David Brainerd: The very name brings so many images to mind. Courage, bravery, faith, prayer, service, and unselfishness. I have no doubt I should have mentioned prayer first. A man who devoted so much time to prayer and intersession. No wonder there were so many miracles. There are so many stories of his miraculous missionary ministry. A life devoted to prayer, and so often alone and against all odds, he effectively brought
the Gospel where it had never been heard before, to peoples whom language he did not even know. So many stories and images. His suffering and service, while battling terminal illness, giving his life to preach the Gospel. No wonder his favorite message, his favorite Bible passage, was Isaiah 53. Here in New England, and especially “down” in southern New
England, it seems every Pastor has a favorite David Brainerd story.
My own personal favorite, and I will paraphrase as best I can from memory, was when David Brainerd was scheduled to preach to a large group of Indians, and as was usually the case, he did not know, nor speak their language. His interpreter showed up completely and totally, “falling down” drunk, almost unable to speak coherently. But, there was no one else available who spoke both English and the Native Indian language.
Somehow, the interpreter managed to stay awake and standing long enough to stammer through the message. What happened? God’s Word was so powerful that many, many of the Indians came forward to accept Christ as their Savior and Lord.
My first knowledge of David Brainerd came through the many references made to him in E.B. Bounds’ many books on prayer. David’s story, and the stories about his life as missionary, astounded me. Please be advised, that any book about his life and his work, will fill you with the same amazement, and encouragement. In fact, I would go so far as to say that any one that is planning and wanting and willing to serve others on Christ’s behalf, regardless of the office or capacity, should read all he can about the life of David Brainerd, and especially his diary, which he devoutly kept throughout his missionary life. Both his Diary and Journal (which he kept from June 19,
1745, to June 19, 1746) are full of ministry and miracles that read like The Acts of the Apostles. The Life and Diary of David Brainerd has had a life-transforming effect upon many, motivating them to become missionaries, evangelists, preachers, and people of prayer and power. John Wesley said, “Let every preacher read carefully over the life of David Brainerd.” He is remembered not only as the great Apostle to the North American Indians, but also as a chief source of inspiration in the lives of thousands who have been challenged from ease and selfishness to lives of holiness and sacrifice, as they have prayed and wept over his Journal.
Everyone should read about David Brainerd. Everyone. Oh, and then compare your hardships to his. He is called “The pioneer of modern missionary work.”
Most of the biographies condense like this:
Missionary to the American Indians in New York, New Jersey, and eastern Pennsylvania. Born in Connecticut in 1718, he died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-nine, on October 9, 1747, while staying at the home of Jonathan Edwards, in Northampton, Massachusetts. Jonathan Edwards preached his funeral sermon and published the diary which David had kept. David Brainerd’s life reached out and touched the whole world, challenging more people into Christian service than perhaps any other man that ever lived. The mere mention of the name, Brainerd, automatically triggers the mind to think of dedication in a way that perhaps has never been equaled. His ministry to the Indians was contemporary with Wesley, Whitefield and Edwards as they ministered to the English-speaking people during the period called in English and American history the “Great Awakening.” Brainerd’s centuries-spanning influence for revival is positive proof God can and will use any vessel, no matter how fragile and frail, if it is only sold out to souls and to Jesus. “His story,” said J. M. Sherwood, “has done more to develop and mold the spirit of modern missions, and to fire the heart of the Christian Church, than that of any man since the apostolic age.”
David Brainerd was born in Haddam, Connecticut on April 20, 1718, the sixth of nine children of Hezekiah and Dorothy (Mason) Brainerd. His father was a local justice of the peace, and both David’s parents were Christians. His father died when he was nine, and the death of his mother in March, 1732 brought additional great grief to 14 year old David. By 1739, he was setting aside whole days of secret fasting and almost
incessant prayer as he strove for acceptance with God. On July 12, 1739, at 21 years old, he returned to his secret place of prayer, where God spoke to him as the day dawned, and he had a glorious salvation experience.
From his youth, David Brainerd was frail and sickly. By August, 1740, he was weak and spitting up blood. Consumption or tuberculosis of the lungs was the plague of colonial New England, and would plaque David every day thereafter, for the rest of his life. He was very intelligent, and would attend Yale for a time. On April 19, 1741, Ebenezer Pembertson visited Yale and gave a stirring address about missionary work to the Indians. The next day, on his 23rd birthday, Brainerd vowed “to be wholly the Lord’s, to be forever devoted to his service.”
On July 29, 1742, he was licensed to preach as a Presbyterian at Danbury, Connecticut. Brainerd’s first sermon was on July 30th at Southbury, Connecticut, using I Peter 4:8 as his text and his first message to the Indians was soon after, on August 12, near the Connecticut-New York border. He traveled as an itinerant preacher for several months. David would travel over 15,000 miles on horseback, often in great pain. He preached from place to place that first winter, then served as a supply preacher at East Hampton, Long Island, New York for six weeks. On his last Sunday there, March 13th, although he could hardly stand up, he preached for an hour and a half. The next day, he left for work among the Indians. He said later, “I never, since I began to preach, could feel any freedom to enter into other men’s labours and settle down in the ministry where the gospel was preached before.” He felt he had to preach where Christ was not named nor known. He left for his life’s work March 25, 1743.
Here is one story of many, this one from his first visit to Indian tribes on the Forks of the Delaware River: Arriving the night before he would begin his work, he camped just outside the Indian settlement. He did not know, until the next morning (when he safely entered the Indian village) that he was being watched by warriors who were sent to kill him that night. The warriors made their move, approaching David’s tent, when they saw their target, on his knees, praying. Then, they saw a rattlesnake crawl up to David’s side, and lift up his head to strike. David did not even see the snake, even when the rattlesnake’s forked tongue almost touched his face. Then, suddenly, for no reason, the snake froze, and then quickly slithered away into the woods. David had no idea he was inches from sure death-one way or the other. However, the Indians ran back to the village and proclaimed that “The Great Spirit is with the paleface!” And, they gave David Brainerd a prophet’s welcome.
His short life with the Indians would be full of miraculous interventions of God on his behalf, and of the great ministry and revivals that would follow.
He was frequently in distress for lack of suitable food, exposed to hunger and cold, lost in the forests, caught in storms with no shelter available, obliged to ford raging streams and to spend the night in the woods, in peril from wild beasts and wild savages. He realized, however, that he had at most a year or two longer to live, and concluded, after much struggle of soul, that he should “burn out to the last” as a traveling missionary. Falling on his knees in his resignation, he cried: “Farewell friends and earthly comforts; farewell to the dearest, the very dearest of them all. I will spend my life to my latest moments in caves and dens of the earth, if the kingdom of Christ may thereby be advanced.”
After five years of arduous travel, manifold hardships, and almost constant pain, David Brainerd, spitting blood and almost delirious with fever, stumbled down the road to Northampton to die in the home of Jonathan Edwards. He was not yet 30, but he had no regrets. “Now that I am dying,” he exclaimed, “I declare that I would not for all the world have spent my life otherwise!”
From his diary: “Here am I, send me; send me to the ends of the earth; send me to the rough, the savage pagans of the wilderness; send me from all that is called comfort on earth; send me even to death itself, if it be but in Thy service, and to promote Thy kingdom.”
The last words written in his diary, on Oct. 2, 1749: “My soul was this day, at turns, sweetly set on God: I longed to be with him, that I might behold his glory. I felt sweetly disposed to commit all to him, even my dearest friends, my dearest flock, my absent brother, and all my concerns for time and eternity. O that his kingdom might come in the world; that they might all love and glorify him, for what he is in himself; and that that blessed Redeemer might “see of the travail of his soul, and be satisfied! Oh, come, Lord Jesus, come quickly! Amen.”
The 53rd chapter of Isaiah was exceedingly precious to David Brainerd. When preaching to the Indians, his favorite theme was Isaiah 53. And, when he came to the end of his life, the last entry he made in his Diary contained a quotation from the 53rd chapter of Isaiah.
His last words were “He will come, and will not tarry. I shall soon be in glory; soon be with God and His angels.”