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"A Goodly Heritage" (33): David Brainerd (1718-1747)

A Wilson, Cullen

August 19th, 1745 is a significant date in Scottish history. On that day Charles Edward Stewart raised his royal standard by Loch Shiel to begin his abortive attempt to restore the British throne to his exiled father. Many there that day ended their lives on the blood-stained heather of Culloden Moor. On that same day, far away in Crossweeksung, New Jersey, USA, David Brainerd opened his Bible at Isaiah 55.1: "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters…". Many there that day found new life in Christ.

To evaluate some other events which have shaped our "Goodly Heritage" we must look across the Atlantic to "The Great Awakening" which began in the 1730s. A prominent preacher during that revival was Jonathan Edwards. It is due to him that David Brainerd's name is known and revered by many Christians to this day, for Brainerd kept a detailed diary¹ which, shortly before his death, he reluctantly gave Edwards permission to publish: The Life and Diary of David Brainerd. This is his story.

He was born into a wealthy and influential family in Haddam, Connecticut, on 20th April, 1718. His father, Hezekiah, died when David was 9, and his mother, Dorothy, just 5 years later. He later wrote, perhaps because of this, I was from my youth somewhat sober, and inclined rather to melancholy than the contrary extreme. Edwards wrote, He exceeded all melancholy persons that ever I [knew].

However, David wrote of his salvation on 12th July, 1739: At this time, the way of salvation opened to me...that I wondered I should ever think of any other...I wondered that all the world did not see and comply with this way of salvation, entirely by the righteousness of Christ. In September he entered Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut. There he first mentions the tuberculosis that would claim his life eight years later: I was grown so weak, that I began to spit blood.

At Yale he was caught up in "The Great Awakening". The college government did not approve of that movement. They decreed that any student who criticised college tutors or attended "New Light" meetings must make a public apology or else face expulsion. In his youthful zeal David did both. His refusal to comply with the conditions imposed led to his expulsion. He later regretted his actions and his attitude.

A degree from Yale would have secured him a comfortable and prosperous pastorate. The Lord had other plans. He responded to a call from "The Scottish Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge", and in November, 1742 was appointed as a missionary to American Indians. In the spring of 1743 he took the gospel to these people at Kaunaumeek, New York State. By this time his health had greatly deteriorated, pain and weakness his constant companions. He could have lived a cosseted life as an invalid, yet he gave all away to further the work of God. He writes: Friday, April 1, 1743. I rode to Kaunaumeek...and there lodged on a little heap of straw. I was greatly exercised with inward trials and distresses all day; and in the evening, my heart was sunk, and I seemed to have no God to go to. O that God would help me!

He saw no visible fruit of his preaching while at Kaunaumeek. In June, 1744 he moved to the Forks of the Delaware (Pennsylvania) to work among these Indians. They deeply distrusted him, having suffered much from white men. His diary for 25th June, 1744 reads: To an eye of reason everything respecting the conversion of the heathen is as dark as midnight; yet I cannot but hope in God for the accomplishment of something glorious among them.

What was he to do? He frequently called upon God in fervent prayer. Many days and nights were spent in what he called "secret exercises" - prayer and fasting, often reluctant to go to sleep when he felt that he was being enabled to intercede effectively for others. After much heart searching he refused three separate "calls" from prosperous congregations for he was resolved to go on still with the Indian affair, if Divine Providence permitted.

While among the Delaware Indians he twice made a very difficult and dangerous 5-day journey to reach the Susquehannas. There he became as ill as to believe he would die. In the mercy of God he found an Indian trader's hut and lay there for a week without medicine or proper food until he was able to ride once more. Returning to the Forks of the Delaware, his Indian interpreter (Moses Tautamy) was converted to Christ - the journal entry recording this extends to nearly 2,000 words! The following extract will show how vital this man's conversion was to the Lord's work among his fellow Indians: He now addressed the Indians with admirable fervency, and scarce knew when to leave off: and sometimes when I had concluded my discourse...he would tarry behind to repeat and inculcate what had been spoken.

He had briefly visited the Indian settlement at Crossweeksung (now Crosswicks, New Jersey). In August, 1745 he relocated there, although by now so depressed as to consider resigning his position: I...began to entertain serious thoughts of giving up my mission; and almost resolved I would do so [if I had] no better prospect of special success in my work…I cannot say I entertained these thoughts because I was weary of the labours and fatigues that necessarily attended my present business, or because I had light and freedom in my own mind to turn any other way; but purely through dejection of spirit, pressing discouragement, and an apprehension of its being unjust to spend money consecrated to religious uses, only to civilize the Indians…In this frame of mind I first visited [them] apprehending it was my indispensable duty...to make some attempts for their conversion to God, though I cannot say I had any hope of success, my spirits being now so extremely sunk. And I do not know that my hopes respecting [their] conversion were ever reduced to so low an ebb…And yet this was the very season that God saw fittest to begin this glorious work in…Whence I learn, that it is good to follow the path of duty, though in the midst of darkness and discouragement.

A remarkable work of God took place. What amazing things has God wrought in this space of time for these poor people...How are morose and savage pagans in this short space of time transformed into agreeable, affectionate, and humble Christians; and then drunken pagan howlings turned into devout and fervent prayers and praises to God!

A church was formed of which he wrote, I know of no assembly of Christians where there seems to be so much of the presence of God, where brotherly love so much prevails, and where I should so much delight in the public worship of God, in general, as in my own congregation; although not more than nine months ago, they were worshipping devils and dumb idols under the power of pagan darkness and superstition.

Rapidly deteriorating health forced him to leave his beloved Indians (his brother, John, took his place) and return to Massachusetts. He was nursed in Northampton by 17 year old Jerusha Edwards in the home of her father Jonathan who wrote: We had opportunity for much acquaintance and conversation with him, and to show him kindness in such circumstances, and to see his dying behaviour, to hear his dying speeches, to receive his dying counsels, and to have the benefit of his dying prayers.

On Thursday, 8th October, 1747, John came to visit his brother. Despite David's agonising pain they conversed long into the night concerning the Indian congregation that was so dear to his heart. Around 6am, in his own words, he went to glorify God with the angels.

David Brainerd was saved when he was 21, and was only 29 when he died. His simple gravestone reads, A faithful and laborious missionary to the Stockbridge, Delaware and Susquehanna tribes of Indians.

The influence of his life has reached many including John Wesley, Murray McCheyne, David Livingstone, William Carey, Henry Martyn, Jim Elliott, and countless "ordinary" Christians - challenged and motivated by his sacrificial life.

Brainerd's life is a vivid, powerful testimony to the truth that God can and does use weak, sick, discouraged, beat-down, lonely, struggling saints, who cry to Him day and night, to accomplish amazing things for His glory (John Piper).

To be continued.

¹ At the request of the missionary society under which he served, he submitted a public journal for publication. This journal (June, 1745–June, 1746), and Edwards' book, are freely available online. Both are essential reading for all who desire to know more about this remarkable life.


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