“For my own private satisfaction, etc., (may it likewise be for the glory of God) I make the following remarks upon the various scenes of my life. I was born April 20th, 1718.”Jonathan Edwards, The Life of David Brainerd, ed. Norman Pettit, vol. 7 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985), 100.
Thus begins the diary of a young man in his 20s whose life significantly impacted the early evangelical movement in America and around the world.
David Brainerd didn’t set out to create ripples across the Atlantic, but aimed to faithfully serve God by ministering to the Native Americans at a time when New England British colonists claimed a concern for the Indians with their mouths, but lied to their face and robbed them of their land. Brainerd instead saw in the Natives a people whom God loved. And he dedicated his life to preaching the gospel and ministering to them.
He recorded a diary of his spiritual development, his journey from questioning God to committing himself to ministry, his encounters with the Natives, and his subsequent reflections on frontier ministry before his death. Incidentally, Brainerd died young, at age 29.
We know about Brainerd’s short life today in part because he kept such a detailed diary of his last years. As he notes in his diary’s opening, he had no intention of publishing his jottings. In fact, only with the repeated pleadings of his friends did he finally consent to them posthumously publishing his journal, and even then, he agreed on the condition that his papers be given to Jonathan Edwards, the renowned New England Puritan pastor in whose house he spent his last days. He charged that Edwards publish something only if he saw fit.
And that’s another reason we know of this young missionary today. Edwards took Brainerd’s diary, arranged it with some commentary, and published it. Of all his publications, Edwards’ Life of David Brainerd is his best-selling book.
The book became influential in several pioneering missions endeavors in the 18th and 19th centuries. It stirred home missions work through people like Francis Asbury (1745-1816), and inspired foreign missionaries like William Carey (1761-1834), who blazed a path for missions in India and spearheaded Bible translation efforts.
Why did Brainerd’s life inspire so many? The full range of his inspiration can only be grasped by reading his diary firsthand, but I will examine a few striking elements of his life here.
“For the Conversion of the Heathen”
Brainerd was perhaps best marked by his passion for missions. As a young man preparing for ministry, he could have pastored a New England congregation like many of his peers, but through a series of events, at age 24 Brainerd went to the Kaunaumeek mission to Natives in upstate New York in 1743. After spending a year there, Brainerd transitioned to a more permanent post in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In June 1745, he began working in Crossweeksung, New Jersey, where he planted a church of Delaware Natives.
Brainerd often rode on horseback to each tribe and preached the gospel, pleading with them from God’s Word. He spent hours praying for them, weighed down with their spiritual condemnation, bent on showing them Christ’s grace. In his June 22, 1744 entry, Brainerd described how the Indians consumed his mind: Even before he got out of bed, he cried out to the Lord, “and as soon as I was dressed, I withdrew into the woods to pour out my burdened soul to God, especially for assistance in my great work; for I could scarcely think of anything else.” His heart felt such weight that he gave himself up “afresh to God, for life or death, for all hardships he should call me to among the heathen; and felt as if nothing could discourage me from this blessed work.”Edwards, 262.
As he rode three miles to the Indians that day, his “heart was continually going up to God for his presence and assistance”Edwards, 262. When he arrived, he pleaded with them in the morning and afternoon, yet saw no breakthrough. But though discouraged, he “was determined still to ‘wait upon God’ [Is. 40:31] for the conversion of the heathen.”Edwards, 263. This is just a taste of the passion Brainerd frequently expressed for God’s glory and grace to be known among the Natives.
With persistence and compassion, a congregation sprouted in New Jersey, for whom he had a sweet disposition. In his April 27, 1746 entry, for example, during a season of spiritual progress among the Natives, Brainerd described the people’s harmony and love as “the most lively emblem of the heavenly world I had ever seen.”Edwards, 388. He referred to the Indians as “my people,” showing an intimacy with them and a responsibility in caring for them, and he demonstrated his care not only by preaching to their souls, but by helping them in daily “worldly concerns.”Edwards, 390.
Ironically, Brainerd’s ministry achieved minimal immediate results. At the end of his ministry, he only had 85 full members in his church plant, half of whom were children — hardly a megachurch. But his faithfulness bore unexpected fruit. Brainerd’s passion for reaching those who had never heard of Christ was contagious, and God multiplied the fruit by raising up scores of missionaries inspired by Brainerd’s passion to give themselves to the spread of the gospel.
“To My Latest Moment!”
Brainerd was so burdened for the lost that he believed it worthwhile to sacrifice himself so that others might be saved. Paul set a similar example by “suffering” for the gospel, “bound with chains as a criminal,” enduring “everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Tim 2:9-10).
Reading Brainerd’s diary shows, at times, a disdain for his own body, to the point that we might reproach him for carelessly subjecting himself to unnecessary troubles. He also admittedly wrestled with frequent bouts of dark despondency in his introspective assessment of his spiritual life and ministry. This was his deepest struggle, and a fair reading of his diary displays a degree of failure in caring for his mental and physical health.
He could have, for example, taken fewer horseback rides in the rain and surrounded himself with more companionship to endure together the hardships of frontier missions. Edwards in his comments even argues that missions efforts should be undertaken with others, not alone. We need to acknowledge Brainerd’s shortcomings to beware of falling into similar pitfalls.
But at the same time, Brainerd’s devotion to sharing the gospel of Christ shows a degree of self-sacrifice that rebukes our 21st century addiction to complacency and comfort — a self-sacrifice that looks more like Christ than our entertainment-saturated lifestyle today. It’s true that we all need regular rest; God ordained that in the weekly rhythm when he modeled rest on the seventh day of Creation. But does our lifestyle today mirror that disciplined rest?
Brainerd convicts me. How many hours do I spend in the American pastime, amassing stuff for myself? How many hours could I spend giving of myself for others each week? Consider the selflessness in Brainerd’s entry from June 29, 1746:
I longed to live only to [God], and to be in tune for his praise and service forever. Oh, for spirituality and holy fervency, that I might ‘spend and be spent’ [II Cor. 12:15] for God to my latest moment!” Edwards, 411.
Brainerd sacrificed much to serve in frontier missions. He often longed for his friends, went without regular enjoyments such as baked bread, and lived among a people whose ways were strangely different from his own. He subjected himself to the elements and frequently got sick from his travels.
On August 10, 1746, Brainerd set out on a pioneering trip to spread the gospel to unreached Indians in the Susquehanna River Valley in central Pennsylvania. On this largely unsuccessful trip, he fell ill with the tuberculosis that would kill him barely a year later at the age of 29.
In his last diary entry, dated October 2, 1747, one week prior to his death, Brainerd felt “sweetly set on God” and at peace in trusting himself and those he was leaving behind to God. His frame of mind was clear: “Oh, that his kingdom might come in the world; that they might all love and glorify him for what he is in himself.”Edwards, 474. Brainerd sacrificed his life for the Natives, just as Christ gave his life for us.
“Strive to Live to God”
This is a charge in one of his last letters, written to his brother Israel. Edwards, 494.
Much more could be said about David Brainerd, including his dedicated practice of prayer, his mastery and application of Scripture, and his emphasis on growing in grace. He devoted his life, his breath, his body to God. He teaches us, through struggles, how we too can glorify God and devote ourselves passionately and sacrificially to God’s kingdom.
If you want a stirring summer read of a passionate young man, I encourage you to pick up The Life of David Brainerd. (Many editions are available, but if you want to narrow them down, Hendrickson Publishers put out an affordable copy in 2006.)
The book isn’t 21st century cutting edge material. But it does cut to the heart, inspiring and challenging us in our own Christian walk to assess our commitment to Christ. When I think that I am only a year younger than Brainerd when he died, I am struck by the depth of his reflection and the fervor of his passion at such a young age.
While Brainerd intended his scrawls only for glorifying God in his personal reflection, God had a different plan. God has taken Brainerd’s personal writings and glorified himself in a larger realm of Christianity, rousing missions efforts around the world. If David Brainerd were here today, I imagine he would tell us to live passionately and sacrificially for Christ — and leave the results to the Lord.
Copyright 2008 David Barshinger. All rights reserved.