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David Brainerd

Category Articles
Date November 2, 2007

David Brainerd,1 the great missionary to the American Indians, was born in April, 1718 at Haddam, Connecticut. His father, a legislator in Connecticut, died when David was nine years old and his mother died when he was fourteen. He lived with a godly aunt and uncle until he was eighteen and then tried farming for a year at nearby Durham, CT. Though growing up in the local Congregational Church, Brainerd was converted at age twenty-one and then studied at nearby Yale College. He left after a few months with a recurring illness, returning one year later at the height of the evangelical revival at Yale under the preaching ministry of George Whitefield.

Brainerd, in his intemperate zeal, spoke in wonder at the Rector of Yale College not falling down dead for fining students for their evangelical zeal, and when he suggested that a tutor had no more grace than a chair, he was expelled from Yale, thus not completing his degree. The State of Connecticut required all ministers to graduate from Yale, Harvard, or a European university and Brainerd was thus denied ordination. He answered the call to become a missionary to American Indians. Brainerd’s life was fraught with recurring illness, loneliness, and depression. If Jonathan Edwards was able to overcome his melancholy through walks in the woods, looking at the beauty of nature, this seemed not to work for Brainerd. In fact, nothing worked to remove his depression. Thankfully it did not result in suicidal thoughts, as these did with the great hymn writer William Cowper, but they nonetheless were a terrible burden to him. After serving the Housatonic Indians near Stockbridge, MA and several tribes at the Forks of the Delaware River where hundreds were converted in a very brief time, and finally after a year or so near Lebanon, CT with the Iroquois Indians, Brainerd began losing his battle with tuberculosis. He made his way to the home of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards in May, 1747 and died at their home several months later. He was cared for by Edwards’ seventeen year old daughter Jerusha with whom Brainerd has been romantically linked (I believe there was something to this due to older sister Esther Edwards’ diary where she mentions their affection for each other). Brainerd died at the age of 29, being a Christian for only eight years and a missionary for only four years; yet no one has more impacted the modern missionary movement than David Brainerd. Why, and how did he live with such usefulness to God in the midst of his terrible circumstances?

He understood what Paul said, that he was part of the church of God from whom every family in heaven and earth derives its name [Eph. 3:15]. Paul cannot be referring to every family in the world, whether Christian or non-Christian. That’s because the content of Paul’s prayer refers to being strengthened with power through the Holy Spirit in the inner person…that they may be rooted in love…that they may know the love of Christ which surpasses all understanding [Eph. 3:16-19]. So, those mentioned as every family in heaven and earth, are the church on earth and in heaven, what theologians call the church militant and the church triumphant.

So what was it that sustained David Brainerd and so many others in the midst of harsh circumstances? What can help you in the temptations and tribulations you face? It is the knowledge and practical application that your union with Christ empowers you to overcome any temptation or tribulation which the world throws at you. Consider this, dear Christian. You are a member of the church militant. I don’t mean you are to be caustic, harsh, or in an attack mode toward those outside the church. By militant I mean you are part of the church now on earth which is called by Paul to fight the good fight of faith, to lay hold of the eternal life to which you have been called. You are to realize that your struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against authorities, against world forces of darkness, against spiritual forces of wickedness in high places [Eph. 6:12]. You are to rejoice in the indicatives of God’s grace and love, and you are to obey, to live out the imperatives to perfect holiness in the fear of God.

To go further, however, you are part of the church now in heaven, the church triumphant. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that we do not go to a mountain that may be touched and to a blazing fire…but to Mount Zion, the city of the living God…to the general assembly and the church of the first born which are enrolled in heaven…and to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant [Heb. 12:18-24]. John tells us that he looked and saw a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all the tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’ [Rev. 7:9-10]. In other words, the very fact that you are part of the family of God now on earth (the church militant), and one day in heaven (the church triumphant) means that God promises you the power and authority to overcome any temptation or trial which comes at you. In 1 Corinthians 10:1ff Paul is using the negative example of Israel in the wilderness to warn the Corinthians against falling back into idolatry. He says that God gives them what they need to overcome temptation, that with it He will provide a means of escape. To be sure, your privileged position as a child of God does not negate temptation any more than it did Israel’s position, but his union with you gives you what you need to overcome any and all temptation; and the very fact you persevere in them proves your union with Christ. But God also promises to overcome every tribulation that you face. Paul asks in Romans 8:35ff who can separate us from the love of Christ. And the answer is nothing. The trials, tribulations, and hardships you face do not separate the child of God from His love. In fact this love enables you to overcome them.


Brainerd’s story is also covered in the following two books:

Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.

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