David Brainerd: A Life Given for Christ

“I continued in a solemn frame, lifting up my heart to God for assistance and grace that . . . my whole soul might be taken up continually in concern for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom . . . Continued in this frame till I dropped asleep” (Brainerd 167). These are the words of David Brainerd, missionary to the American Indians in the 18th century. Though he was continually afflicted with illnesses and depression, Brainerd persisted in the call on his life to preach the gospel. He lived a short life, dying at the age of 29, but as John Piper says regarding why David Brainerd’s life is significant to him, “Brainerd’s life is a vivid, powerful testimony to the truth that God can and does use weak, sick, discouraged, beat-down, lonely, struggling saints, who cry to him day and night, to accomplish amazing things for his glory” (Kindle Locations 111-113). David Brainerd’s life remains an inspiration for Christians today because it is a testimony of the extraordinary sustaining grace that God gives to even the feeblest of His children to accomplish His will.

            David Brainerd was born in 1718 and was raised in Haddam, Connecticut (Piper Kindle Location 8). It was not long after his birth that his suffering would begin. His father died when he was 9 and his mother died when he was 14 (Piper Kindle Locations 15-16). The passing of his parents likely contributed to his frequent struggle with depression. On this thought, Anderson writes, “The early death of his parents, combined with a naturally melancholy personality, caused him to be morose and to fixate on the brevity of life, so that his religious life was characterized by prolonged depressions punctuated by ecstatic experiences of God.” Brainerd himself says from the beginning of his diary, “I was, I think, from my youth something sober and inclined rather to melancholy than the other extreme” (57). Brainerd’s struggles did not keep him from excelling in his education, however. He enrolled in Yale in 1739, the same year he began to experience symptoms of tuberculosis (Anderson). Piper says that, while Brainerd lived on a farm he had inherited, “During the year on the farm he had made a commitment to God to enter the ministry. But still he was not converted. He read the Bible through twice that year and began to see more clearly that all his religion was legalistic and simply based on his own efforts” (Kindle Locations 28-30). Brainerd was in school and studying to be a minister, but was still unconverted himself.

            It was July 12th, 1739 that Brainer was born again (Piper Kindle Locations 47-48). He was 21 years old and a freshman at Yale. Previously, Brainerd had struggle to embrace many doctrines of God, including original sin and God’s sovereignty (Piper Kindle Locations 30-31). Then suddenly, after having been in prayer, God’s glory broke through the darkness and deadness of Brainerd’s soul. Brainerd describes the event in his diary:

[A]s 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 anything of that nature; but it was a new inward apprehension or view that I had of God, such as I never had before, nor anything which had the least resemblance of it.

Brainerd 69

David Brainerd did not receive a vision of God that was visible to his eyes, but rather received the spiritual sight of faith that beheld God in all His glory. He continued his testimony, “I stood still wondered, and admired! I knew that I never had seen before anything comparable to it for excellency and beauty; it was widely different from all the conceptions that I ever had of God” (Brainerd 69). The evidence of his changed nature is evident in his new and vastly different view of God that he had. Brainerd wrote regarding his new view of the sovereignty of God, “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” (69). Thus, Brainerd was a new creation, as Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (English Standard Version, 1 Cor. 5:17).

            Brainerd continued at Yale for some time, but was eventually expelled. Many of the students had concerns regarding the spiritual health of the school (Piper 54-55). This increased when George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards preached at the school. Edwards was expected to silence the concerns of the students when he spoke, but rather “argued that the work going on in the awakening of those days, and specifically among the students, was a real spiritual work in spite of the excesses” (Piper Kindle Locations 59-60). Brainerd was significantly influenced by this fire of the Great Awakening, but did not exercise proper self-control and wisdom in his conduct. During a conversation with other students regarding the faculty of Yale, Brainerd made the remark that one of the members had “no more grace than a chair” (Anderson). This remark followed an announcement the school had made stating, “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, he shall for the first offence make a public confession in the hall, and for the second offence be expelled” (Piper Kindle Locations 61-62). Brainerd was strictly instructed to make a public confession that included an apology for his remark, but he refused to do so (Pettit 36). Because of his association with those who had opposed the faculty, called the New Lights, and because of his refusal to make a confession, Brainerd was expelled from Yale (Barlow).

            Brainerd’s expulsion from Yale redirected his life and placed him on a journey that would make him one of the most memorable missionaries to ever live. There was a new law in Connecticut that passed stating no one could become a pastor who “had not graduated from Harvard, Yale or a European University” (Piper Kindle Location 74). Brainerd was kept from becoming what he had studied to be, but he continued to preach as an itinerant minister where he could (Anderson). Doing so allowed him to acquaint himself with Jonathan Dickson, a Presbyterian minister who encouraged Brainerd to become a missionary (Anderson). Brainerd agreed and was ordained by the Presbytery of New York in 1744 (Anderson). He then went to the Housatonic Indians in Massachusetts in 1743 and remained there for a year (Piper Kindle Locations 86-87). He then traveled to Pennsylvania and evangelized the Indians along the Delaware River (Piper Kindle Locations 88-89). After spending a year there, he left for the Indians at Crossweeksung, New Jersey, where he saw mass conversions to Christ (Piper Kindle Locations 91-92). Eventually, all of Brainerd’s illnesses, especially his tuberculosis, took a toll on his life in the wilderness. Anderson writes, “In April 1747, seriously weakened by tuberculosis, he left New Jersey for the home of his friend Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he died in October.”

            Brainerd’s diary is a testimony of a man who was fully committed to the glory of God. He was zealous for God’s name to be hallowed among the Indians. Piper records the passion Brainerd had for God’s glory, “O I longed to fill the remaining moments all for God! Though my body was so feeble, and wearied with preaching and much private conversation, yet I wanted to sit up all night to do something for God” (Kindle Locations 250-251). He would pray that God would “send forth His blessed Spirit with His Word, and set up His kingdom among the poor Indians in the wilderness” (Brainerd 319). This zeal for the glory of God often expressed itself in his desire to grow in personal holiness. Brainerd wrote in his journal, “Felt an abasing sense of my own impurity and unholiness and felt my soul melt and mourn that I had abused and grieved a very gracious God who was still kind to me, notwithstanding all my unworthiness” (179). Elsewhere he writes in his journal, “My soul was exceedingly grieved for sin, and prized, and longed after holiness” (Brainerd 180). In this way Brainerd’s zeal for God to be glorified found the person he knew needed the most grace: himself.

            Brainerd spent whole days in fasting and prayer. He wrote, “Spent this day in secret fasting, and prayer, from morning till night” (Barlow). Such devotion was not rare for Brainerd, but a regular habit of his. He wrote on another day, “This morning I spent about two hours in secret duties and was enabled more than ordinarily to agonize for immortal souls. Though it was early in the morning and the sun scarcely shined at all, yet my body was quite wet with sweat” Barlow). McKenna shares the story of Brainerd praying for the Indians in the snow, and says, “When he had finished, there was a circle of melted snow from his body heat.” Brainerd’s diary is filled with account after account of prayers for himself and others, recognizing his dependence on God for everything. Just his prayer life alone is enough to demonstrate how much his understanding of God’s sovereignty had developed. He knew that without the gracious work of the Holy Spirit, there could be no fruit from his labors. Brainerd said of this, “I have learned by experience that He only can open the ear, engage the attention, and incline the heart of poor benighted, prejudiced pagans to receive instruction” (207).

            Another thing one can draw from Brainerd’s life is how his imperfections are a testimony of the sustaining grace of God in his life. Brainerd’s expulsion from Yale shows the providential hand of God at work, even through Brainerd’s lack of sanctification in his speech. For Brainerd, his dreams and aspirations were crushed, but God was at work. Brainerd was deeply hurt by his expulsion, and he tried repeatedly to be accepted again into Yale, but no fruit followed (Piper Kindle Location 69). Even though many people tried to help Brainerd, Yale was resolute that he should never be accepted into the school again (Kindle Location 70). Piper writes, “Instead of a quiet six years in the pastorate or lecture hall followed by death and little historical significance at all, God meant to drive him into the wilderness that he might suffer for his sake and make an incalculable impact on the history of missions” (Kindle Locations 70-72). In this way, Brainerd’s life shows how even the sins God’s people commit, including those in ministry, can be used in a way to bring glory to His name. This is by no means to say God is guilty of the sin or that the sin is justified, but it demonstrates the sovereign Shepherd’s care of His sheep and His grace towards them. Such a testimony is a great encouragement for those in ministry who know very well how easy it can be to falter and to wander from God’s will.

            Another testimony of the sustaining grace of God in Brainerd’s life is how his depression did not overcome him, but was kept in check by many outpourings of the Spirit of God that encouraged Brainerd. Piper writes, “Often his distress was owing to the hatred of his own remaining sinfulness” (Kindle Locations 138-139). Brainerd struggled to keep his consciousness of his remaining sin from leading him to near despair. He writes, “Scarce ever felt myself so unfit to exist, as now . . . None knows, but those that feel it, what the soul endures that is sensibly shut out from the presence of God: Alas, ‘tis more bitter than death” (Piper Kindle Locations 141-143). Brainerd would be so afflicted with depression that it even prevented him from doing his work of evangelism, so that he would withdraw himself and be alone (Piper Kindle Locations 150-152). Even with this depression, Piper writes, “After his conversion there seemed to be a rock of electing love under him that would catch him, so that in his darkest times he could still affirm the truth and goodness of God, even though he couldn’t sense it for a season” (Kindle Locations 136-138).

            Just as with his depression, Brainerd’s poor health did not destroy his faith, but rather magnified the power of God in his life. Piper writes of Brainerd’s last days, “In the last couple of months of his life the suffering was incredible” (Kindle Location 125). He then quotes Brainerd, “In the greatest distress that ever I endured having an uncommon kind of hiccough; which either strangled me or threw me into a straining to vomit” (Piper Kindle Locations 125-126). When a week was missed in his journal entries due to increasing progression of his tuberculosis, Brainerd writes, “Was scarcely able to do anything at all in the week past . . . Oh, that I might never live to be a burden to God’s creation” (336). Brainerd was continually concerned that he would be productive in his service to God and not be selfish. Dying in Edwards’ home, the man’s passion for the glory of God was manifested most clearly. Edwards writes:

He told me it was impossible for any to conceive of the distress he felt in his breast. He manifested much concern lest he should dishonor God by impatience under his extreme agony; which was such that he said the thought of enduring it one minute longer was almost insupportable. He desired that others would be much in lifting up their hearts continually to God for him that God would support him and give him patience. (Brainerd 376)

Brainerd died with a heart that longed for God to be glorified.

             Brainerd’s life has been an inspiration for many of God’s children towards a life dedicated to the glory of God regardless of hardships. Jonathan Edwards was so greatly moved by the life of David Brainerd that he published his diary. Writing on how God sometimes uses individuals to especially shine forth His glory, Edwards writes, “God has remarkably distinguished them with wonderful success of their instructions and labors. Such an instance we have in the excellent person whose life is published in [this diary]” (Brainerd 44). Piper quotes Edwards:

I would conclude my observations on the merciful circumstances of Mr. Brainerd’s death without acknowledging with thankfulness the gracious dispensation of Providence to me and my family in so ordering that he… should be cast hither to my house, in his last sickness, and should die here: So that we had opportunity for much acquaintance and conversation with him, and to show him kindness in such circumstances, and to see his dying behavior, to hear his dying speeches, to receive his dying counsels, and to have the benefit of his dying prayers.

Piper Kindle Locations 282-285

It is especially telling of how much Brainerd meant to Edwards when one considers how much it cost Edwards to host Brainerd. Piper writes, “[Edwards’ daughter] Jerusha had tended Brainerd as a nurse for the last 19 weeks of his life, and four months after he died she died of the same affliction. So Edwards really meant what he said” (Kindle Locations 287-288).

            John Wesley along with many missionaries were also greatly inspired by Brainerd. Wesley wrote, “Let every preacher read carefully over the ‘Life of Brainerd’” (Piper Kindle Locations 100-101). Piper writes that William Carey even regarded Brainerd’s diary as a “sacred text” (Kindle Location 104). One of Edward’s followers, a missionary, once wrote, “I need, greatly need something more than humane [human or natural] to support me. I read my Bible and Mr. Brainerd’s Life, the only books I brought with me, and from them have a little support” (Piper Kindle Locations 107-109). Many ministers have often been encouraged by reading of Brainerd’s struggles and seeing God’s sustaining grace at work through them. Barlow rightly says, “Brainerd’s centuries-spanning influence for revival is positive proof God can and will use any vessel, no matter how fragile and frail.”

            One preacher of whom it can be said that Brainerd’s life had some of the greatest influence is Leonard Ravenhill. This Methodist pastor and evangelist was deeply convicted by Brainerd’s prayer life. In Ravenhill’s biography, Tomlinson writes:

This book [Life of David Brainerd] was a life-changing influence for Ravenhill. It was a spiritual jolt to him. He saw Brainerd’s prayer life as nothing short of incredible. He knew no one who prayed like Brainerd had two hundred years earlier. When he read about the young missionary’s life, he broke down crying: “I’ve always been told these kinds of things were finished with the closing of the New Testament era. But if Brainerd could have a prayer life like that, then by God’s grace, so can I.

Tomlinson 24

Ravenhill was quite serious about this decision. He would go on to write Revival Praying and Meat for Men, the latter including the following statement by Ravenhill, “Even now, two hundred years after Brainerd, men are still stirred and challenged by his life.” He goes on in the spirit of Brainerd’s prayer life, “There is no field more unexplored in Christian experience and possibility than this limitless field of prayer. Prayer means care for souls. Prayer means pain. Prayer means privacy, for often the battle is waged alone” (Ravenhill). The fire of Brainerd’s prayers still lights up men and women of God today to burn for His glory.

            Two things cannot be overlooked when reading of Brainerd: his endless weaknesses and God’s endless grace. There are many who have never suffered as he did, but it can be said that many have never encountered God in the same ways he did. Brainerd never recovered from his illnesses, nor did his depression fully leave him and never return. He had to endure this suffering to the end, but he was not alone. He received grace just as the Apostle Paul did, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,’” and he often echoed Paul’s words, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (1 Cor. 12:9-10).

God was seen in the life of David Brainerd. This is why Edwards was thankful for Brainerd having died in his home, even though it cost him the life of his daughter. This is why Wesley desired that the young preachers would read of his life. This is why so many missionaries have gained strength to press on in their efforts to win the lost. This is why Leonard Ravenhill’s prayer life was radically changed after reading of Brainerd’s. All these saints saw God through the life of Brainerd, they saw His grace holding him up and all His great worth and preciousness being Brainerd’s magnificent obsession. God is worth living, suffering, and dying for. Brainerd knew this, and when God’s people see God in his life, they are also willing to live, suffer, and die for this great God who lived, suffered, and died for them. In this way, it is seen that God is the one who deserves all the glory for Brainerd’s life, and that is the message he longed for people to receive.

Works Cited

Anderson, Gerald H. “Brainerd, David (1718-1747) New England missionary to Indian tribes of the middle colonies.” BU.edu, http://www.bu.edu/missiology/missionary-biography/a-c/brainerd-david-1718-1747/.

Barlow, Fred. “David Brainerd: Missionary.” WholesomeWords.org, 1976, https://www.wholesomewords.org/missions/biobrain.html.

Brainerd, David. The Life and Diary of David Brainerd. Edited by Philip E. Howard Jr. and Jonathan Edwards, Baker Books, 1989.

English Standard Version. Crossway, 2016.

McKenna. “David Brainerd: Pioneering a Legacy in Missions.” BethanyGU.edu, 19 Mar. 2019, https://bethanygu.edu/blog/stories/david-brainerd/.

Pettit, Norman. “Prelude to Mission: Brainerd’s Expulsion from Yale.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 1, 1986, pp. 28–50. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/365538.

Piper, John. May I Never Loiter On My Heavenly Journey!. Desiring God Foundation, 2012.

Ravenhill, Leonard. “And He Prayed.” Ravenhill.org, http://www.ravenhill.org/meat4menb.htm.

Tomlinson, Mack. In Light of Eternity: The Life of Leonard Ravenhill. Free Grace Press, 2010.

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