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The Life Of Brainerd

The Life and Diary of David Brainerd: How a Fearful Young Man Became a Powerful Winner of Souls

Three Lessons from the Life and Diary of David Brainerd

Diaries are a unique literary genre. Some are very famous. No doubt you know Anne Frank’s Diary (1942–1944) where she recorded her life hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam. If you are an English major, you surely know of Samuel Pepys’ Secret Diary (1660–1669) where he wrote his private thoughts and criticisms in code to escape the political animus of sensitive King Charles II.

In this article, we will look at the personal LIFE AND DIARY OF DAVID BRAINERD (1718-1747), missionary to the American Indians of New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

Diaries are not easy to read, even if you are interested in the writer or the subject. They are repetitive. “And so to bed,” writes Pepys at the end of every day. Much is mundane and nonessential. That is why they need editors, like the one we have here.

Life and Diary of David Brainerd: Preface by Jonathan Edwards, 1749

The great Puritan minister and scholar knew David Brainerd well. In fact, the young man died in Edwards’ home while being nursed by his daughter who was engaged to marry him.

He tells us that Brainerd was of a “melancholy disposition” and suffered from what we would call “depression” or more modernly “bipolar disorder.” Nonetheless, he was pleasant company and lived a holy life that led others to see him as a man of God

But Brainerd did not write this diary for publication but purely to assist him in his prayer life and worship. The young man turned to his diary often for strength and refreshment as he “wrestled” with the Lord in prayer and looked to Him for comfort.

The comfort he sorely needed as he was overcome regularly with thoughts about his sinfulness, worthlessness, and despondency over life itself. All of this was compounded by a serious illness which killed him at age 29

Edwards was powerfully impressed by the young man’s holiness, complete commitment to God, and faith in the midst of tremendous trials and tribulations, including mortal illness. Brainerd used these as a framework for spiritual meditation, prayer, and wrestling with God, these being the heart of the diary.

Brainerd’s faithfulness in missionary work and his commitment to saving the souls of the American Indians powerfully impressed Edwards to publish Brainerd’s Life and Diary in 1749.

Another reason for Edwards’ interest was his desire to field missionaries to the American Indians, an experience he had undertaken earlier in his ministry. Through Edwards, this work became a Christian classic and has inspired missionaries ever since.

JOHN PIPER has written an evaluation of the Life and Diary of David Brainerd subtitled May I Never Loiter on My Heavenly Journey that examines his impact on missionaries, ministers and even institutions of higher education.

Life and Diary of David Brainerd: From His Birth to the Time When He Began to Study for The Ministry, 1718-1742

This melancholy disposition seems to have been a family trait that David inherited when he was born in HADDAM, CONNECTICUT, on April 20, 1718. His father died in 1727 and his mother in 1732. His mother’s death impacted young David deeply, and he immediately moved into the home of his older sister Jerusha.

A thoughtful young man, David avoided the company of other young men and preferred the company of older men to avoid the foolishness and frivolity of youth. He was deeply convicted of sin, and said of himself in 1738,

it pleased God, on one sabbath-day morning, as I was walking out for some secret duties, to give me on a sudden such a sense of my danger, and the wrath of God, that I stood amazed, and my former good frames, that I had pleased myself with, all presently vanished.
From the view I had of my sin and vileness, I was much distressed all that day, fearing the vengeance of God would soon overtake me.

His misery was relieved in July of 1739 when he saw the glory of God and gained great comfort regarding his salvation:

— for near half an hour, then, as I was walking in a dark thick grove, unspeakable glory seemed to open to the view and apprehension of my soul. ….
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.
My soul was so captivated and delighted with the excellency, loveliness, greatness, and other perfections of God, that I was even swallowed up in him; at least to that degree, that I had no thought (as I remember) at first about my own salvation, and scarce reflected there was such a creature as myself.

This powerful and glorious experience sustained him and encouraged him for the rest of his life. I think of the Apostle Paul’s being caught up in glory:

I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.
And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;)
How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities. – St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 12;2-5

Brainerd denies being caught up in heaven, but the thought of the scripture above was clearly in his mind. It may even have helped him do as the Apostle and glory “in mine infirmities.” These were certainly manifold.

Just two months after this conversion experience, David entered Yale to prepare himself for the ministry. Here he was exposed to some of the “enthusiasm” that Edwards and the leaders of the college disdained. George Whitefield (just 4 years older than Brainerd) was the main spreader of this “enthusiasm” and spoke at Yale and Harvard with tremendous effect.

David was at the top of his class, but when he remarked that a certain tutorhas no more grace than this chair, his comment was reported to the rector, and he was expelled.

This was a tremendous change in his life and career expectations. Now he could no longer plan a scholarly career in academia, which he had seriously considered. His expulsion meant he could not be ordained in New England where graduation from Yale or Harvard was a requirement, and it was a recurrent source of anxiety and inner conflict all of his life.

Life and Diary of David Brainerd: Study of Divinity Until Being Licensed to Preach – January to July 29, 1742

Edwards tells us the young man began to study for ordination in the home of a local minister as soon as he left the college, in January of 1742. While there he began to think about ministering to the Indians:

Thursday, April 8. Had raised hopes to-day respecting the heathen. O that God would bring in great numbers of them to Jesus Christ!
I cannot but hope I shall see that glorious day. -Every thing in this world seems exceeding vile and little to me:

He writes daily of his fasting and prayer and has days of deep conviction of sin and his unworthiness, counterbalanced by days of great spiritual blessing and consciousness of God’s presence. These ran along his two main concerns, getting reinstated at Yale and being licensed to preach. The first never came about to this day but a group of sympathetic ministers did license him to preach during the summer of 1742.

Thursday, July 29. I was examined by the Association met at Danbury, as to my learning, and also my experiences in religion, and received a license from them to preach the gospel of Christ.
Afterwards felt much devoted to God; joined in prayer with one of the ministers, my peculiar friend, in a convenient place; went to bed resolving to live devoted to God all my days.

Life and Diary of David Brainerd: Appointed Missionary to the Indians — November 25, 1742

Brainerd preached where he could but had to keep out of the New England area where he was not licensed.

Monday, Sept. 6. Was informed, that they only waited for an opportunity to apprehend me for preaching at New-Haven lately, that so they might imprison me.
This made me more solemn and serious, and to quit all hopes of the world’s friendship: it brought me to a further sense of my vileness, and just desert of this, and much more, from the hand of God, though not from the hand of man.
Retired into a convenient place in the woods and spread the matter before God.

During these days his pattern of “ups and downs” continued until he was called to be a missionary to the Indians and was approved for this work on November 25, 1742.

This approval alternately troubled and blessed him:

Lord’s day, Jan. 23. I scarce ever felt myself so unfit to exist, as now: saw I was not worthy of a place among the Indians, where I am going, if God permit: thought I should be ashamed to look them in the face, and much more to have any respect shown me there.
Indeed, I felt myself banished from the earth, as if all places were too good for such a wretch. I thought I should be ashamed to go among the very savages of Africa; I appeared to myself a creature fit for nothing, neither heaven nor earth. — None know, but those who feel it, what the soul endures that is sensibly shut out from the presence of God: alas! it is more bitter than death.

He continues in this vein:

Wednesday, Feb. 2. …On the road I felt an uncommon pressure of mind: I seemed to struggle hard for some pleasure in some here below and seemed lothe to give up all for gone; saw I was evidently throwing myself into all hardships and distresses in my present undertaking.
I thought it would be less difficult to lie down in the grave; but yet I chose to go, rather than stay.

Mercifully, Jesus refreshed him later in the month:

Friday, Feb. 18. Felt something sweetly most of the day and found access to the throne of grace. Blessed be the Lord for any intervals of heavenly delight and composure, while I am engaged in the field of battle.
O that I might be serious, solemn, and always vigilant, while in an evil world! Had some opportunity alone to-day and found some freedom in study. O, I long to live to God!

Life and Diary of David Brainerd: Mission Among Indians at Kaunaumeek April 1, 1743

Brainerd’s first assignment was in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts and the westernmost frontier at the time.

Friday, April 1, 1743. I rode to Kaunaumeek, near twenty miles from Stockbridge, where the Indians live with whom I am concerned, and there lodged on a little heap of straw.
I was greatly exercised with inward trials and distresses all day; and in the evening, my heart was sunk, and I seemed to have no God to go to. O that God would help me!

Kaunaumeek was just a few miles east of Nassau, New York.

Saturday, July 30. Just at night, moved into my own house, and lodged there that night; found it much better spending the time alone, than in the wigwam where I was before.
Lord’s day, July 31. Felt more comfortably than some days past. — Blessed be the Lord, who has now given me a place of retirement. — O that I might find God in it, and that he would dwell with me for ever!
Monday, Aug. 1. Was still busy in further labors on my house. — Felt a little of the sweetness of religion, and thought it was worth the while to follow after God through a thousand snares, deserts, and death itself.
O that I might always follow after holiness, that I may be fully conformed to God! Had some degree of sweetness, in secret prayer, though I had much sorrow.
Tuesday, Aug. 2. Was still laboring to make myself more comfortable, with regard to my house and lodging. Labored under spiritual anxiety; it seemed to me, I deserved to be kicked out of the world; yet found some comfort in committing my cause to God.
It is good for me to be afflicted, that I may die wholly to this world, and all that is in it.

Now in his own house, he began focusing on his mission:

Tuesday, Nov. 29. Began to study the Indian tongue with Mr. Sergeant at Stockbridge. — Was perplexed for want of more retirement. — I love to live alone in my own little cottage, where I can spend much time in prayer, &c.
“Wednesday, Nov. 30. Pursued my study of Indian: but was very weak and disordered in body, and was troubled in mind at the barrenness of the day, that I had done so little for God. I had some enlargement in prayer at night.
Oh, a barn, or stable, hedge, or any other place, is truly desirable, if God is there! Sometimes, of late, my hopes of Zion’s prosperity are more raised than they were in the summer.
My soul seems to confide in God, that he will yet `show forth his salvation’ to his people, and make Zion `the joy of the whole earth.
O how excellent is the lovingkindness of the Lord!’ My soul sometimes inwardly exults at the lively thoughts of what God has already done for his church, and what “mine eyes have seen of the salvation of God.”
It is sweet, to hear nothing but spiritual discourse from God’s children; and sinners `inquiring the way to Zion,’ saying, `What shall we do?’ &c. O that I may see more of this blessed work!

Life and Diary of David Brainerd: From his Beginning to Instruct the Indians at Kaunaumeek, to his Ordination

As he learned the Indian language from senior missionary John Sergeant in Stockbridge, he began teaching the Indians in Kaunaumeek, where he started a school and worked on a translation of the Psalms.

After one year, he was reassigned to minister to the Delaware Indians in Pennsylvania where he was well-received in the chief’s house on May 13. He then rode back to Newark, N.J., where he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister on June 12, 1744

Life and Diary of David Brainerd: Preaching Met with Remarkable Success –

Although this heading is from Edwards’ published edition of Life & Diary of David Brainerd, I have had to follow his instructions to locate the information he has withheld because it was previously published “ in the journal he kept by order of the society in Scotland.” An excellent summary of that information is available at “WHOLESOME WORDS/MISSIONARY BIOGRAPHIES”

After a year of heavy travel to the interior of Pennsylvania to minister to the Indians there, Brainerd preached often to willing listeners, both Indian and white, but had few conversions. One bright spot was this:

Lord’s day, July 21.(1745) Preached to the Indians first, then to a number of white people present, and in the afternoon to the Indians again. — Divine truth seemed to make very considerable impressions upon several of them, and caused the tears to flow freely. —
Afterwards I baptized my interpreter and his wife, who were the first I baptized among the Indians.

When he learned of a small group of Indian believers in CROSSWEEKSUNG , in New Jersey, he began to minister there, where he had greater success. By the end of 1745 he reported;

I have now baptized in all forty-seven persons of the Indians, twenty-three adults, and twenty-four children; thirty-five of them belonging to these parts, and the rest to the Forks of Delaware: and, through rich grace, none of them as yet have been left to disgrace their profession of Christianity by any scandalous or unbecoming behaviour. (Public Journal)

In the following year, this congregation moved to Cranberry, NJ where David ministered to over 300 believers before he grew too ill to carry on. He withdrew to Elizabethtown to rest and recuperate but never fully recovered.

June 19. (1746) …This day makes up a complete year from the first time of my preaching to these Indians in New Jersey. — What amazing things has God wrought in this space of time for these poor people!
What a surprising change appears in their tempers and behaviour! How are morose and savage pagans in this short space of time transformed into agreeable, affectionate, and humble Christians! and their drunken and pagan howlings turned into devout and fervent prayers and praises to God!
They “who were sometimes darkness, are now become light in the Lord. May they walk as children of the light, and of the day. And now to him that is of power to stablish them according to the gospel, and the preaching of Christ — To God only wise, be glory, through Jesus Christ, for ever and ever! Amen.” * * * * * *

Soon after this (November 1746) he grew too ill to continue his missionary work and retired to Elizabethtown to rest and recuperate in the home of Jonathan Dickinson, pastor of a church in Elizabethtown, president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), and one of the Correspondents of the Honourable Society in Scotland for propagating Christian Knowledge.

Life and Diary of David Brainerd: Last Journey

On March 20, 1747, David Brainerd made one last visit to his Indian friends and then rode to the house of Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts, arriving on May 28, 1747. There he was diagnosed with consumption (tuberculosis) and told he would never recover.

He made one trip to Boston during the summer and then returned to the Edwards’ house whose last days his mentor describes below:

Oct. 4, as my daughter Jerusha (who chiefly attended him) came into the room, he looked on her very pleasantly, and said, “Dear Jerusha, are you willing to part with me? — I am quite willing to part with you: I am willing to part with all my friends: I am willing to part with my dear brother John, although I love him the best of any creature living: I have committed him and all my friends to God, and can leave them with God.
Though, if I thought I should not see you and be happy with you in another world, I could not bear to part with you. But we shall spend a happy eternity together!

In the evening, as one came into the room with a Bible in her hand, he expressed himself thus; “Oh that dear book! that lovely book! I shall soon see it opened! the mysteries that are in it, and the mysteries of God’s providence, will be all unfolded!”

Life and Diary of David Brainerd: Brainerd’s Death

He made one trip to Boston during the summer and then returned to the Edwards’ house where was cared for until he died on October 9, 1747, at age 29. Edwards preached at the funeral which he describes below:

Much respect was shown to his memory at his funeral; which was on the Monday following, after a sermon preached the same day, on that solemn occasion.
His funeral was attended by eight of the neighboring ministers, and seventeen other gentlemen of liberal education, and a great concourse of people.

His tombstone reads:

Sacred to the memory of the Rev. David Brainerd. A faithful and laborious missionary to the Stockbridge, Delaware and Sasquehanna TRIBES OF INDIANS WHO died in this town. October 10, 1747

Life and Diary of David Brainerd: Impact and Meaning

Fewer than 400 American Indians were converted under David Brainerd’s ministry, making some question calling him a “powerful winner of souls.” It seems tragic to us that his life was so short and its fruit so small, but his life and testimony have motivated so many that today no one would dispute that title.

Jonathan Edwards’ edition of the Life and Diary of David Brainerd would soon become Edwards best selling book, introduced his testimony to European readers, and encouraged others to give their lives to Jesus for the mission field.

John Wesley helped out with a much-needed abridgment of Edwards’ 365 page book, and prominent Christians/missionaries like HENRY MARTYN, WILLIAM CAREY, ADONIRAM JUDSON, and JIM ELLIOT were inspired by Brainerd’s life and testimony.

Life and Diary of David Brainerd: 3 Takeaways

1. When we commit our lives to Jesus, He will be with us and use us in our weakness to glorify God.

2. We will not see all the fruits of our labors, but Jesus does.

3. As we walk with Jesus we will become like Him and enjoy the beauty of holiness.

1 I have decided to follow Jesus; I have decided to follow Jesus; I have decided to follow Jesus; no turning back, no turning back.
2 Though none go with me, I still will follow; though none go with me, I still will follow; though none go with me, I still will follow; no turning back, no turning back.
3 The world behind me, the cross before me; the world behind me, the cross before me, the world behind me, the cross before me; no turning back, no turning back. Say thanks 🙌 Give a shoutout to BALÁZS HORVÁTH on social or copy the text below to attribute. Photo by BALÁZS HORVÁTH on UNSPLASH

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