David Brainerd: Like A Meteor Against The Night

"David Brainerd on Horseback" by Unknown
“David Brainerd on Horseback” by Unknown

In 1749, the preeminent American theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards published a work that would quickly become his most popular. Called An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd, it was the diary of a young missionary who had died of tuberculosis only two years earlier in Edwards’ own home.

Edwards saw fit to publish Brainerd’s diary and personal writings after his death because of the young man’s unmatched zeal for Christ as well as his unrelenting efforts to preach the Gospel amongst the heathen, regardless of his seeming lack of converts. The diary quickly made Brainerd a household name and served to inspire a generation of Christians to further the cause of Christ in service of the Great Commission.

BRAINERD’S EARLY LIFE AND CONVERSION

David Brainerd was born in Connecticut in April of 1718 to parents Hezekiah and Dorothy. He was born into a large family and eventually had nine sisters and brothers. In his diary, David described himself as a “sober” and “melancholy” child.1 Sadly, these traits were likely made more prominent in his personality when his parents both died before he reached the age of 15. Tucker states that it was due to his parents’ deaths that he “missed the joys of a happy, carefree childhood.”2 Throughout his childhood, he related that he had many occasions of feeling the Holy Spirit convicting him of sin, but admitted that the seasons of devotion always gave way to spiritual decline and ambivalence eventually.3

Eventually, he came to live with an old minister who warned him against associating with young people, saying he should only cultivate relationships with wise, old Christians. David took his advice. Reflecting back on his teenage years, David wrote that he knew how to act spiritual, but also knew that he was entirely self-righteous. He wrote that his life then was “full of religion” and he had many outward spiritual practices and habits: “In short, I had a very good outside, and rested entirely on my own duties.”4

Yet, in times of clarity, David recognized his pathetic reliance on his own righteousness, and constantly found himself swinging between the two extremes of prideful self-righteousness and broken repentance. David’s diary indicates that he struggled with this constant spiritual pendulum for many years. Additionally, he admits to struggling greatly with some major theological problems, namely, the strictness of the divine law, that faith alone was the condition of salvation, his inability to manufacture faith in his heart, and lastly, the total sovereignty of God in salvation.5 Looking at these four struggles together makes it clear that they each stem from the besetting sin of self-righteousness and desire to gain approval on one’s own merit.

It was not until 1739, when David was 21 years old, that he was regenerated by the Holy Spirit. On July 12th of that year, as he was feeling cast down in a “mournful, melancholy state,” he wrote that he suddenly experienced “unspeakable glory” in his soul that he had never had before.6 He wrote that in that moment, his soul “rejoiced with joy unspeakable” and was so “captivated and delighted with the excellency, loveliness, greatness, and other perfections of God, that [he] was even swallowed up in Him.”7

David then turned his eye to ministry and enrolled at Yale. He admitted to an initial reluctance to attending, fearing that he would not be able to “lead a life of strict religion in the midst of so many temptations.”8 But he felt the Lord give him peace about attending, so he began classes and actually excelled in his studies. Over the next several months, David experienced more of the same spiritual ups and downs to which he had grown accustomed. His diary is interspersed with vivid descriptions of days wherein he felt his soul filled with ecstasy from God as well as those wherein he felt God had left him.

At the same time David had enrolled at Yale, George Whitefield was in the midst of a revival tour that ignited what later became known as the Great Awakening. Many of the students at Yale were inspired and changed through the preaching of Whitefield and his associates, but the college’s professors and leaders were wholly unimpressed with the newfound zeal of many of their students. According to Yeager, the college’s rector, Thomas Clap, “promised to expel any student who persisted in labeling a member of the faculty or staff as unconverted or a hypocrite.”9

In one example of a seemingly inconsequential moment in history which turned out to drastically alter the course of someone’s life, a fellow student overheard David speaking ill of a professor, namely, that he had “no more grace than a chair.”10 The anonymous student took this information back to the administration, and David was expelled after refusing to apologize. Even though he eventually apologized and had the likes of Jonathan Edwards making intercession on his behalf with the college, he was never re-admitted. At the time, the colony of Connecticut required that any minister seeking a license to preach must have graduated from Harvard, Yale, or a school in Europe.11 This meant that David had no chance of getting a prestigious pastoral appointment. But in God’s Providence, this was exactly what had to occur in order for David to bring the message of the Gospel to the heathen Indian tribes of the northeastern colonies.

BRAINERD’S MISSIONARY WORK

Naturally, the expulsion hit David quite hard. He went through a period of discouragement and wrote extensively in his diary of his sadness over the situation at Yale: “My heart seemed again to sink. The disgrace I was laid under at college seemed to damp me, as it opens the mouths of opposers.”12 Simultaneously, however, David sincerely sought the Lord in his woe and wrote of periods of genuine comfort and hope from the Lord during this time.

David did eventually gain ordination and a license to preach from The Association of Ministers of the Eastern District of Fairfield County in Connecticut. Afterward, he wrote that he felt greatly refreshed by this Providence, and “went to bed resolving to live devoted to God all [his] days.”13 David never forgot, however, that during his time at Yale, he had heard a man named Ebenezer Pemberton preach a “stirring message about the opportunities for missionary work among the Indians.”14 Soon after his expulsion, David requested a meeting with Pemberton. In November of 1742, they met and discussed the possibility of David being commissioned as a missionary for the Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK), the missions organization for whom Pemberton served as field secretary in America.15

David garnered the favor of the SSPCK and was offered an appointment to work with the Kaunameek Indians of New York. They wrote that they found him “armed with a great deal of self-denial and animated with noble zeal.”16 David worked in various locations with different Indian tribes in the five years he served as a missionary: he worked near Nassau, NY, near Bethlehem, PA, in Crossweeksung, NJ, and in Cranbury, NJ.

Success in ministry wasn’t something David experienced often. He understood the task at hand in ministering to the Indians was of both great importance and great difficulty. There is little doubt that David had heard of the great successes of the Great Awakening in the rest of New England while he labored among the Indians. Surely he could have looked at the results of the ever-growing Great Awakening and despaired that his own efforts were not meeting the same results. But David learned quickly not to trust his own efforts in gaining any success in their conversion: “To the eye of reason, everything that respects the conversion of the heathen is as dark as midnight; and yet I can’t but hope in God for the accomplishment of something glorious among them.”17

Finally, in 1745, “Brainerd’s missionary hope was remarkably fulfilled after two years of largely fruitless itinerant preaching” among various Indian tribes.18 He was ministering to the Delaware Indians in Crossweeksung, New Jersey, who were very receptive to his Gospel message. In fact, revival broke out among the Delaware Indians, and David could not believe the harvest. At first, he was careful not to take too much hope because of the repeated failures amongst other Indian tribes, but it soon became clear that the revival was real and the Gospel was transforming hearts and minds.

He took to his diary and wrote that he could hardly “believe and scarce dared to hope that the event would be so happy, and scarce ever found myself more suspended between hope and fear, in any affair, or at any time, than this.”19 He began baptizing converts and soon established a church among them, along with building a village for them all to live in. Eventually, scores of new converts were living in the new settlement.

BRAINERD’S DEATH AND LEGACY

David’s toilsome efforts with various Indian tribes in New England detracted greatly from his already-precarious health. He was a tireless missionary, working even through many sicknesses to minister to those heathens for whom he felt such a great burden. When his tuberculosis, likely contracted years before at Yale, got worse than usual, he knew he finally had to rest. He moved into the home of Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he was nursed by the young Jerusha Edwards, who would later succumb to the tuberculosis she contracted from David. But the medical care was too little, too late; the disease had taken its deadly toll. Finally, at the young age of only twenty-nine, David died in the home of Edwards.

David had struggled mightily with depression and melancholy throughout his short life. It seems that at least some of David’s struggles with melancholy and depression stemmed from the foundation of self-righteousness that he laid in his youth. The insipid self-righteousness in which he found himself helplessly ensnared is best described in his own words: “Though hundreds of times I renounced all pretenses of any worth in my duties […] yet still I had a secret hope of recommending myself to God by my religious duties.”20 It seems likely that David’s constant, almost subconscious, posturing before God contributed greatly to the insecurity he experienced throughout his life. But we cannot rightly judge David’s depression and melancholy without fully understanding his condition. This was a man who went through great tragedy as a child and subsequently lived with an old man who encouraged him to live a dour and strictly religious life. No doubt, some of his later disposition can be attributed to these formative years. When we consider that David also probably contracted tuberculosis during his days at Yale and subsequently struggled with the illness as it slowly killed him over the years, we may understand a bit more of his personality and why his concerns were such.

Additionally, this is also a young man who eschewed the normal path of a twenty-something and became a missionary to various heathen peoples who didn’t understand him, and some of whom didn’t care to try. He lived a solitary life among these Indian tribes for the most part, no doubt caught between a desire for a normal life serving God among his own people and a desire to burn out for Christ in service of the Great Commission. Because of his great zeal and the great strength given to him by God, he chose the latter path, and we are ever indebted to him for it.

When we read David’s diary, we are tempted to judge him for not trusting God more and falling into depression so easily and often. In doing so, we lose sight of three things. First, we are reading the diary all at once when it was actually written day by day, sometimes with several days between each entry. It is easy to read all the entries at once and marvel at the highs and lows experienced by David, but to do so is to lose sight of the fact that David didn’t see these highs and lows in such quick succession. They often happened days apart. For a lone missionary who struggles with seeing the Gospel take hold amongst a heathen people, it is not that far-fetched to experience the pendulum-like swings of emotion and spirituality.

Second, in judging David’s authentic account of his struggles, we often forget that David did not write the diary with the thought of publishing it for all to see and read for hundreds of years. David only reluctantly gave permission for the publishing of his diary while on his deathbed, and it was only after Edwards’ earnest request that David had even considered making public his painfully honest record of struggles and victories. It is clear to all who read David’s diary that he did not write it to be read by others. Surely, had he predetermined to publish his diary, he would have been more judicious in writing some of its contents – especially the entries that make him look weak or frail in his hope in Christ. It is often damning of his own sinful tendencies, and any man who struggled with self-righteousness as much as David once had would likely never write such an authentic account of his afflictions and distresses.

Third, it is wrong to assume that men of God are not beset by problems and pains in their lives. Often, it is those men whom God uses most mightily that Satan attempts to beset most fiercely. This is what the Apostle Paul referenced in his second letter to the Corinthians when he alluded to a constant thorn in his flesh. But God used this ailment, whether it was physical or spiritual, to humble Paul and make His glory and grace all the more evident in Paul’s ministry. In the same way, God used serious physical and psychological infirmities to make His grace sufficient in the life of David.

David had experienced success amongst the Delaware Indians in Crossweeksung, but perhaps his greatest contribution to the evangelical cause of missions was the posthumous-publication of his diary, “a classic of the devotional life in which the true Protestant aspiration after utmost holiness of life finds faithful expression.”21 Church historian Stephen Neill wrote that “Brainerd died, but lived on in the lives of those like William Carey and Henry Martyn, who found inspiration in his impassioned words.”22 Supposedly, Carey even took a copy of Brainerd’s diary along with him to India, “re-reading it so often that he could quote it by heart.”23

Perhaps one of the great ironies of Brainerd’s life was his failure to gain a prestigious degree and ordination from Yale. For a young man who cared so much about his ability to “show himself a workman approved,” it was no doubt quite painful to lose any possibility of attaining a degree from such a well-respected institution. However, God saw fit to raise David up to prominence via other means. This prominence was never experienced by David in this life, but he is surely in Heaven praising God that the record of his life and ministry has been used by God so mightily to inspire others to the same level of devotion and zeal for the advancement of Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Not only was David in possession of God-given zeal for the Christian faith and life, he was also gifted with an uncommon and significant zeal for the heathen Indian tribes. He wrote glowingly of his solemn and sacred task, namely that he “could have no freedom in the thought of any other circumstances or business in life. All my desire was the conversion of the heathen and all my hope was in God.”24 It was almost as if David knew he was destined by God for a short-lived but fiercely-worked ministry when he wrote of his dedication to God’s mission: “God does not suffer me to please or comfort myself with hopes of seeing friends, returning to my dear acquaintance, and enjoying worldly comforts.”25 It was this zeal for the Gospel, punctuated by his admittance of his perfectly normal and good desires, that makes David Brainerd such an appealing and authentic role model for generations of Christians. As Klauber and Manetsch state, it is “hard to overemphasize the influence of Brainerd’s biography on those who took up the missionary cause in subsequent generations.”26 Brainerd “lived for Christ with such abandon in his few years on earth that he seemed in retrospect like a meteor against the night.”27 Indeed, David even described his own hopes in such fiery terms, saying that he wanted to “burn out in one continued flame for God.”28

David’s early life was scarred by tragedy, which no doubt led to his sorrowful disposition, at least in part. But just as his life was at times marbled by pain and depression, so it was at other times marked by unmatched joy and genuine humility before God. Any reader can plainly see that David’s writings prove his life to be marked by a steadfast authenticity and a sincere longing for God. His posthumously-published diary served to galvanize the cause of Christian missionary work in America. He has since served as a wonderful role model for generations of Christians who are devoted to the Great Commission, and his diary provides us an in-depth look at a truly godly and genuine man who simply wanted to know Christ and make him known.


Footnotes

  1. David Brainerd and Jonathan Edwards, The Life of David Brainerd, Chiefly Extracted from His Diary. (New York: Baker Book House, 1978), 57.
  2. Ruth Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1983), 80.
  3. Brainerd, Diary, 57-58.
  4. Ibid., 59.
  5. Ibid., 64-65.
  6. Ibid., 69.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 71.
  9. Jonathan M. Yeager, “A Missionary Among Native Americans – David Brainerd.” In Early Evangelicalism: A Reader. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), 128.
  10. Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, 80.
  11. Norman Pettit, “Prelude to Mission: David Brainerd’s Expulsion from Yale.” New England Quarterly 49, no. 1 (1986): 32.
  12. Brainerd, Diary, 90.
  13. Ibid., 92.
  14. Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, 81.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Martin Klauber and Scott Manetsch, The Great Commission: Evangelicals and the History of World Missions. (Nashville, Tenn.: B & H Publishing Group, 2008), 32.
  17. Brainerd, Diary, 254.
  18. Klauber, The Great Commission, 32.
  19. Brainerd, Diary, 322.
  20. Brainerd, Diary, 60.
  21. Stephen Neill and Owen Chadwick, A History of Christian Missions. Rev. for the 2nd ed. (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1986), 192.
  22. Neill, A History of Christian Missions, 192.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Brainerd, Diary, 174.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Klauber, The Great Commission, 47.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Brainerd, Diary, 217.

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Theology and Ethics