach forward in the narrow way, for the full enjoyment and possession of the heavenly inheritance! Oh, that I may never loiter in my heavenly journey!”

So, I commend you to David Brainerd. That you may also feel the weight of this ‘pleasing pain’, and become intimate with what it’s like to feel that you cannot live without more of God.

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