David Brainerd, the great missionary to the North 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.
In somewhat intemperate zeal, Brainerd 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 under the auspices of the Scottish Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge.
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, but it was nonetheless a terrible burden to him.
Brainerd served 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. 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, where he died on October 10.
Brainerd died at the age of just 29, having been a Christian for only eight years and a missionary for only four years; yet probably no one has had more influence on the modern missionary movement than David Brainerd.
The Trust publishes The Diary and Journal of David Brainerd (edited by Jonathan Edwards).[The story of David Brainerd is also told in the Trust’s publications, They Were Pilgrims (Marcus Loane), Five Pioneer Missionaries (John Thornbury) and – for younger readers – in God Made Them Great (John Tallach).]