There are compelling reasons why Christians should study the life of David Brainerd. First, this eighteenth century missionary to indigenous Americans (‘Red Indians’) was one of the greatest cross-cultural missionaries the world has ever seen.
Although dying of tuberculosis at only 29 years old, he blazed a trail across succeeding generations of Reformed missionary work. Indeed, a powerful case can be made for his influence as seminal for the nineteenth century missionary movement.
Second, his close friend and biographer, New England pastor Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), is one of the greatest pastor-theologians of the last 300 years. Edwards thought Brainerd’s diary and journal worth presenting to the general public and that alone is a good reason to study it.
And third, in spite of Brainerd’s weaknesses (including a tendency to depression), we must understand that Edwards saw in Brainerd a paradigm (pattern) of true Christianity.
This month and next in ET, we consider Brainerd from this third perspective. First, let us consider his conversion as a paradigm of authentic conversion.
Jonathan Edwards himself was converted in spring 1721 at the age of 18 years. Before being born again he was terrified of God (and thunderstorms!).
He writes of his saving encounter with Christ in these terms: ‘The first instance that I remember of … inward, sweet delight in God and divine things that I have lived much in since, was on reading those words, I Timothy 1:17, “now unto the king eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever, Amen”.
‘As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before.
‘Never any words of Scripture seemed to me as these words did. I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was, and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be rapt up to him in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him for ever!’
Edwards later would teach that the new birth is not just a change of religious belief or improvement in moral behaviour, but, far more fundamentally, a radical change in the ‘religious affections’.
By ‘religious affections’ Edwards meant the very deepest motivations and appetites of the soul. Without these being entirely renovated, no authentic conversion has taken place, whatever else may have changed at a religious level.
Using David Brainerd’s own diary, Edwards featured, in almost anatomical detail, the painful stages Brainerd went through in conversion.
Brainerd states that, at the age of 20: ‘I read my Bible more than twice through in less than a year, spent much time every day in prayer and other secret duties, gave great attention to the Word preached, and endeavoured to my utmost to retain it.
‘So much concerned was I about religion, that I agreed with some young persons to meet privately on Sabbath evenings for religious exercises, and thought myself sincere in these duties; and after our meeting was ended, I used to repeat the discourses of the day to myself; recollecting what I could, though sometimes very late at night…
‘In short, I had a very good outside, and rested entirely on my duties, though not sensible [aware] of it. Thus I proceeded a considerable length on a self-righteous foundation; and should have been entirely lost and undone, had not the mere mercy of God prevented.’
In other words, in spite of all, Brainerd was still relying on his good works rather than on Jesus Christ for acceptance with God.
But then, Brainerd recounted: ‘Some time in the beginning of winter, 1738, it pleased God, on one Sabbath day morning, as I was walking out for some secret duties, to give me on a sudden such a sense of my danger, and the wrath of God, that I stood amazed, and my former good frames, that I had pleased myself with, all presently vanished’.
He continued in deep conviction of sin for many months, praying for mercy but unable to find relief.
It is just here that the Edwardsean dimension becomes apparent. For all his religious engagement, young Brainerd was actually hostile to God and this manifested itself as ‘irritation’ with the Lord over four issues.
The first issue was ‘the strictness of the divine law. For I found it was impossible for me, after my utmost pains, to answer its demands. I often made new resolutions, and as often broke them … then I quarrelled with the law of God, as unreasonably rigid…’
‘I was extremely loth to own my utter helplessness in this matter … and from seeing myself fallen into the hands of a sovereign God and dependent on nothing but free and boundless grace’.
The second was that ‘faith alone was the condition of salvation; that God would not … promise life and salvation upon my sincere and hearty prayers and endeavours … I could not bear, that all I had done should stand for mere nothing’.
The third was, ‘that I could not find out what faith was; or what it was to believe, and come to Christ. I read the calls of Christ to the weary and heavy laden; but could find no way that he directed them to come in. I thought I would gladly come, if I knew how, though the path of duty were never so difficult’.
And the fourth was ‘the sovereignty of God. I could not bear that it should be wholly at God’s pleasure to save or damn me, just as he would. That passage, Romans 9:11-23, was a constant vexation to me, especially verse 21 … this passage would make my enmity against the sovereignty of God appear’.
But the great change was finally drawing near. ‘One morning, while I was walking in a solitary place, as usual, I at once saw that all my contrivances and projects to effect or procure deliverance and salvation for myself were utterly in vain… ‘I saw that I had been heaping up my devotions before God, fasting, praying, etc., pretending and indeed really thinking sometimes, that I was aiming at the glory of God; whereas I never once truly intended it, but only my own happiness … I now saw that… my duties [were] nothing but self-worship, and a horrid abuse of God.
‘I continued … in this state of mind, from Friday morning till the Sabbath evening following [12 July 1739], when I was walking again in the same solitary place … I thought the Spirit of God had quite left me…
‘Having been thus endeavouring to pray … for near half an hour, then, as I was walking in a dark thick grove, unspeakable glory seemed to open to the view and apprehension of my soul.
‘I do not mean any external brightness, for I saw no such thing; nor do I intend any imagination of a body of light, somewhere in the third heavens, or any thing of that nature; but it was a new inward apprehension or view that I had of God, such as I never had before, nor any thing which had the least resemblance of it.
‘I stood still, wondered, and admired! I knew that I never had seen before any thing comparable to it for excellency and beauty; it was widely different from all the conceptions that ever I had of God, or things divine…
‘My soul rejoiced with joy unspeakable, to see such a God, such a glorious Divine Being; and I was inwardly pleased and satisfied that he should be God over all for ever and ever … I felt myself in a new world, and every thing about me appeared with a different aspect from what it was wont to do’.
‘At this time, the way of salvation opened to me with such infinite wisdom, suitableness, and excellency, that I wondered I should ever think of any other way of salvation; was amazed that I had not dropped my own contrivances, and complied with this lovely, blessed, and excellent way before.
‘If I could have been saved by my own duties, or any other way that I had formerly contrived, my whole soul would now have refused it. I wondered that all the world did not see and comply with this way of salvation, entirely by the righteousness of Christ’.
Clearly many things happened to Brainerd when God met with him, but, at the deepest level, his religious affections had been turned around 180 degrees. What he had hated he now loved, and what he had been repelled by he now worshipped God for — ‘I wondered I should ever think of any other way of salvation’.
Conversion — the real thing, that is — still involves nothing less qualitatively, even if not attended by the same intensity of experience and conviction as Brainerd’s (and today it often isn’t, even when genuine).
Judged by Jonathan Edwards’ criterion for the religious affections, it is quite possible that many professing to be evangelical Christians are not really. But Jesus words, ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit … you must be born again’ (John 3:6-7), were non-negotiable.
It would, therefore, be a good and safe thing for all pastors and church members to check themselves out, since authentic conversion is just another name for true Christianity.
To be concluded