The Life of David Brainerd
ART BY STEPHEN CHEN
Undoubtedly Brainerd had his faults, but where can we go outside of the New Testament, to find his equal as an example of self-sacrifice and suffering for the sake of Christ and His gospel? Where such gentle devotion, such meek forbearance, such agonizing intercession, such tireless toil, such passionate pursuit of holiness, such patient, persistent preaching – all amid gigantic obstacles and terrific tribulations? Who today would, like Brainerd, be able to bid farewell to all earthly comfort and be willing to spend his life in the ‘caves and dens of the earth’ that Christ’s kingdom would be advanced? Who would resign himself to see his body racked with pain and wasted away with disease in order to obtain one goal – the glory of God and the salvation of souls? The grace of God alone enabled Brainerd cheerfully to forsake all selfish interests and follow the Lamb ‘even unto death.’ (John Thornbury) 1
Let us often look at Brainerd…in the woods of America pouring out his very soul before God for the people. (William Carey) 2
Find preachers of David Brainerd’s spirit, and nothing can stand before them… 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. (John Wesley) 3
Two hundred and fifty years ago North America looked very different than it does today. Its landscape was covered with forests. It was not filled with population as it is today. Great expanses of it had not been touched by human hands. To some, it was a wilderness to beware of. To others, it was a frontier to be exploited. But to the Christian missionary, it was a mission field full of precious souls who had not yet come to saving faith in Jesus Christ. One man who carried this burden was David Brainerd, a Christian missionary to the American Indians. He came to faith only after much personal brokenness, and his faith expressed itself in tremendous humility, and in love and hunger for God. The faith of David Brainerd spread into the lives of his native Indian converts. In this booklet we will examine the spiritual experience of David Brainerd and also that of his native Indian converts. Brainerd’s personal diary was preserved and put into print. It records most of his ministry in America. We will examine his life leading up to his ministry, and then his ministry amongst the native Indians at the settlement of Crossweeksung.
David Brainerd was born in Haddam, Connecticut in 1718 and lived until 1747. His father was a council member appointed by the king of England. His great grandfather was a Puritan minister who fled Europe under persecution and came to the American continent. When David was eight his father died, and only seven years later his mother passed away as well. He left Haddam as an orphan to live with friends in East Haddam. Eventually he came to live with a pastor, once again in Haddam. 4
During these years of living in the pastor’s home, all of Brainerd’s energies were spent in seeking God and attempting to serve Him. David spend much time in prayer and Bible study. As well, he filled his life with much religious activity. He was a very serious young man and said of himself: “I became very strict and watchful over my thoughts, words, and actions; and thought that I must be sober indeed because I designed to devote myself to the ministry, and imagined that I did dedicate myself to the Lord.” 5
Despite all of Brainerd’s diligent searching and disciplined service, he began to sink into deep despair. He was not experiencing the happiness and fulfillment that he knew should accompany a true servant of God. To the contrary, Brainerd was wrestling with an inner turmoil that at times became overwhelming. The more he attempted to draw close to God, the more he became aware of his own personal sinfulness. The revelation of this haunted him and drove him to great despair, and yet in the midst of this difficult time, he continued to seek God in prayer.
However, there was an end to this dark tunnel that Brainerd was traveling. One day, July 12, 1739, as he was in prayer, Brainerd had a tremendous spiritual experience. He struggled to express in words the details and intensity of it. What he does say is that God revealed Himself to him in “unspeakable glory.” Brainerd describes the joy of this experience in these words: “My soul was so captivated and delighted with the excellency, loveliness, greatness, and perfections of God, that I was even swallowed up in Him…” 6 This experience was Brainerd’s personal conversion and from that day onward, he lived a life of love, faith, zeal and vision that is uncommon, both in his day and ours.
This tremendous experience of saving grace could not be kept to himself. Brainerd looked at those in the world around him and longed for them to experience this great salvation as well. At some point during this time, Brainerd made a decision to give his life in service as a missionary to the American Indians. In preparation for this work, he went to Yale College for three years. Shortly after that, he preached a farewell sermon in East Haddam, attended a final conference in New Jersey, and departed into the woods.
Before going any further with the history of David Brainerd and his ministry, it would be proper to examine the spirituality of this man. There are a lot of things that could be said about Brainerd. It could be said that he was kind, caring, patient and certainly courageous. But there are three things in particular that really stand out in Brainerd’s life. One is a tremendous humility and the others are a hunger and a love for God.
David Brainerd did not think highly of himself. The man was tremendously introspective, and all of his thoughts and comments about himself are filled with melancholy and self-abasement. In his own words: “Oh, that I may always lie low in the dust!” 7 Brainerd simply did not dismiss any of his sins or weaknesses as being a small thing. He said on Friday, Apr. 22, 1743: “Oh, my leanness testifies against me! My very soul abhors itself for its unlikeness to God, its inactivity and sluggishness. When I have done all, alas, what an unprofitable servant I am!” 8
Brainerd’s humility was even displayed before he went into the woods. While he was being interviewed by the ministers who commissioned him to his work, he said to them that he was “the worst wretch that ever lived.” 9 They evidently thought differently of him, commissioning him anyway. Brainerd’s diary records account after account, of him humbling himself before God. One such case was Nov. 2, 1744, where he said that he, “[w]as enabled to confess and bewail my sin before God, with self-abhorrence.” 10
Along with this tremendous humility, Brainerd also displayed an incredible love and hunger for God. Brainerd said: “My soul seemed to bleed after holiness, a life of constant devotedness to God.” 11 His words on Apr. 4, 1742, also express this thought:
O, my blessed God! Let me climb up near to Him, and love, and long, and please, and wrestle, and stretch after Him, and for deliverance from the body of sin and death. Alas! my soul mourned to think that I should ever lose sight of its Beloved again. O come, Lord Jesus, amen. 12
This spiritual hunger burned in Brainerd with tremendous intensity. It drove him to prayer, and prayer only whetted his appetite for more of God. On Apr. 15, 1742, he says these words:
My desires apparently centered in God, and I found a sensible attraction of soul after Him sundry times today. I know I long for God and a conformity to His will, in inward purity and holiness, ten thousand times more than for anything here below. 13
There was simply nothing here on earth that could hold his affection and devotion like the God who saved his soul.
This love and hunger for God at times welled up so strongly that Brainerd could hardly express it in words. He said on Apr. 27, 1742:
I retired pretty early for secret devotion; and in prayer God was pleased to pour such ineffable comfort into my soul that I could do nothing for some time but say over and over,‘O my sweet Savior! O my sweet Savior! Who have I in heaven but Thee? And there is none upon earth, that I desire besides Thee. If I had a thousand lives my soul would gladly have laid them all down at once to have been with Christ. My soul never enjoyed so much of heaven before. It was the most refined and the most spiritual season of communion with God I have ever yet felt. 14
Day in and day out, month in and month out, this hunger and love for God increased in Brainerd’s life. He mourned for those who did not have a relationship with God. He also looked forward to the day that he would be with God in heaven. On June 12, 1742, he said these words:
Spent much time in prayer this morning, and enjoyed much sweetness. Felt insatiable longing after God much of the day. I wondered how poor souls do live that have no God. The world with all its enjoyment quite vanished. I see myself very helpless, but I have a blessed God to go to. I long exceedingly to be dissolved and to be with Christ, to behold His glory. Oh, my weak, weary soul longs to arrive at my Father’s house! 15
Brainerd simply could not get enough of God, as he expresses in his own words: “My soul seems steadily to go forth after God, in longing desires to live upon Him.” 16 It was such a fulfillment for him to be able to spend time with God in prayer, or as he would say “in secret retirement.” On June 15, 1742, he exclaimed that he:
Had the most ardent longing after God as ever I felt in my life. At noon in my secret retirement I could do nothing but tell my Lord, in a sweet calm, that He knew I longed for nothing but Himself, nothing but holiness; that He had given me these desires and He only could give me the thing desired. I never seemed to be so unhinged from myself and to be so wholly devoted to God. My heart was swallowed up in God most of the day. 17
All of these experiences of communing with God seemed to reach greater and greater climaxes of deeper intimacy with God, and at the same time, increased the already great, driving hunger he had for God. Consider his words of Oct. 27, 1742:
But of late, God has been pleased to keep my soul hungry almost continually, so that I have been filled with a kind of pleasing pain. When I really enjoy God I feel my desires of Him the more insatiable, and my thirstings after holiness the more unquenchable. And the Lord will not allow me to feel as though I were fully supplied and satisfied, but keeps me still reaching forward…. Oh, for holiness! Oh, for more of God in my soul! Oh, this pleasing pain! It makes my soul press after God; the language of it is ‘I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness’… 18
Brainerd’s spiritual hunger and love for God could be summed up in his own words: “My God shall be my All.” 19
While David Brainerd loved God intensely, out of his love for God grew a love for the native Indian people, to whom he had been called to serve as a missionary. Was the humility and love for God that existed in David Brainerd passed on to his native Indian converts? Was the humility and brokenness that accompanied Brainerd’s own conversion found in these converts as well? The first two years of Brainerd’s ministry were in the settlement of Kaunaumeek and the settlement at the Forks of the Delaware. Although some in these settlements showed much soberness and seriousness towards Brainerd’s message, Brainerd was not convinced that any of them had converted to faith in Christ. He continued onwards to a settlement known as Crossweeksung. It is here where his message began to take a deep root in the hearts of native Indians and produced remarkable results. It is here where his own experience began to duplicate in the lives of native Indians.
The native Indians in the settlement of Crossweeksung showed a tremendous openness towards Brainerd’s message, a tremendous brokenness over awareness of their lost condition, and a tremendous eagerness, on the part of many, to respond to the good news of the Christian gospel. Brainerd frequently described their brokenness as a “melting” on their part where they would become “newly awakened.” This awakening came with much tears and humble recognition of their lost state. Brainerd’s diary is filled with accounts of these Indians coming to humble brokenness. Let’s look at this brokenness, particularly in the lives of some of his most outstanding converts.
One such account of this melting and awakening is recorded in Brainerd’s diary of Apr. 6, 1746:
There were considerable effects of the Word visible in the audience, and such as were very desirable: an earnest attention, a great solemnity, many tears and heavy sighs, …some of them expressed fears lest they had deceived themselves, and taken up a false hope, because they found they had done so little of the ‘will of his Father who is in heaven.’ There was one man brought under very great and pressing concern for his soul which appeared more especially after his retirement from public worship. That which he says gave him his great uneasiness was not so much any particular sin as that he had never done the will of God at all, but had sinned continually, and so had no claim to the kingdom of heaven. 20
What happened to this individual as a result of his receiving of the message that was brought to him? Brainerd comments that this man came to a place of “comfort and satisfaction.” And he expressed to Brainerd how he experienced this relief and also spoke of his good deeds or “spiritual exercises” that were following his experience. 21
This however was not an isolated event. In his diary on Feb. 1, 1746, Brainerd tells of that evening:
In the evening, catechized in my usual method. Towards the close of my discourse, a surprising power seemed to attend the Word, especially to some persons. One man considerably in years, who had been a remarkable drunkard, a conjurer, and murderer, that was awakened some months before, was now brought to great extremity under his spiritual distress, so that he trembled for hours together and apprehended himself just dropping into hell, without any power to rescue or relieve himself. Divers others appeared under great concern as well as he, and solicitous to obtain a saving change. 22
The individual mentioned above was actually a powwow (a conjurer or diviner, who practiced charming, enchanting and various other magical divinations). He first met Brainerd when they were both at the Forks of the Delaware and he followed Brainerd to Crossweeksung. During the August meetings at Crossweeksung:
…he was more effectually awakened and brought under great concern for his soul. Then, upon his ‘feeling the word of God in his heart,’ as he expressed it, his spirit of conjuration left him entirely, and he had no more power of that nature since than any other man living. 23
Brainerd further records that this man had:
… a lively soul-refreshing view of the excellency of Christ, and the way of salvation by Him, which melted him into tears and filled him with admiration, comfort, satisfaction, and praise to God. Since then he has appeared to be a humble, devout, and affectionate Christian; serious and exemplary in his conversation and behavior, … 24
He was baptized on May 9, 1746. Brainerd tells of a further experience sometime later, where another powwow threatened to curse Brainerd. The converted powwow, mentioned above, was present and immediately spoke up, declaring his testimony and informing this powwow that he too could be converted. Brainerd reminisces:
So that I may conclude my account of him by observing (in allusion to what was said of Paul), that he now zealously defends and practically ‘preaches the faith which he once destroyed,’ or at least was instrumental of obstructing. May God have the glory of the amazing change He has wrought in him! 25
This extremity of spiritual distress, followed by dramatic conversion, is also true in the case of a young Indian woman who Brainerd comments on in his diary of Feb. 9, 1746. He says:
There was also a poor, heavy-laden soul who had been long under spiritual distresses, as constant and as pressing as ever I saw, that was now brought to a comfortable calm and seemed to be bowed and reconciled to divine sovereignty. 26
On a later occasion, Brainerd says of her that she:
could not but burst forth in prayer and praise to God before us all, with many tears, crying sometimes in English and sometimes in Indian ‘O blessed Lord, do come, do come! Oh, do take me away, do let me die and go to Jesus Christ! I am afraid if I live I shall sin again! Oh, do let me die now! Oh, dear Jesus, do come! I cannot stay, I cannot stay! Oh, how can I live in this world! Do take my soul away from this sinful place! Oh, let me never sin anymore! Oh, what shall I do, what shall I do! Dear Jesus, oh dear Jesus.’ In this ecstasy she continued sometime, uttering these and such-like expressions incessantly. 27
At one point Brainerd interrupted her, asking her the question whether, “Christ was now sweet to her soul?” 28 With tears in her eyes she said:
I have many times heard you speak of the goodness and sweetness of Christ, that He was better than all the world. But oh! I knew nothing what you meant, I never believed you! I never believed you! But now I know it is true! 29
Brainerd’s diary entry for that day further records her expressing, in many words, the sufficiency of Christ’s saving grace for others also. Brainerd continued to watch her life over time and commented on her amazing humility, which he felt surpassed that of anyone whom he had ever seen. In his own words: “I then thought I had never seen such an appearance of ecstasy and humility meeting in any one person in all my life before.” 30
The beauty of her conversion, and the conversions of the others mentioned above, was seen in the lives of so many at Crossweeksung. Brainerd says of these:
I know of no assembly of Christians where there seems to be so much of the presence of God, where brotherly love so much prevails, and where I should so much delight in the public worship of God, in general, as in my own congregation; although not more than nine months ago, they were worshiping devils and dumb idols under the power of pagan darkness and superstition. Amazing change this! Affected by nothing less than divine power and grace! ‘This is the doing of the Lord, and it is justly marvellous in our eyes!’ 31
In Brainerd’s diary there are many accounts telling of the love and hunger for God that these Indians displayed. Many times they would visit him late into the night with questions about their faith. Brainerd said they were “…insatiable in their thirsting after Christian knowledge…” 32 “They seemed to watch and wait for the dropping of God’s word, as the thirsty earth for the ‘former and latter rain.’” 33
David Brainerd only lived eight years from the time of his conversion to the time of his death. But the brevity of his life was made up for by its quality and intensity. Throughout this time Brainerd suffered from poor health. On a trip to Northampton, to visit his friend Jonathan Edwards, his health began to rapidly deteriorate, bringing him to the point of death. Edwards records that when the dying Brainerd was so weak that he could hardly speak, he uttered a prayer for his congregation and spoke of them with an “…extraordinary tenderness; so that his speech was interrupted and drowned with weeping.” 34 He died on Friday, Oct. 9, 1747.
The story of the ministry of David Brainerd is a story of a humble man who was brutally honest in his assessment of himself and who was willing to come to brokenness in his search for God. On the other side of his despairing brokenness was the glorious experience of saving faith in Jesus Christ. It is sometimes said of spiritually devout people that their life is like a candle burning in the darkness. David Brainerd was more than a candle. He was a towering inferno, burning up with zeal, love and hunger for God. At the same time he was filled with humility. His converts came to this same faith, by the same path of brokenness and humble faith in Jesus Christ; their faith expressed itself with similar love and hunger for God. The testimony of their experiences survives to this day.
FROM THE FUNERAL OF DAVID BRAINERD: JONATHAN EDWARD’S SERMON
“He told me one night as he went to bed, that he expected to die that night ; and added, ‘ I am not at all afraid ; I am willing to go this night, if it be the will of God. Death is what I long for.’ He several times spoke of the different kinds of willingness to die : and spoke of it as an ignoble mean kind of willingness to die, to be willing only to get rid of pain, or to go to heaven only to get honour and advancement there. His own longings for death seemed to be quite of a different kind, and for nobler ends. ‘ My heaven,’ said he, ‘ is to please God, and glorify Him, and give all to Him, and to be wholly devoted to His glory : that is the heaven I long for : this is my religion ; and that is my happiness, and always was, ever since I supposed I had any true religion : and all those that are of that religion, shall meet me in heaven. I do not go to heaven to be advanced, but to give honour to God. It is no matter where I shall be stationed in heaven, whether I have a high or low seat there, but to love and please and glorify God. If I had a thousand souls, if they were worth anything, I would give them all to God ; but I have nothing to give, when all is done. It is impossible for any rational creature to be happy without acting all for God. I long to be in heaven, praising and glorifying God with the holy angels ; all my desire is to glorify God. My heart goes out to the burying-place, it seems to me a desirable place : but O to glorify God ! That is above all. It is a great comfort to me to think that I have done a little for God in the world : It is but a very small matter ; yet I have done a little ; and I lament it that I have not done more for him. There is nothing in the world worth living for, but doing good, and finishing God’s work, doing the work that Christ did. I see nothing else in the world that can yield any satisfaction, besides living to God, pleasing Him, and doing His whole will.’ In his diary he writes thus : – ‘September 19, Near night, while I attempted to walk a little, my thoughts turned thus : how infinitely sweet it is to love God, and be all for Him. Upon which it was suggested to me, you are not an angel, not lively and active. To which my whole soul immediately replied, I as sincerely desire to love and glorify God, as any angel in heaven. Upon which it was suggested again, but you are filthy, not fit for heaven. Hereupon instantly appeared the blessed robes of Christ’s righteousness, which I could not but exult and triumph in. I viewed the infinite excellency of God ; and my soul even broke with longings, that God should be glorified. O how I longed that God should be glorified on earth. O ! I was made for eternity if God might be glorified.’ After he came to be in so low a state that he ceased to have the least expectation of recovery, his mind was peculiarly carried forth with earnest concern for the prosperity of the church of God on earth. He told me when near his end, that he never, in all his life, had his mind so led forth in desires and earnest prayers for the flourishing of Christ’s kingdom on earth, as since he was brought so exceeding low at Boston. He seemed much to wonder, that there appeared no more of a disposition in ministers and people, to pray for the flourishing of religion throughout the world. And particularly, he several times expressed his wonder, that there appeared no more forwardness to comply with the proposal lately made from Scotland, for united extraordinary prayer among God’s people, for the coming of Christ’s kingdom, and sent it as his dying advice to his own congregation, that they should practice agreeable to that proposal. A little before his death, he said to me, as I came into the room : ‘ my thoughts have been employed on the old dear theme, the prosperity of God’s church on earth. As I waked out of sleep,’ said he, ‘ I was led to cry for the pouring out of God’s Spirit, and the advancement of Christ’s kingdom, which the dear Redeemer did and suffered so much for : it is that especially makes me long for it.’ A few days before his death, he desired us to sing a psalm that was concerning the prosperity of Zion ; which he signified that his mind was engaged in the thoughts of, and desires after, above all things ; and at his desire we sang a part of the 102d psalm. And when we had done, though he was so low that he could scarcely speak, he so exerted himself, that he made a prayer, very audibly, wherein, besides praying for those present, and for his own congregation, he earnestly prayed for the reviving and flourishing of religion in the world. His own congregation especially lay much on his heart. He often spake of them : and commonly when he did so, it was with extraordinary tenderness ; so that his speech was interrupted and drowned with weeping.”
Edward’s sermon taken from John Gillie’s Historical Collections of Accounts of Revival
1. John Thornbury et al., Five Pioneer Missionaries, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 84. www.banneroftruth.org
2. Presbyterian Historical Society, Journal of (Department of History of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., 1960), Vol. 38.
3. Ranelda Hunsicker, David Brainerd (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1999), 138.
4. Thornbury, 17-21.
5. David Brainerd, The Life And Diary Of David Brainerd, ed. Jonathan Edwards, 8th ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989),
6. Ibid., 69.
7. Ibid., 88.
8. Ibid., 122.
9. Ibid., 34.
10. Ibid., 181.
11. Ibid., 88.
12. Ibid., 76.
13. Ibid., 79.
14. Ibid., 83.
15. Ibid., 87.
16. Ibid., 88.
17. Ibid., 88.
18. Ibid., 103.
19. Ibid., 82.
20. Ibid., 289.
21. Ibid., 306.
22. Ibid., 272.
23. Ibid., 299.
24. Ibid., 302.
25. Ibid., 302.
26. Ibid., 273.
27. Ibid., 279-280.
28. Ibid., 280.
29. Ibid., 280.
30. Ibid., 282.
31. Ibid., 277.
32. Ibid., 283.
33. Ibid., 261.
34. John Gillies, ed., Historical Collections Of Accounts Of Revival, first published 1754, 3rd ed. Horatius Bonar (Fairfield: Banner of Truth Trust, 1981), 486.
Brainerd, David. The Life And Diary Of David Brainerd. ed., Jonathan Edwards, 8th ed.
Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989.
Gillies, John. ed. Historical Collections Of Accounts Of Revival, first published 1754, 3rd ed.
Horatius Bonar. Fairfield: Banner of Truth Trust, 1981.
Hunsicker, Ranelda. David Brainerd. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1999.
Presbyterian Historical Society. Journal of. Department of History of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., 1960.
Thornbury, John. et al. Five Pioneer Missionaries, 3rd ed. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1993. www.banneroftruth.org
There have been many good books written about David Brainerd. If you would like to read his personal diary, it has been published by Baker Book House, P. O. Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan.