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

As a Flame of Fire

by Benjamin A. Fisher

"I longed to be as a 'flame of fire'...continually glowing in the divine service..." (Edwards 402). These words proved to be the life-blood of David Brainerd, one of America's first missionaries to its native population. Brainerd's short lived life, hallmarked by physical torment and spiritual intensity, is honored to this day by Christians and non-Christians alike as one of the most influential men in 18th century America.

Born in 1718 to a devout Puritan family, Brainerd was immersed with the Calvinistic, convent tradition. As a young child, he began to grasp the significance of the scriptures for himself. This personal discovery failed to strengthen his faith. Instead, he felt abandoned with the damning realization of guilt and shame. Although he yearned for the redemption of Christ, he found himself trapped by feelings of unworthiness and rejection. At fourteen, Brainerd rejected the traditional converting mechanisms of "religious conversation and church attendance" as self-righteous legalism (Thornbury 52).

It was during this spiritual struggle in Brainerd young life in which he began his life-long battle with an illness which would eventually be diagnosed as tuberculosis. Spiritual insecurity coupled with bouts of depression and physical illness only served to heighten the importance of his conversion. This question would torment him until the age of twenty-one, when, on one contemplative day, he was boldly confronted by an overwhelming understanding of the greatness of God. He recounts the vivid experience:

By the time the sun was scarce half an hour high, as I remember, as I was walking in a dark, thick grove, 'unspeakable glory' seemed to open to the view and apprehension of my soul. By the glory I saw I don't mean any external brightness, for I saw no such thing, nor do I intend any imagination of a body of light or splendor somewhere away in the third heaven, 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 that I had the least remembrance of it. I stood still and wondered and admired (Edwards 138).

Brainerd finally experienced the conversion that had eluded him for so long. With new-found assurance, He resolutely proclaimed the his salvation provided "entirely by the righteousness of Christ" (Thornbury 56).

In the same year as his conversion, Brainerd was accepted at Yale for the study of the ministry. During his two years at New Haven, Brainerd was plagued by measles, tuberculosis, extreme exhaustion, and melancholia. Despite these debilitating health conditions, Brainerd thrived on campus. He played an integral role in the religious revival which swept through Yale as a result of Great Awakening. On one occasion, Brainerd walked the halls of all the dorms, asking the residents of each room if they had truly been converted. Brainerd also achieved tremendous academic success, excelling in all his subjects.

Brainerd's spiritual fervency did result in some unintended, yet unfortunate consequences. During the campus revival, several faculty members condemned the revival on the basis of, among other things, the emotional characteristics which accompanied the religious enthusiasm. Tensions intensified between faculty and students. In the winter of 1742, Brainerd was accused of declaring that one of his teachers had no more grace than a chair. Brainerd refused to admit his guilt in the matter and Yale subsequently dismissed the fiery rebel (Thornbury 63).

Brainerd continued his study for the ministry by mentoring with Pastor Jedidiah Mills. His mentorship proved beneficial as he was soon licensed to preach and offered several prestigious pastorates. Although honored and humbled by these noble callings, Brainerd's heart longed for a more remote mission field. He recounted being overwhelmed by an urgent sense of need for "gospellizing the heathen" in spite of his own "great ignorance and unfitness to public service" (Pointer 407). He wasted no time in his mission as he began to minister among the Kaunameek Indians of Albany, New York. He strove diligently to master the language and culture of the native Americans. He traveled hundreds of miles by horse and foot to find and minister to them. These first efforts among the Indians discouraged Brainerd, however, as there were very few converts.

After being ordained by the Presbytery of New York, Brainerd began to evangelize among the Delaware Indians of Pennsylvania. Again, Brainerd experienced little success in his work. He toiled long, hard days and nights as he walked and rode the mountainous terrain to work among the Indians. As in childhood and college, he battled sickness and disease. He also fought his melancholic tendencies while traveling alone in the forests and mountains. Brainerd would often remain despondent for days because of his perceived inadequate state before God and his ineffective ministry. He documents this depression in his own journal.

Monday, January 2, 1743: Had some affecting sense of my own impotency and spiritual weakness. `Tis nothing but the power of God that keeps me from all manner of wickedness. I see I am nothing and can do nothing without the help from above...(Edwards 232)

Examples of brokeness before God and feelings of failure such as these given are rampant throughout Brainerd's journal. God's holiness and his fallen nature was constantly before him. This consistent acknowledgment not only translated in depressing journal entries, but it also rendered incredible passages of praise, joy, and satisfaction.

In 1745, Brainerd began to minister among the Indians near Trenton, New Jersey. These Indians responded immediately and positively to the Christian gospel. Conversions became very common and Brainerd gave himself almost exclusively to teaching and catechizing the newly converted (Pointer 416). Even as his sickness increased, Brainerd poured out his life in ministry to these Indians as he had never done before. He cried out in his journal: "But oh, with what reluctancy did I find myself obliged to consume time to sleep! I longed to be as a `flame of fire'...continually glowing in the divine service, preaching and building up Christ's kingdom to my latest, my dying moment" (Edwards 402).

By the fall of 1746, Brainerd's bout with tuberculosis worsened to the point that he had to leave the forests, the mountains, and the Indians he loved. The famous theologian-pastor, Jonathan Edwards, cared for Brainerd in his Northampton home. The Edwards family cared for Brainerd as he spent his last few months in tremendous pain and agony. He finally conceded to the disease on October 9, 1747.

After Brainerd's death, Jonathan Edwards edited and published his journal, describing it as an example of a devotional life that was worthy of imitation. This journal dramatically impacted some of the most notable missionaries in the history of the Church, including William Carey, Henry Martyn, and Jim Eliot (Thornbury, 298-9).

Brainerd would never had danced in this limelight. While he was alive, he was very quick to pass the glory on to God for any success he had. He even directed attention to the very Indians he converted as lives that should be emulated. He displayed several of "his Indian converts as models of sinners saved by grace and living by faith" (Pointer 424). He took no credit of his own, but instead cast all of the glory onto his Passion: Christ. On his pain-ridden deathbed, Brainerd wrote: "I felt the sweetness of divine things, this forenoon; and had the consolation of a consciousness that I was doing something for God" (Edwards 469).

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Last updated: 12 April 1998