Jonathan Daughtrey and Christopher Walker

Religion 319- Biographical Sketch of David Brainerd


Professor Westblade



“Having put his hand to the plow, [Brainerd] looked not back, and gave himself, heart, soul, and mind, and strength, to his chosen mission with unfaltering purpose, with apostolic zeal, with a heroic faith that feared no danger and surmounted every obstacle, and with an earnestness of mind that wrought wonders on savage lives and whole communities."             -Jonathan Edwards


In one of the entries of his faithfully kept diary David Brainerd wrote, “When I really enjoy God, I feel my desires of him the more insatiable, and my thirstings after holiness the more unquenchable…Oh that I might never loiter on my heavenly journey!”[1] Indeed, Brainerd did all but loiter during his 29-year lifespan. Although he died young, his life and ministry had an impact on the entire world, leading and inspiring many people into evangelistic servitude. His missionary endeavors directed countless numbers of souls to accept Christ and through the circulation of his diary and journal, heavily promoted by Jonathan Edwards, Brainerd’s ministry reached thousands of others as well.

David Brainerd entered the world at the onset of the Great Awakening. The course of his life witnessed all of the spiritual revivals and upheavals within the New England colonies. Details regarding his childhood are limited, but some information is available.

Brainerd grew up along the shore of the Connecticut River, two miles from Haddam. Born into the household of Hezekiah and Dorothy Brainerd on April 20, 1718, he was the sixth of nine children, one of which Dorothy had from an earlier marriage. Early deaths being an unfortunate commonality in the history of the Brainerd family, David and four of his siblings would die before they reached their mid thirties. A prominent family at the time, Hezekiah Brainerd was the local squire as well as a Connecticut legislator. His great grandfather, Peter Hobart, was a minister in Hingham, England, and migrated to the colonies with his family amidst the times of the persecution of the Puritans.

Both of his parents were Puritans and consequently Brainerd’s early years were spent in an environment that promoted adherence to the strictest religious piety and utmost faithful abidance to the Word of God. Always thoughtful and contemplative beyond his years, David was prone to a melancholic disposition, another quality characteristic to many of his relatives throughout the family history, with a concern for the estate of his soul always present before him. His life as a child was composed of intense physical labor and continuous seeking of God through the study of the Bible and the offering up of prayers. When Brainerd was nine years old his father died. Five years later, at the age of fourteen, his mother did as well. These losses evoked in the already spiritually distraught child an even greater unrest.

For four years following the death of his mother, David lived with his sister, Jerusha, on the other side of the Connecticut River in the town of East Haddam. Brainerd recalled in his diary that although he took religion seriously he remained in an unconverted state during these years and that the spirit of God was in fact not abiding within him. At the age of nineteen, he returned to Haddam and remained there for one year. The exact reason that he returned is uncertain but it is known, however, from his diary entries, that throughout this year he grew to study the Bible even more earnestly than he previously did. He began to crave a formal education of his own and, devoting the vast majority of his time to study and learning, he soon abandoned much of the conventional, frivolous activities such as participating in sports, company keeping, playing games, and frolicking that his peers commonly engaged in. After a year at Haddam, he moved back across the river to live with his sister.

During this year in Haddam, David had committed himself to the Lord’s service even though he remained unconverted. He had had many wrestlings with the Lord but continued on in an unconverted state until July of 1739. It was then, at the age of 21, that Brainerd found “peace and rest…within his soul.” He says that a “New inward apprehension or view that he had of God” came to him. It was “Such as he never had before, nor anything that he had the least remembrance of.” Brainerd’s “Soul was so captivated and delighted with the excellency, the loveliness and the greatness and other perfections of God that he was even swallowed up in Him.” So great was this salvation experience that Brainerd “wondered that all the world did not comply with this way of salvation entirely by the ‘righteousness’ of Christ.’ ”[2]

With a newfound, burning desire to serve God, Brainerd felt an even stronger inclination towards the ministry than he had had prior to his conversion. In order to facilitate this desire, he entered Yale in 1939 at the age of 21. Over the course of his first year and a half at Yale, Brainerd was sent home on several occasions for varied lengths of time due to physical ailments. Among his physical ailments were a case of the measles and the first traces of the tuberculosis that would eventually take his life years later. He attended Yale for a total of three years. In February of 1742 Brainerd was expelled on the charges of making an illicit accusation regarding the spiritual condition of one of his tutors. This went against some of the recently established regulations of the college. Even after pleading his case multiple times and having men of the status of Jonathan Edwards and Jonathan Dickinson intercede on his behalf, Brainerd was not readmitted.

Being filled with unyielding determination to undertake the role of fulltime Evangelistic ministry, Brainerd was persistent and received his license to preach from the Danbury Association of Congregational ministers on July 20, 1742. Four months later, his sponsors, the Scotland Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, introduced to him by Jonathan Dickinson, requested to meet with him in order to discuss the possibilities of entering into full time missionary labor with the Indians of New England. Preparations and provisions were made and Brainerd, shortly thereafter, began his work with the Housatonic Indians at Kaunameek, a village near Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

He served here for one year before being relocated to the Forks of the Delaware. After spending a year here, he was then assigned to the Indians at Crossweeksung in New Jersey where his ministry witnessed the conversion of many Indians. He founded a church there and ministered to them until his death on October 9, 1747. Brainerd died from Tuberculosis, an illness that had plagued him throughout the course of his life, in the house of Jonathan Edwards.


Brainerd’s theology and role in 18th century New England


      Brainerd’s role in 18th century New England Puritanism starts with his conversion and subsequent place in the Great Awakening. His conversion closely follows the pattern set forth by Jonathan Edwards. Despite an upbringing in a Christian home, Brainerd struggled to accept Christianity, particularly Puritan doctrines of God’s sovereignty and predestination. However, in a moment of divine grace during which Brainerd had a “new inward apprehension or view…of God, such as I never had before, nor any thing which had the least resemblance of it,”[3] he embarked on a new life as a believer, placing himself under God’s undeserved grace and unspeakable glory. As a result of his conversion, Brainerd decided to enroll at Yale.

Upon entrance into Yale, Brainerd immediately allied himself with the enthusiasts, and became one of the recognized leaders of this group on campus. In joining these revivalists, it is uncertain whether Brainerd was merely supporting the emotional experiences of the revivals as something that could be sustained in true salvation, as did Edwards, or whether Brainerd was actually allying himself with a form of antinomianism. Antinomianism took this view a step further and argued that the grace of God, manifested in these emotional religious experiences, was all-sufficient, and that obedience to laws (and especially church regulations) were covered by God’s grace. Authors today differ on this view, some holding that Brainerd was firmly in Edwards’ camp, others arguing that Brainerd shortly after repented of his enthusiast views, and turned to a position more closely aligned with Edwards. Regardless, we know that David Brainerd was one of the leaders of those students who disobeyed the demands of the Old Lights who controlled Yale, and was expelled for his actions and statements in favor of the revivalists.

            In the time leading up to his expulsion from Yale, and in the years immediately following, Brainerd was greatly influenced in his doctrine by the writings of Jonathan Edwards. Norman Petit argues that Brainerd not only read Edward’s essay Concerning Religious Affections, but also many of his earlier writings. In his missionary work, it is apparent that Brainerd had carefully studied and applied what Edwards had to say in The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. The result was that Brainerd’s theology was strikingly similar to that of Edwards.

            Brainerd adopted Edwards’ Calvinist views of salvation and his views on delighting in the character of God. Brainerd mentioned in his diary, the doctrines of God’s sovereignty that were once repugnant to him became a source of joy after his conversion. Brainerd also had a view of God very similar to Edwards. Edwards argued that God Himself is the chief end of creation, and that our joy is only fulfilled to the extent that we glorify Him. Brainerd adopts a very similar position, arguing that the joy of knowing Christ is not merely found in the benefits of salvation, but in knowing and magnifying the inherent gloriousness of the Triune God. Brainerd went on to write in his diary about the importance of distinguishing between two kinds of self-love. Improper self-love consists of pride and focuses on self, while proper self-love which recognizes that we exist for the glory of God. For this reason, true and proper self-love focuses on the inherent glory of God as the central purpose of our lives. However, the significance of Brainerd’s doctrine is not its parallels with Jonathan Edwards’, but rather its impact on his missionary work.

            Brainerd’s conception of the main purpose of missions was rooted in his Puritan doctrine. For Puritans in the 18th century, all of history - past, present, and future - were predetermined by the sovereign will of God. This included the apocalypse and the events leading up to the second coming of Christ. Puritan doctrine stood on a postmillennial viewpoint, which, among other things, states that the spiritual kingdom of Christ will expand throughout the whole world and will be prevalent among all peoples and all nations before the second coming of Christ. One of the chief reasons the Puritans, and Brainerd, took the gospel to the Indians was the necessity of spreading the gospel to all peoples and nations before the coming of Christ. In addition to his view of the overall purpose of missions, many of the specific difficulties which Brainerd faced in the missionary field stemmed from his Puritan doctrine.

            There were immense obstacles Brainerd had to face as a missionary to the Indians, not the least of which included the Indian culture, the stress and difficulty of living in the wilderness, and the prior success of French Catholic missionaries. In addition, Brainerd’s method of conducting his missionary work, rooted in his Puritan doctrine, presented another difficulty. Brainerd was not just looking for Indians who would come and respond to a single sermon, but he was looking for sure evidence of conversion. Just as Edwards examined the lives and actions of each of his parishioners for signs of true conversion, Brainerd was very cautious to make sure that Indians were truly converted before baptizing them. To a large extent, Brainerd was doing among the Indians exactly what Edwards was doing in Northampton, looking to build a community of truly converted believers who would covenant with God and with each other. Joseph Conforti writes that, “Following Edwardsian church admission policies, Brainerd sought convincing evidence of authentic conversion as well as some reassurance of Indian understanding of doctrines implied in his sermons.”[4]

To this point, we have explored Brainerd’s doctrine and seen many points at which Brainerd was influenced by Jonathan Edwards. However, David Brainerd was also a contributor to the work of Edwards. For Edwards, defeating the heresy of the Arminians and establishing guidelines for determining the authenticity of a conversion were perhaps the two most important goals of his writing. Edwards was a first-hand witness of the life of Brainerd, and Edwards had in hand Brainerd’s diary, both of which contributed valuable material for Edward’s arguments. Perry Miller writes that Brainerd was for Edwards “a rebuke to enthusiasts and to Arminians,”[5] for the enthusiasts could not explain Brainerd’s perseverance, and the Arminians could not explain the moral alteration that occurred in Brainerd’s. More than anything, however, the diary of David Brainerd helped Jonathan Edwards. Beginning with the first revival which Edwards witnessed in 1734 and continuing through the Great Awakening in the 1740’s, Edwards was interested in the question of how to tell if a conversion was genuine or not. To this end he wrote A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, followed by The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God and Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival of Religion in New England. While Edwards had some concrete material to work with, the life and diary of David Brainerd offered two things in this study: an extensive example of a true work of the spirit in the conversion of Brainerd and a number of case studies in Brainerd’s reports of conversions. Edwards immediately set about editing Brainerd’s diary, and in 1749 published the first edition of the work.

The resulting impact of The Life of David Brainerd goes much further than merely to advance Edwards’ study of true conversions. The picture of piety, perseverance, and faithfulness that is represented in the journal has been an inspiration to countless missionaries around the world. John Wesley used The Life of David Brainerd in his work in England, publishing his own edited version of it and stating, “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.”[6] William Carey, Henry Martyn, and Jim Elliot are just a few who have given credit to the impact and inspiration of David Brainerd and his diary as edited by Jonathan Edwards.

In the end, David Brainerd does present us with a key figure in the life and work of Jonathan Edwards. Brainerd also gives us a picture of Puritan doctrine in 18th century New England, including its influence on missions. Undoubtedly Brainerd’s Puritan doctrine would have led him to see the most important aspect of his ministry in light of God’s redemptive history. His impact on those who came after him, and his role in Christian missions over the last two hundred fifty plus years, defines the impact of David Brainerd.

[1] From David Brainerd’s Diary, quoted in The hidden smile of God : the fruit of affliction in the lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd, by John Piper.

[2] From David Brainerd’s Diary, quoted in The hidden smile of God : the fruit of affliction in the lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd, by John Piper.

[3] From the Diary of David Brainerd

[4] Jonathan Edwards, Religious Tradition, and American Culture, Joseph Conforti, p. 67.

[5] As quoted in the introduction to The Life of David Brainerd, Norman Pettit, p. 5.

[6] As quoted in David Brainerd: Pioneer Missionary to the American Indians by John Thornbury, p. 300.