Papers from Hillsdale College
REL 319 -- Eighteenth Century Theology:
Jonathan Edwards and American Puritanism

The Life of David Brainerd:
The Search for the New Light

by Peter Dassow

David Brainerd is best known for his missionary work to the American Indians in the area of what is now Delaware and Pennsylvania. His life has been described by Jonathan Edwards in The Life of David Brainerd. He is described as a melancholy man, concerned with sin, filled with a perpetual fear and humility before God. He is studied as a figure of the Great Awakening, a leader of a new theology of the revivalists, and a man devoted to evangelism. His life serves as an example of Christian living to those who knew him, and also to those who read about him in Edwards's biography.

Brainerd becomes distraught over the issue of his salvation at an early age. He writes: "I became something concerned for my soul, and terrified at the thoughts of death, and were driven to the performances of duties: but is appeared a melancholy business, and destroyed my eagerness for play" (Weddle 302). He fears God won't approve of his "works," and is "convinced that they could not be sufficient" (302). He realizes that works are for naught, and so trust "in his own good deeds to recommend him to God" (Thornbury 53). Still, he cannot find that inner peace. He must completely rely upon God's grace to sustain him until he can be taken to heaven. He views the "world of nature as an obstacle to be overcome in the service of God" (Weddle 308). Life then is a constant struggle of being assured of salvation by either inner conviction, or works. New Light ministers, like Brainerd, believed that "moral assurance was a condition of saving faith. Edwards took the moderate position that one `distinguishing mark' of authentic conversion was `demonstrated holiness,' or in the language of the time, that sanctification is the best evidence of justification" (316). (This position is referred to as legalism, a belief that stems from the Arminian - antinomian controversy.)

Edward's describes Brainerd as living on an emotional pendulum, but for the most part melancholy. For Brainerd this was a grace: "the gift of a downcast spirit, for whom humility and labor are the only grounds of hope" (304). Almost always depressed and isolated, Brainerd welcomes death. To him, life is a process of dying (physically, and being born spiritually). He writes: "Oh, death, death, my kind friend, hasten and deliver me from dull mortality, and make me spiritual and vigorous to eternity" (306). " Brainerd displayed typically Edwardsian self-denial and self-abasement,... Brainerd's life after conversion was a process of `progressive sanctification' and deepening `evangelical humiliation'" (Conforti 195).

From the Great Awakening emerge two distinct groups: the revivalists, and the established church. When the ideas of the Great Awakening itinerants, i.e., Whitefield, Tennent, and Pemberton, reach Yale, it produces disagreement within the university; therefore, a clash of ideals between the evangelicals and the faculty at Yale and in the churches would be inevitable. Brainerd, from the beginning, sided with the revivalists, and brings about the conversion of Samuel Hopkins before leading him into trouble with the faculty at Yale. Brainerd attends Yale two years before his expulsion in 1742, which is indicative of a larger problem of the "growing gap between `New Light,' or the revivalist, preachers and the standing order as represented by the officials at Yale" (74). He criticized the leaders of Yale as being spiritually dead, and so he looked for other means by which to give service to God.

It is his work as a missionary from 1743 to 1747 that gains him the esteem that he holds today. "In the less than six years that he would have left to live after his expulsion from Yale, Brainerd found socially accepted outlets for his religious fervor" (Conforti 188). He studied for the ministry and became a licensed preacher, which allowed him to trek into the wilderness from 1743 to 1747, serving as a Presbyterian missionary to Mahica Indians in Kaunameek, New York and to Delaware Indians in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He describes his excursions in a journal account published by the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge that sponsored his missionary efforts. As Brainerd's reputation grew he became a close friend with Jonathan Edward's before dying in Edward's Northampton parsonage in 1747 from tuberculosis. Throughout his mission trips, he had been plagued by illness. He is so obscure because of his short career: "Since historians have limited the significance of his brief life to his relation to the Awakening, Brainerd now languishes in historical obscurity, especially in comparison the heroic figure he became for nineteenth-century evangelicals" (189). His legacy lives on in his private writings of his diary, which Brainerd allowed Edwards to publish posthumously. "In fact, Brainerd's diary reads like a record of his efforts to discern in his interior life the presence of the distinguishing marks of conversion which Edwards analyzed in the Religious Affections" (194). In 1749, Edward's published An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd, and so we read his work today.

The Life of David Brainerd had an important impact upon Edwards, and others to follow. The book had a profound impact in England, and especially America. "Edwards attempted to use the account of Brainerd's self-abasing exercising and missionary activities as a corrective to the antinomianism - the spiritual pride and moral complacency - that the Awakening fostered.... As a result, the Life popularized and transmitted to nineteenth-century evangelicals major aspects of Edward's thought; more precisely, it played an important role in the evolution of Edward's ethics into the ethics of nineteenth-century evangelicalism" (190). It is a fact that Edwards deleted, and altered, and reworded text to suit his own purposes of disputing arminian theology. Even Brainerd himself "spent the rest of his adult life trying to recover from having made what he considered to be his one grave mistake - that of falling in with the enthusiasts while at Yale" (Pettit 48). To clarify this seeming paradox, an explanation of Brainerd's view of the revivals is necessary. While he, like Edwards, thought the revivalists had gone a bit overboard, both he and Edwards "rose to insist that the current excesses - even such excesses as visions, reats, and the condemning of others as unconverted - were `no argument that the work in general is not the work of the Spirit of God'" (35). This account of Brainerd's life was printed not only in America, but also in Europe, falling into the hands of John Wesley and John Styles. Wesley wrote: "Let every preacher read carefully over The Life of David Brainerd. Let us be followers of him, as he was of Christ, in absolute self-devotion, in total deadness to the world, and in fervent love to God and man" (Conforti 191). Brainerd, in effect, set an example by which others sought to follow. He influence extended beyond the Atlantic to England, where his writings were read by not only John Wesley, but also inspired prominent, late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Baptists such as William Carey, Andrew Fuller, John Ryland, and Henry Martyn. Carey described it as "almost a second bible," and "Martyn claimed that he was drawn into missionary work through reading the Life" (193). However, The Life of David Brainerd had its most significant impact upon American missionaries. The book was especially popular at Andover Seminary in Massachusetts, where students were exposed to Brainerd's work.

Though heavily editied by Edwards and written to combat the Arminian theology, The Life of David Brainerd is a significant piece of literature; "it is a critical work for any assessment of the Edwardsian contribution to nineteenth-century American evangelical culture" (199). Alan Heimert, Harvard colleague of Perry Miller, writes that "it is possibly more illustrative of the eighteenth-century, American temper than the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin" (190). Jonathan Edward's most popular book illustrates "a doctrine that upheld the importance of personal self-denial and of public Christian activism," (199) which is the importance of the exemplary life of David Brainerd. David was a pioneer of missionary work to the American Indians, as well as a role model of Christianity.

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Last updated: 8 March 1998