David Brainerd was born 300 years ago, on 20 April 1718, and died on 20 October 1747. His father was Hezekiah Brainerd and his mother Dorothy (née Mason).
On his mother’s side, an impeccable pedigree of Puritan preachers both in England and New England, and a great uncle who had been Oliver Cromwell’s chief justice, brought prestige and distinction to the family. But it is the sixth of their nine children, David, who we remember. From his birthplace Haddam, in the Connecticut River Valley, David Brainerd’s life has shot a meteoric flame, the likes of which has seldom been known.
In David Brainerd, servant of God and his church, we are thrust into a glorious history of evangelical conversions; attentiveness to Scripture as the Word of God, with proclamatory preaching; Lord’s Day observance; the outpoured Holy Spirit and self-denying service of God and other people (once called ‘disinterested benevolence’).
In Brainerd, we see a cross-cultural, pioneer missionary to native Americans, whose blessed ministry has attracted the attention of hundreds of thousands across ecclesiastical divides.
Brainerd’s life was first made known in 1746, through parts of Jonathan Edwards’s diary by William Bradford of Philadelphia. This work was known as Mirabilia Dei inter Indicos or The rise and progress of a remarkable work of grace — and (Part 2) Divine grace displayed — and then, commonly, as Brainerd’s Journal.
It was followed in 1748 by an abridged version by Philip Doddridge of Northampton, England. But it is Jonathan Edwards’ Life of Brainerd (1749) that we know best. This was followed by John Wesley’s edited version of this, published in 1768.
Of Brainerd, Wesley wrote: ‘Let every preacher read carefully over the life of David Brainerd. Let us be followers of him as he was of Christ, in absolute self-devotion, in total deafness to the world, and in fervent love to God and man’.
Other Methodist pioneers, including Thomas Coke (1747-1814) and Francis Asbury (1745-1816), extolled Brainerd’s example. So did Baptist William Carey and Anglican Henry Martyn. Presbyterian Robert Murray M’Cheyne wrote of him: ‘Most wonderful man! What conflicts, what depressions, desertions, strength, advancement, victories … tonight more set upon missionary enterprise than ever’.
Nearer to our time, Jim Elliot of Brethren background, who was one of five missionaries in the jungles of Ecuador martyred by Huaoroni Indians in 1956, wrote in his diary of his own fervent desire ‘to receive the apostle’s passion, caught from vision of Thyself, Lord Jesus’, and also said, ‘David Brainerd stirs me on to such in prayer’.
Brainerd was converted, when 21-years old, on the Lord’s day, 12 July 1739. He wrote: ‘Attempting to pray … for nearly half an hour: then, as I was walking in a dark thick grove, unspeakable glory (1 Peter 1:8) seemed to open to the view and apprehension of my soul.
‘I do not mean any external brightness … but it was a new inward apprehension or view that I had of God, such as I never had before … I stood still, wondered and admired … it appeared to be divine glory that I then beheld’.
Brainerd went on to express that his one desire was now to extol the King of the universe. His diaries are full of struggle, confession of failure, desire and aspiration. The sheer honesty of a heart captivated by his God is what has intrigued and helped many thousands. About six weeks after his conversion Brainerd wrote: ‘I fell under great darkness; it seemed as if the presence of God was “clean gone forever” (Psalm 77:8)’. But then he writes that God returned.
In September 1739, Brainerd commenced at Yale College in New Haven, aged 21 — somewhat older than was then usual. During his first year he became ill and had to return to Haddam for a while. Already the bodily weaknesses and tuberculosis that would plague Brainerd’s short life were taking their toll.
Brainerd’s serious frame of mind did not fit well with the raucous, wild atmosphere on that tiny college campus. Rum drinking, ‘frolicking’ and coarse behaviour were the order of the day and night. But, in autumn 1740, George Whitefield was preaching his way around New England, and the Great Awakening came to New Haven in full flood.
Brainerd recorded: ‘About this time it was a great comfort to me that the Rev. Mr Whitefield came through the land … my soul seemed to be taken up with divine things’. Edwards commented that the college was ‘greatly reformed … and, by all that I can learn concerning Mr Brainerd, there can be no reason to doubt but that he had much of God’s gracious presence and of the lively actings of true grace, at that time’.
Undoubtedly, throughout New England, thousands flocked to Christ and were gloriously transformed, as Whitefield preached. Another preacher in the fervent revival atmosphere was the 38-year-old Gilbert Tennent, who injected a sterner zealousness into the awakened hearts.
Edwards invited Whitefield to preach in his own church at Northampton, Massachusetts, and he returned there in 1744. But Edwards never quite approved of Whitefield’s opinion (backed up by Tennent) that many of the settled clergy were, actually, unregenerate. This opinion was one factor that led to Brainerd saying something, overheard by others, that he would always regret.
By 1741 the Yale authorities had had enough of awakened religion and decreed severe discipline ‘if any student of this college shall directly or indirectly say, that the rector, either of the trustees or tutors are hypocrites, carnal or unconverted men’. So, when Brainerd was overheard saying of Chauncey Whittelsey, an ancient language tutor, that ‘he has no more grace than this chair’, that was the end of Brainerd’s degree.
His apologies were refused and no amount of contrition changed the mind of Thomas Clapp, the strictly disciplinarian rector (who, ironically, later backed the ‘New Lights’— those who argued for the revival’s authenticity).
Brainerd was devastated. Later he wrote, ‘I humbly confess that herein I have sinned against God’. Edwards pleaded for Brainerd, but to no avail. Brainerd struggled to deal with the disgrace for the rest of his life and became a staunch opposer of the wrong kind of ‘enthusiasm’, although not of genuine revival.
The unrelenting attitude of Yale has been cited, with some justification, as a reason for the founding of the College of New Jersey (Princeton University).
Brainerd’s calling and commitment to reach native American Indians meant that, when he was finally offered an olive branch by the Yale authorities — repeat the third year for the degree — he was unable to accept, because of his commitment to the missionary cause.
Missionary service began with Brainerd’s appointment as a missionary to the Indians of the Forks of the Delaware in Pennsylvania, in November 1742, by the New York board of the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge.
Naturally speaking, it seemed an unwise appointment, for Brainerd was already physically unwell and struggling with bouts of depression. God’s taking up of human weakness to demonstrate his power can be the only possible explanation for such a strange appointment.
Brainerd had been tempted by offers of a settled ministry but knew it was not the Lord’s way for him. Likewise, he would struggle with his desire for a marriage partner Edwards’ daughter Jerusha, tended to him in his final days in Edwards’ home and she died only four months afterwards and was buried next to him.Few have doubted that he had feelings for her.
Brainerd travelled thousands of miles on horseback, on one occasion needing to kill his injured horse and continue on foot. He had a burning desire to reach the unreached with the gospel of Christ, which he knew alone could transform the misery he saw everywhere.
He lived frugally, saying at Kaunaumeek: ‘I live in the most lonely melancholy desert … my diet consists mostly of hasty pudding … my lodging is a little heap of straw … my work is exceedingly hard and difficult’. He had an interpreter named Moses Tattamy, who struggled with alcoholism, but did eventually profess Christ and was baptised with his wife and family by Brainerd.
As Brainerd preached, often to very small numbers of inattentive Indians, and lived among the peoples of the Forks and elsewhere, he saw a trickle of conversions, but he longed for more.
By June 1745 Brainerd was in Crossweeksung, New Jersey. The Indians there had links with the Forks and Brainerd went backwards and forwards between the two places. Interest had been building in Crossweeksung. Listeners had now increased to 55. Edwards comments on the earnestness of Brainerd’s prayers for the people at this point.
From 3-19 August, Brainerd’s Journal records amazing things. The trickle of conversions suddenly became a flood. In the afternoon of 8 August Brainerd preached on the Great Banquet and the excuses of the invited guests, from Luke 14:16-23.
As he preached, he noted that ‘there were not above two I could see with dry eyes’. Right across the age ranges ‘the most stubborn heart was now obliged to bow’. A little later Brainerd thought of Zechariah 12. He wrote ‘there was indeed a great mourning among them … everyone was crying and praying for himself … “Have mercy upon me” … was the common cry’. Many were convicted of sin and converted.
Brainerd says of this remarkable Holy Spirit outpouring that ‘the power of God seemed to descend upon the assembly like “a mighty rushing wind”, and with an astonishing energy bore down all before it’.
Two more years of steady preaching lay ahead. There were more conversions and many were built up in faith. But Brainerd was struggling in an ailing body, and, by his thirtieth year, was dying of tuberculosis.
During the months he was nursed in Edwards’s home, Brainerd bequeathed his diaries and journals to Edwards, who set to work (in the middle of a mounting crisis in his own church) to give us his remarkable Life of David Brainerd.
In a packed Northampton church, Edwards preached a two-hour funeral sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:8, ‘True saints are present with the Lord’. In words quoted from Brainerd’s deathbed, Edwards summed up that remarkable life: ‘My heaven is to please God, and glorify him, and give all to him, and to be wholly devoted to his glory … if I had a thousand souls and they were worth anything I would give them all to God: but I have nothing to give, when all is done’.
David Brainerd is buried in the cemetery at Northampton. His gravestone inscription says, ‘A faithful and laborious missionary’.
Roy Mellor is a retired Anglican minister, who served in Poole, Northamptonshire, Durham and Europe. He has recently helped to organise conferences in the UK on Jonathan Edwards (http://www.edwardsconference.org).
The Banner of Truth and Yale University editions of Jonathan Edwards’ Works have sections on David Brainerd.
David Brainerd: Pioneer Missionary to the American Indians, John Thornbury (Evangelical Press, 1996).
David Brainerd: beloved Yankee, David Wynbeek (Eerdmans, 1961).
The lives of David Brainerd, John A. Grigg (OUP, 2009). Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.