The life and impact of David Brainerd is an amazing example of the Lord using a broken, suffering, and weak saint to bring about His glory. Brainerd himself would never know his own impact until he reached heaven due to his relatively short life of twenty-nine years. Further, his life was plagued with depression, sickness, ministry frustrations, rejection, and ultimately contracting tuberculosis. He was converted at the age of twenty-one and was a missionary for only four years. Humanly speaking, and undoubtedly many who would read of his life, would view it as a waste of time and reject him as a failure. But the reality is that anyone who would reject a man who was faithful to the Lord for the time he was given has a tremendously narrow view of God, the Bible, and Christian missions. David Brainerd was faithful to God and persevered through his calling as a faithful servant, and to be called a faithful servant is a success for any Christian.
Brainerd’s Early Life and Formative Years Leading to Salvation
David Brainerd was born on April 20, 1718, in Haddam, Connecticut. He was the sixth child of nine total to Hezekiah and Dorothy Brainerd. Hezekiah was a Connecticut legislator, a staunch Puritan with strong views of authority, strictness, and earnest devotion to the Lord. There were twelve Brainerds in the house, including one child from Hezekiah’s previous marriage, but the family would experience significant amounts of loss, depression, and hardship, which undoubtedly affected Brainerd and led to much of his depression in life. Thomas Brainerd, in his biography on John Brainerd, David’s brother, wrote, “In the whole Brainerd family for two hundred years there has been a tendency to a morbid depression, akin to hypochondria.” John Brainerd would take over as the missionary to the Indians that David was ministering to in 1747 right before David’s death.
David would experience the loss of his father at the age of nine and his mother at fourteen. In addition, he would lose his brothers Nehemiah and Israel and his sister Jerusha at thirty-two, twenty-three, and thirty-four, respectively. Brainerd comments, “I was, I think, from my youth something sober and inclined rather to melancholy than the other extreme.” John Piper comments, “So on top of having an austere father and suffering the loss of both parents as a sensitive child, David probably inherited some kind of physical tendency to depression. Whatever the cause, he suffered from the blackest dejection off and on throughout his short life.” However, despite taking great interest in spiritual things, having a Puritan father, and pursuing pastoral ministry, Brainerd declares that he had not received the grace of God until twenty-one. In his diary, Brainerd describes his life before his salvation,
Throughout his diary, Brainerd refers to being “without God in the world” despite being full of religion, religious concerns, secret prayers, fasting, and other religious duties. At nineteen years old, he lived with Jerusha, his married sister, on a farm for about a year but still desired a liberal education realizing that farming was not for him. His desire was to pursue ministry, and he began to carefully prepare his thoughts and heart for such a pursuit. Brainerd remarks:
Shortly after, he returned home to Haddam and studied with the pastor of the church in Haddam, Mr. Fiske. Brainerd writes, “I remember he [Fiske] advised me wholly to abandon young company and associate myself with grave elderly people: which counsel I followed.” Half an hour before sunset at the age of twenty-one, salvation would be granted to David Brainerd; his eyes would be opened to the realities of God’s sovereign grace.
The Grace of God Revealed: Brainerd’s Salvation
After a lifetime of exposure to the Gospel, the laws of God, and the Word of God, the Lord would miraculously reveal Himself to this man. Despite his religious efforts, his focus on the form and rote of Christian worship, and his constant study, prayer, fasting, and other rituals, Brainerd was still not converted. Brainerd’s heart and soul were opened to the glories of God for the first time: his objections to original sin, God’s sovereignty, and his host of other issues were put to rest over the revelation of God’s glory. Brainerd’s own words should be carefully read in light of his salvation:
After twenty years of religious unbelief, Brainerd’s worship would be empowered by the Lord and his ministry would be focused on the glories of God in reality. He was no longer a slave to religiosity, but a slave to Christ and he would seek to glorify God in all that he did. Jonathan Edwards wrote at the top of the manuscript of Brainerd’s diary for this day, “Lord’s Day, July 12th, 1739 forever to be remembered by D. B.” Piper writes, “He had entered into an experience of God’s grace that would ruin his educational career but rescue him again and again from despair.“
Brainerd’s Christian Life: From Pastoral Work to Mission Work
Brainerd had full intentions of going into pastoral ministry and began his studies at Yale, but the experience he had at school was awful. He would experience hazing by the other students, become frustrated by the lack of spiritual pursuit of the students and faculty, the studies were difficult, and he would have to leave school multiple times to deal with sicknesses. Tucker writes, “When he first entered the school, he was distressed by the religious indifference.” The mentality of the students would soon change. The Great Awakening of the 1730s and 40s was approaching rapidly and Brainerd would live through both waves of this Awakening. Through the fiery preaching of George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennent, Ebenezer Pemberton, and James Davenport, the students of Yale, much to the chagrin of the faculty and Trustees, brought great passion and zeal for religious studies to the student body. Students were becoming serious in their faith, while the leaders of the school remained passive. Tensions between the staff and the students were coming to a head between the zealous students and apathetic faculty, with faculty being accused of being unconverted. Brainerd would see himself expelled from Yale for a comment he made about a tutor named Chauncey Whittelsey. Brainerd declared that Whittelsey, “has no more grace than a chair” and wondered why the Rector “did not drop down dead.” Yale expelled Brainerd who was the top student in his class. Despite countless pleas and requests to reinstate him for the remainder of his life from a variety of people, Yale refused. Due to comment, Brainerd would experience great distress because of his actions. The expulsion deeply hurt him, and he constantly tried to make things right.
The dreams of pastoral ministry had been pulled out from under him. His ability for education for the pastorate vanished over a careless word; Connecticut passed a law stating that clergy could only be from Harvard, Yale, or a European university. But his heart was being pulled to ministry opportunities with the Indians. He remembered this due to a message from Ebenezer Pemberton. Brainerd would meet with Pemberton, and through this discussion, Brainerd would be appointed as a missionary to the Indians through the Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge
Ministry to the Indians and Final Days
For four years, until his death in 1747, Brainerd would toil miserably for the salvation of the Housatonic Indians, Indians along the Delaware River, Crossweeksung New Jersey, and finally, Cranberry where the newly converted Christians moved from Crossweeksung. His toil and work was truly done in misery from his own words:
Consistently throughout his diary entries in regard to the work with the Indians are filled with toil, hardship, misery, frustration, and the anguish of his depression, but also the grace of God shone brightly to him even in these circumstances. He writes, “My circumstances are such that I have no comfort, of any kind, but what I have in God.” The Indians had no desire to hear the white man’s Gospel, go to the white man’s heaven, and viewed Christianity as a subjugation for the white man to take their lands. They preferred their own life and traditions, which played a part in Brainerd’s frustrations. The evils of the European countries that dominated and subjugated the Indians were suppressing the spread of the Gospel and the readiness to hear. However, the Lord would work through Brainerd, and in the summer of 1745, he went down to Crossweeksung to preach to Indians who were receptive to the Christian message. Brainerd writes,
He would eventually start a church in Cranberry with these same Indians. One hundred thirty of them would move with him in 1746 as the Lord brought the Great Awakening to these souls. Brainerd would stay with this church as their pastor until November of 1746 when he became too sick to continue. In November, he spent four months recuperating with Jonathan Dickinson in Elizabethtown, make one last visit with the Indian church in March, ride to Jonathan Edward’s house on May 28, 1747, and die of tuberculosis on October 9, 1747, at twenty-nine years old. Edward’s daughter, Jerusha, tried to help nurse Brainerd back to health for nineteen weeks. Brainerd had hoped to marry Jerusha, but this was not to be. She would also die of tuberculosis on February 14,1747, which she likely contracted from Brainerd.
David Brainerd’s Lasting Impact
Parts of Brainerd’s diary was destroyed or lost. He had no desire to share it with others until near his death bed and entrusted it with Edwards. It could safely be said that not for Edwards, Christians would have little to no understanding of who David Brainerd was and the work he accomplished. His last entry in his personal diary was June 19, 1747, and refers to how grateful he was to see the amazing things God had brought on the Indians he had planted a church with.
What is there then for the Christian to learn from the life of David Brainerd? He lived twenty-nine years, was only a believer for the last eight years and missionary for four of those eight years. Despite his best efforts and essentially working himself to death, he brought about meager fruit. His love for the Indians was something he struggled with; his own perceptions of them were, at times, influenced by the European mentality of the day. In the minds of many, the Indians were unimportant and not worth the task of evangelism. Were his time and life wasted? Absolutely not!
Any life of a Christian ought to be looked at through the lens of Biblical doctrine and the words, acts, and deeds measured against Scripture. Jeremiah saw no converts; Isaiah was specifically told that his message would be used for condemnation. The diary of this man shows Christians that you can have physical suffering layered upon you but that in that weakness, God provides the grace daily to finish strong. The empowerment evident in Brainerd shows his devotion to the Lord, and the diary reveals that Brainerd was a man just as everyone else and possessed the same Holy Spirit that every Christian indwelled by.
Brainerd was a man following Christ just as every Christian is. Therefore every Christian can learn from him. Brainerd not only had an impact on future Christians but the people he actively ministered to for nearly five years cannot be scoffed at. Brainerd had a tremendous impact on future pastors, theologians, and missionaries, but there were at least 150 souls that the Lord saved through the faithfulness of David Brainerd, and they are actively rejoicing and worshiping God as a result of one man’s faithfulness.
Whenever God’s Word goes forth, it will always accomplish what God sends it forth to do. Whether that purpose is salvation or condemnation, it will never fail. Brainerd was a willing servant as Isaiah was and went forth in faith and confidence in the grace, mercy, and strength of God. There is much that Christians can gather from the life and ministry of David Brainerd.
Special Thanks to the Following Sources:
Brainerd, David, and Jonathan Edwards. The Life and Diary of David Brainerd. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2014.
Brainerd, David and Johnathan Edwards. The Life and Diary of David Brainerd. Peabody, Massachusetts, June 28, 2020.
Glover, Robert. The Progress of World-Wide Missions. New York: Harper and Row, 1952.
Kilby, Clyde S. David Brainerd: Knights of the Grail. Philadelphia, 1966.
Pettit, Norman. Editor’s Introduction to Edwards, The Life of David Brainerd. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.
Piper, John. 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed, and Fruitful. Illinois: Zondervan, 2018.
Thornbury, John. David Brainerd: Pioneer Missionary to the American Indians. Durham: Evangelical Press, 1996.
Tucker, Ruth. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions. Grand Rapids, 2004.