In this post*, I’m going to take a look at the life of David Brainerd, a man of whom I knew little about before studying about him these past several weeks, aside from the fact that he was a missionary to the Indians during the time of Jonathan Edwards. Why I was drawn to him was because I did know so little of him–a man whose life had such significance in the eyes of Jonathan Edwards that he halted all of his own writing so that he might edit and publish Brainerd’s personal diaries under the title The Life of Brainerd. And to add weight to Edwards’s regard for the man who died of tuberculosis in his home, Edwards wrote these words toward the end of his publication about Brainerd’s dying at his home:
I cannot 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 to 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 counsels, and to have the benefit of his dying prayers
And Edwards said this–that Brainerd’s dying in his home was a gracious dispensation of Providence–even though Edwards’s daughter, Jerusha, who acted as Brainerd’s nurse, died three months later, having contracted tuberculosis from him.
And Brainerd’s life did not just have an impact on Edwards, but it has affected countless more, and the personal record of his life has arguably had a greater impact on missions than his own work among the Indians, though that was no insignificant work. For example:
John Wesley said, “Let every preacher read carefully over The Life of Brainerd.”
Robert Murray McCheyne, David Livingston, Andrew Murray, and Jim Elliot all looked at The Life of Brainerd in awe and sought assistance from it in their own lives and duties.
Gideon Hawley, a missionary pupil of Jonathan Edwards, said, “I 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 I have a little support.”
William Carey, who is called by many to be the father of modern missions, said that he regarded The Life of Brainerd as a sacred text.
So with these testimonies about the impact of The Life of Brainerd on the lives of these men, it might be fitting to call David Brainerd the grandfather of modern missions.
Since his personal life has had such an impact on others highly regarded in missions, my aim is to give you a taste of what from Brainerd’s life gave these men and countless others such inspiration and edification.
A Brief History
David Brainerd was born on April 20, 1718 in Haddam, Connecticut. To give you a bit of a time perspective, that year both Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley turned fourteen and Benjamin Franklin turned twelve. Brainerd was the seventh child of ten to his father Hezekiah and his mother Dorothy. His father was a Connecticut legislator and a strict Puritan, and he led his household after their strict customs.
Unfortunately for Brainerd, his father died when he was nine and his mother when he was fourteen. And whether it was because of these losses or a genetic inclination or both, Brainerd had a tendency toward depression, or melancholy as he called it, and wrestled with it all of his life.
After his parents died, he moved across the Connecticut River to East Haddam to live with his married sister, Jerusha. At the age of nineteen he inherited a farm and tried his hand at farming for a time. But after a year, he determined that his desire was not for farming, but for a liberal education, so he left farming and began to prepare himself to enter Yale.
While he was on the farm, he made a vow to God to enter the ministry, but, by his own testimony later, he was not saved at the time. He at that time held to a very legalistic religion based upon his works. He affirmed Puritan / Reformed theology, but found that his soul rebelled against the doctrines of original sin and of divine sovereignty, finding them unpalatable to his heart.
However, at the age of 21, God was pleased to reveal himself to Brainerd so as to save his soul; it was July 12, 1739. Two months after his conversion, he entered Yale. His first year was rough, and in it he contracted the measles and had to go home for several weeks. In his second year, he was sent home because he was so sick he was spitting up blood. So at the age of twenty-two there were the evidences of the sickness that would plague him the rest of his life and would eventually cause his death.
During the time he was at Yale, George Whitefield had visited and preached, and a division arose between those students who had been “awakened” during that visit of Whitefield and the less-awakened faculty, so much so that the students had on occasion accused some in the faculty of being unconverted. Because of this, the trustees of the college passed a resolution that essentially said, “Any student who says that any of those affiliated with the college are unregenerate shall, on the first offense make a public confession, and on the second be expelled.” In his third year, though he was excelling at his studies, he was supposedly overheard at different occasions to criticize different persons on the staff at the college, and was therefore expelled. I will note that for several years on separate occasions he tried to seek amends for the wrong he had done, though he only ever claimed to have made one remark and not a second.
Being expelled from Yale, his path toward becoming a minister was then cut off, since then it was required by law that one be a graduate of an approved school to be a minister. As Providence would have it, Brainerd’s expulsion forced him to rethink his life and mission. In 1742 a group of ministers sympathetic to the Great Awakening licensed Brainerd to preach, and later it was suggested that he become a missionary to the Indians under the sponsorship of a Scottish missionary society. In November of that year, he was examined by the board of that society and appointed a missionary.
He was first sent to and preached to the Housatonic Indians about 20 miles from Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He remained there one year but did not have much success among them. He was then reassigned to the Indians along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. He preached there also for one year and without much success. In June 19, 1745, he made his first preaching tour to the Indians at Crossweeksung in New Jersey. There was a great movement of God in the Indians around that area, so much so that after a year over 130 Indians were together in a congregation of believers.
Brainerd would continue to teach and minister to these Indians at Crossweeksung, though he continued to reach out to other Indian groups within traveling distance of there, encouraging them to believe on the Gospel and to join the church at Crossweeksung. He did this work until he was no longer physically able, and eventually died in Jonathan Edwards’s home on October 9, 1747 at the age of twenty-nine of the disease that plagued him since he was twenty-two.
From the Life of Brainerd
The greatest thing that Brainerd strove for, other than for the glory of God, was humility, and even that striving tended to that end. In fact, he saw that there was no Gospel apart from it. And not humility as is often defined as merely the degradation of one’s self (though he often struggled with that because of his depression), but humility as Christ teaches it to be. He spoke often in his diary of yearning to enter through the strait gate that leads to life, which is a crushing gate–a taxing gate–a gate that brings one low, where few enter into it. And Brainerd found no way of entering through that gate apart being poor and mournful–the first two beatitudes in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.
Almost incessantly through Brainerd’s diary is the language of complete dependence upon God in all things, no matter the task. He knew and felt himself to be bankrupt of all goodness and ability apart from God, and he strove to do nothing apart from the power of the Spirit of God. Unlike in the times before his conversion, Brainerd, through this humility, came to rest wholly and joyfully in the sovereignty of God, and often expressed how he would not have it any other way than to be entrusted in the absolute care of him who loved him and died for him.
Brainerd was also a mournful soul with regard to his sin, past and present, and he often cried out on the pages of his diary his profound desire to be holy as God is holy. He daily wrestled with his own nature, which he longed to be rid of it and united with Christ, and he went incessantly to God for repentance. And as God was pleased to reveal his sin to him, he went straight before him in prayer asking for forgiveness and deeper holiness.
This humility was evidenced in his heart in his diary, even at a time when he thought that he was unjustly charged with sin. He writes:
I met with a reproof from a friend, which, although I thought I did not deserve it from him, yet was, I trust, blessed of God to make me more tenderly afraid of sin, more jealous over myself, and more concerned to keep both heart and life pure and unblamable. It likewise caused me to reflect on my past deadness, and [lack] of spirituality, and to abhor myself, and look on myself as most unworthy.
Because of his humility–his utter and absolute dependence upon God–David Brainerd was a man devoted to prayer. And being so dependent upon God, he even saw (I believe rightly and biblically) that he could not pray as he ought apart from the assistance of God. He speaks frequently of God helping him while he prayed so that he might pray rightly and unselfishly.
Being raised in a Puritan household, Brainerd regarded prayer as a duty, so he prayed regularly and with great frequency. And while it was called a duty by him, it was not drudgery, but a blessing and a joy to him. So much so that he often spoke of having deep longings to get away to a quiet place so that he might commune with God.
He prayed often and with great joy, and prayed mostly of holy concerns. Though he was sick most of his Christian life, I cannot think of a time mentioned in his diary that he prays for his sickness be healed, but his time in prayer was consumed with praise and adoration of God, petitions for the advancement of his Kingdom, mourning and confession over sin, supplications for those who needed to believe in the Gospel, and prayers for others, including his enemies. But chief of all, he prayed that God would be glorified in his life, and he always ended his prayers with the petition, “May I never outlive my usefulness.”
Brainerd was a compassionate man, especially toward his people, the Indians at Crossweeksung. He incessantly made petitions for the state of their soul, that they might grow in holiness and love for Christ.
He also demonstrated this compassion in his work among them. He would preach to them often, several times during the week and often multiple times in a single day, even when he was in failing health. He would often go out and meet them family by family and even at times when he could barely muster up the strength to get out of bed. And when he couldn’t get out of bed, he would call them to come to his house so that he might teach them from bed.
And when he had to go away on journeys for weeks at a time, he expresses grave concern in his diary about their spiritual welfare, not much unlike what we read from the apostle Paul in his letters to the churches to whom he ministered.
David Brainerd was a man who suffered much and suffered till the day he died. His most constant source of suffering was his chronic tuberculosis, and yet through and during that sickness, God did his greatest work in Brainerd’s life. Though he was sick through most of his Christian life, it did not deter him from striving to not outlive his usefulness. When he was with the Indians, he used every bit of the strength that God had given him, whether it was preaching to people who would not receive or listen to him, or whether it was teaching and pastoring those who would. And when his strength failed him, he mourned that he could do nothing in his bodily strength to serve God and edify his people. He writes in one entry:
In the morning I was exceedingly weak [so that I could not leave my bed]: I spent the day, till near night, in pain to see my poor people wandering as sheep not having a shepherd, waiting and hoping to see me able to preach to them before night. It could not but distress me to see them in this state, and to find myself unable to attempt anything for their spiritual benefit. But towards night, finding myself a little better, I called them together to my house, and sat down, and read and expounded Matthew 5 to them.
And when, at the end of his life, he did not have the strength to leave his bed or speak, he spent his days writing, editing his past journals, and mailing letters to numbers of people for their encouragement and benefit.
And being in the Indian wilderness at that time, he was exposed to even more hardships that would likely ruin many of us in good health, and, in the life of the sick David Brainerd, are nothing short of a demonstration of the persevering power of God in his life. Oftentimes when traveling between places, he would find himself having to sleep in the woods without shelter in a harsh New England climate. And when he was with the Indians, he enjoyed few material comforts, and even those few comforts were sometimes a means of suffering to him. In one entry he writes:
There had been a thick smoke in the house where I stayed the night before, whereby I was almost choked… In the morning the smoke was still the same; and with a cold easterly storm gathering, I could neither live indoors nor out for any long periods of time.
He also endured suffering from men. One time during his ministry he was sought to be arrested, at other times he was threatened with the possibility of being attacked by Indians loyal to the French, and he was even accused by some as being a Catholic sent to incite the Indians to go to war against the English.
From the Dying of Brainerd
When Brainerd’s health had become so severe that it forced him to leave his work among the Indians and to wait upon his death, the direction of his concerns took a noticeable turn. As I was meditating on this latter part of his life, I thought there was no better way to express it than by the apostle Paul’s words in Romans 1, namely that “We have been given grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his Name among all the nations.”
The Obedience of Faith
When Brainerd went to Boston after his forced retirement from the Indians, he had opportunity to discuss and debate against a teaching about the gospel that was growing in popularity in his time–a teaching that wasn’t much different than that which is prevalent in our day, namely, salvation by accepting Jesus Christ as one’s savior irrespective of how one lives his life. Brainerd fought hard for what the apostle Paul calls “the obedience of faith,” namely a faith that produces the fruits of holiness and good works for sake of God and his glory.
He saw this gospel as ripping God out of the process of salvation and making conversion nothing but lip service. He argued that this gospel (quote) “had nothing of God in it, nothing above human nature, nor indeed above the power of devils, and that all who have this faith, and nothing to a higher degree, would surely perish.”
For the Sake of His Name
David Brainerd possessed an undivided passion for the glory of God throughout his life, but the testimony of the latter part of his life gave greater credence to that fact. Jonathan Edwards writes on an encounter his had with Brainerd while his stayed at his house:
He told me it was impossible for any to conceive of the distress he felt in his chest. He manifest much concern lest he should dishonor God by impatience, under his extreme agony, which was such that he said the thought of enduring it one minute longer was almost insupportable.
And as mentioned before, he spent whatever time he was able, even when bedridden, working for the sake of God’s Name. As Edwards testifies:
Though he was constantly exceeding weak, yet there appeared in him a continual care to improve time and fill it up with something that might be profitable, and in some respect for the glory of God or the good of men; either profitable conversation, or writing letters to absent friends, or noting something in his diary, or looking over his former writings, correcting them, and preparing them to be left in the hands of others at this death, or giving some directions concerning the future management of his people, or employment in secret devotions. He seemed never to be easy, however ill, if he was not doing something of God or in his service.
Among All the Nations
And this desire to magnify God leads us into the third point, namely his desire to see worshipers of God in all of the nations. And while Brainerd often expressed his concerns for the souls of the heathen, as he called them, that concern was eclipsed by his intense desire to see God’s Kingdom spread to ends of the earth so that his great Name would be praised by all the peoples. Jonathan Edwards summarizes this passion:
As long as he lived in our home, he spoke much of that future prosperity of Zion. It was a theme he delighted to dwell upon; and his mind seemed to be carried forth with earnest concern about it, and intense desires, that religion might speedily and abundantly revive and flourish, though he did not expect to recover to see it. … And he seemed much to wonder that there appeared no more of a disposition of ministers and people to pray for the flourishing of religion through the world; that so little a part of their prayers was generally taken up about it.
The closer he came to his death, the greater joy that Brainerd felt in departing this life to be with God. The latter part of his journal is filled with expressions to this effect, and I could spend hours quoting them all. On October 2, a week before his death, he wrote:
My soul was this day sweetly set on God: I longed to be with him, that I might behold his glory. I felt sweetly disposed to commit and leave all to him, even my dearest friends, my dearest flock, my absent brother, and all my concerns for time and eternity. Oh that his kingdom might come in the world; that they might love and glorify him, for what he is in himself; and that the blessed Redeemer might see the work of his soul, and be satisfied. Oh come, Lord Jesus come quickly!
And Edwards speaks of witnessing his joy, writing:
Early this morning, as one of the family came into the room, Brainerd expressed himself thus, “I have had more pleasure this morning, than all the drunkards in the world enjoy.” So much did he esteem the joy of faith above the pleasures of sin.
One aspect of Brainerd’s life that struck me the hardest was his practice of repentance. He was by no means a perfect man, a fact that he mentions throughout his journal till his death bed. He speaks often of rumblings of pride, lack of compassion in his heart for people, not using his time to the best of his ability, etc., yet no matter how despicable he felt himself to be, and always flew to God immediately in confession and pleaded for grace.
I know that many of us, or at least I do, have an inclination to draw back from God when we have wronged him, and I think that those of us who struggle with that can learn from Brainerd’s example that it is far better to run to him who nailed our sins to his cross to seek mercy and reconciliation than to hide away until we feel we are fit to come to him again. For despite our feelings, we will never be more fit to approach God than we are at the very moment of our sin, and we run the risk of being lured deeper into the clutches of sin if we turn away from God.
A Passion for God’s Glory
Brainerd had a profound desire for God to be glorified. It was the very cry of his heart, and he spoke frequently of his desire to leave this life so that he might glorify God with the fullness of his being. He often talked of being envious of the angels who beheld God in his splendor and sang he praise incessantly. And as it pertains to missions, Brainerd’s heart swelled with the desire that all the nations would sing the praises of God.
And we think of missions biblically, should that not be our driving force behind them? When we send out missionaries, do our hearts swell as Brainerd’s did with the prospect that God’s name might glorified among those people to whom we send missionaries?
I confess that, upon studying Brainerd’s life, I have discovered that my own heart is severely lacking with respect to valuing God’s glory above all things. In fact, I’m far more predisposed to seeking my own glory, as humorous and sad a prospect that is, and so I’ve been driven to pray with Brainerd, “God, show me your glory, let me delight in your glory alone, let me desire to see the nations sing your praises, let me yearn incessantly for that day when I will sing your praises forever.” And if you find that your heart is lacking in the desire to see the nations worship Christ or the desire that your own life would be made nothing and that God alone would be glorified in it, I invite you pray these same petitions with me so that God might us an undivided beacon for his Name’s sake.
The Impact of an Undivided Life
In our finite minds we cannot fathom how God can use the life of a person who commits everything in his life for God’s glory. Though Brainerd cared little of the thought, I’m sure that he thought his name would be soon forgotten after his death and that his life’s work for God would be confined to the span of time that he was on this earth. Yet his life has become an inspiration for many who have gone out into the world, and, by God’s good pleasure, changed it for his Name’s sake.
All of this is to say that we do not know how our life, if it committed wholeheartedly to Christ, will be used for his Name’s sake. Though we might find ourselves in the most mundane of jobs or circumstances and feel our life is being wasted, God, if he is pleased, can take that which is mundane to us and make it glorious. So whatever our station in life, let us pray with Brainerd that we might never outlive our usefulness.
* The sources used for this post are:
1 – David Brainerd by John Piper (available for free @ desiringgod.org
2 – The Life of Brainerd at contained in The Works of Jonathan Edwards in Two Volumes