February 13th, 2006
On The Life of David Brainerd
Sometimes the things that seem hopeless in our lives God can use to display his own glory and make a mark in history for people to remember for years to come. The life of David Brainerd is one of many lives that exemplifies the power of God at work in a life marked with pain and suffering.
David Brainerd was born to Dorothy and Hezekiah Brainerd on April 20, 1718, in Haddam, Connecticut. At the time of his birth, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, and George Whitefield were all in their early teenage years. He was the sixth child born to the Brainerd family and the third son. Altogether, there were twelve children. None of the Brainerd family lived very long lives. His father died at the age of 46 when Brainerd was only 8 and his mother died when he was just 14. Along with the early deaths of his parents, his brother Nehemiah died at the age of 32, his brother Israel died at 23, his sister Jerusha died at 34, and he died at 29. Because Brainerd’s life was accompanied with constant death in his family, it is most likely that he suffered from depression. One of Brainerd’s descendents said in a biography of John Brainerd that, “In the whole Brainerd family for two hundred years there has been a tendency to a morbid depression…” so it is most likely Brainerd suffered from it as well. After his father and mother died, he moved to his sister Jerusha’s home to live with her and her husband. Shortly after that, however, he inherited a farm west of Haddam in Durham and moved there.
Brainerd’s family roots came from a long line of Puritans in England during the time of the Reformation. His great-grandfather was a Puritan minister named Peter Hobart. He was persecuted in England and then came across the Atlantic to spend the remainder of his life preaching in America. Peter Hobart had five sons, four of which were preachers including Brainerd’s grandfather Jeremiah. Jeremiah was married to the Reverend Samuel Whiting’s daughter. Dorothy was the daughter of Samuel and his wife and married Hezekiah Brainerd. Nehemiah, John, Israel, and David Brainerd, all sons of Dorothy and Hezekiah, all devoted their lives to preaching the gospel in America.
Until Brainerd’s later teenage years, not much was written in his diary so from the time his parents died until he moved to the farm in Durham, we don’t know much about his life. We do know however that he was “somewhat sober and inclined to melancholy”. Perhaps this demeanor was common with the life of depression he is thought to have had. Brainerd would often walk in the fields of the farm to seek alone time with God. Because he lost many loved ones and also because of the symptoms of Tuberculosis he suffered greatly from, Brainerd often envied others and wished for a happier life. In his diary, he wrote that he was much dejected and “kept alone; and sometimes envied the birds and beasts their happiness, because they were not exposed to eternal misery, as I evidently saw that I was.” Brainerd’s soul had much turmoil as well. He continually tried to live up to the standards he believed God held for him. Brainerd was twenty years old when he made a promise to God to enter the ministry. He then began preparing himself to enter Yale. Brainerd had always lived a moral life but he had never been converted. He read the Bible twice through each year but his life was marked by extreme legalism. Within himself he was at war with God. He rebelled so much that he could not humble himself and completely give his heart over to God. He was very introspective and was continually looking to himself to improve his own spiritual state rather than to God to do the work within him and for him. Brainerd believed that he had to be completely familiar with the doctrine and theology of the Bible before he could truly be saved. Because of this belief he spent much of his time thoroughly studying the scriptures.
Brainerd had been brought up to know the scriptures so he was quite familiar with the teachings on sin and salvation but he had much trouble accepting three specific truths of the Bible- strictness on the law of God, the sovereignty of God, and faith alone being the primary ingredient for salvation. He struggled with the law because he was troubled about how anyone could live up to it. He felt as though he was always failing when he tried to live righteously. He struggled with the sovereignty of God because he was unable to comprehend how God could reject some men in heaven and accept others. On the matter of faith, his piety and works clouded his view of what faith actually was and he could not accept the truth that faith alone saves.
After wrestling for a long time with Christ, Brainerd finally realized that “there was no more goodness in my praying than there would be in my paddling with my hands in the water because my prayers were not performed from and love or regard to God… I never once prayed for the glory of God. I never once intended his honor and glory…” When David was 21 he finally gave his life over to Christ. His journal says, “As I was walking in a dark thick grave, “unspeakable glory” seemed to open the view of the apprehension of my soul… And my soul rejoiced with unspeakable joy to see such a God, such a glorious divine being, and I was inwardly pleased and satisfied that he should be God over all forever and ever. My soul was so captivated and delighted with the Excellency, the loveliness and the 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 or scarce that there was such a creature as I.”
Immediately following Brainerd’s salvation he began “to aim at His honor and glory as the King of the universe.” His soul was lightened and the faith that had seemed so impossible to him before now became the delight of his soul.
Shortly after his conversion, Brainerd entered Yale. During his first year of studying at Yale, he was sent home because of the measles. After recovering from the measles, Brainerd returned to Yale but was sent home a second time because he was spitting up blood when he coughed. This was part of the disease that would prematurely end his life. Brainerd returned in the Fall of 1941 for his final year at Yale. Because of his intelligence and hard study efforts, Brainerd quickly rose to the top of his class. Brainerd was expelled that year, however, because a fellow student overheard Brainerd comment on how Mr. Whittlesey, a Yale tutor who had “no more grace than a chair”. The expulsion from Yale momentarily turned Brainerd’s world upside down but God had other ways in which he wished to use Brainerd’s life for his glory. Although Brainerd had one plan for his life God had a different plan. God took his life and used it to further the gospel to win hundreds of Indians to Christ.
Brainerd’s invitation to work with the Indians came from Ebenezer Pemberton who was the Secretary of the Correspondents in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. This was a missionary society called The Society in Scotland for the propagation of Christian Knowledge. This society was one of the British missionary societies that helped spread to gospel throughout the rural parts of America. Funds were raised and missionaries were contacted who would begin working with the American Indians. After being summoned by Pemberton, Brainerd traveled to New York for the interview. Brainerd did not feel confident or prepared enough to take on the task of ministering to the Indians but after sometime he decided to accept the invitation. For the next several months he readied himself for the mission field and bid farewell to his friends and family expecting to never see them again. Brainerd was assigned to the Indians at Kaunaumeek, New York.
As soon as Brainerd arrived, he was met with many difficulties. He immediately began to suffer with loneliness and depression and after a few encounters with the Indians there, he realized that it would be very difficult to get through to the Indians. His living arrangements were not comfortable either. His diary reads, “I board with a poor Scotchman; his wife can talk scarce any English. My diet consists mostly of hasty-pudding, boiled corn, and bread baked in the ashes, and sometimes a little meat and butter. My lodging is a little heap of straw laid upon some boards, a little way from the ground; for it is a log room, without any floor that I lodge in. My work is exceeding hard and difficult: I travel on foot a mile and a half, the worst of ways, almost daily, and back again; for I live so far from my Indians. I have not seen and English person this month. These and many other circumstances, equally uncomfortable, attend me; and yet my spiritual conflicts and distresses so far exceed all these, that I scarce think of them, or hardly observe that I am not entertained… the Lord grant that I may learn to endure hardness and be a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” Brainerd made very little progress with the Indians at Kaunaumeek and after only a year, he informed him that he was leaving them. The Indians there tried to convince him to stay by telling him that they needed someone to minister to their souls but Brainerd told them that there were others who needed to hear the gospel just as much as they did. After Brainerd left the Kaunaumeek Indians, he ministered at the Forks of the Delaware, Crossweeksung, and Cranberry. When Brainerd ministered at Kaunaumeek and the Forks of the Delaware there was only limited success but at Crossweeksung, Brainerd was more successful. Brainerd’s next ministry to the Susquehanna Indian’s, however, would result in a major revival.
After the opportunity arose to minister to the Susquehanna Indians, Brainerd immediately started his work with them. One day while Brainerd was preaching to the Susquehanna on Isaiah 33, “the word was attended with amazing power many scores in that great assemble were much affected, so that there was a very great mourning among them.” At this time, Indians came from all over filled with tears and wanting the Lord to have mercy upon them. A great number of Indians were converted and came to be known as the “praying Indians”. This group of Indians was so aware of Christ’s love for them through the message that Brainerd brought them and became so grateful for their salvation. This was the climax of Brainerd’s ministry and the blessing that resulted from the turn of events that God had instilled in Brainerd’s life after his expulsion from Yale.
While Brainerd was ministering to the Susquehanna Indians, he became extremely ill with tuberculosis because of the lack of proper nourishment and medicine. On October 9, 1746, in his own home, David Brainerd departed earth to spend eternity with the Lord. His funeral was directed by Jonathan Edwards a close friend and father figure to Brainerd. Brainerd, by no means, had an easy life. He was faced with much heartache and sickness brought upon him by the Tuberculosis. What seemed endlessly hopeless, however, became a heritage of Christian Indians who met a loving God and Savior because of the change in Brainerd’s life. His life is the perfect picture of how one man’s willingness to be used by God can bring many to Christ. Even though his life was short and filled with pain, God still made him a tool for Christ and someone who can encourage and inspire others to continually trust God and look toward heaven in their time on earth.