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The Life of David Brainerd by Jonathan Edwards

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Date November 19, 2018

David Brainerd was an 18th Century American missionary of Reformed beliefs. We say American but Brainerd lived before the Declaration of Independence and so, like his contemporaries, thought of himself chiefly as an Englishman. The struggle between the colonial powers of England, France, and Spain raged throughout his lifetime. In his short life, he travelled over 12,000 miles on horseback in that vast north eastern sector of what we now know as the USA.

Expelled from Yale College as a young man for making disrespectful remarks about a tutor, he became a pioneer missionary to Native Americans and was a man of great earnestness and prayer. He died from tuberculosis before he had reached the age of 30. This year sees the 300th anniversary of his birth.

His name was immortalised by the pen of the great Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), in whose home he died. When we think of the life of Brainerd we are really thinking of at least two things. On one hand, there is the life of David Brainerd 1718-1747. On the other, there is Edwards’ Life of the Late Rev David Brainerd (1749 to the present). That is to say, there is the actual life of Brainerd but there is also Edwards’ An Account of the Life of the Late Rev David Brainerd published in 1749 and subsequent versions of the story that have continued to have an impact down to the present day.

We draw here chiefly on the work of John A Grigg on this subject.1 He quotes Andrew F. Walls, who says, ‘David Brainerd became the principal model of early British missionary spirituality.’2 Grigg demonstrates this.

William Carey and the BMS

When the Baptist Missionary Society was founded in 1792 a major catalyst for its founding was a book by William Carey (1761–1834). Carey had come to a Baptist church in Leicester in 1789 and that had brought him into closer contact with a circle of Calvinistic Baptist ministers who encouraged him to write about the need for concerted missionary effort. This led to the publishing of An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians, to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.

The book was inspired by a number of missionaries, including Brainerd. An objection to mission it deals with is the ‘uncivilised, and barbarous way of living’ of the target audience. Such a consideration, Carey declared, ‘was no objection to an Elliot [sic] or a Brainerd.’3 In fact, he argued, the ‘uncivilized state of the heathen’ should ‘furnish an argument for’ sending missionaries. Indeed, he noted, ‘such effects [civilisation] did in a measure follow the afore-mentioned efforts of Elliot [sic], Brainerd, and others amongst the American Indians.’

Carey also invoked Elliot and Brainerd to counter another objection: fear of death at the hands of those to whom one was preaching. He suggests that most acts of brutality reported against Europeans may have originated in ‘some real or supposed affront [to local peoples], and were therefore, more properly, acts of self-defence, than proofs of ferocious dispositions.’ To support his argument, he notes that ‘Elliot [sic], Brainerd, and the Moravian missionaries, have been very seldom molested’ and insists that most native peoples had ‘principally expressed their hatred of Christianity on account of the vices of nominal Christians.’

In concluding his Enquiry, Carey reminds readers that they are ‘exhorted to lay up treasure in heaven,’ and a great reward must await Paul, Elliot, Brainerd and others who ‘have given themselves wholly to the work of the Lord.’

For Carey, Brainerd exemplified the missionary life. John Ryland (1753-1825) spoke of Brainerd’s diary as ‘almost a second Bible’ to him. Portions of a diary Carey kept, when he arrived in India, apparently in conscious emulation of Brainerd, have survived, and his respect for Brainered comes out there. On one occasion, he acknowledged being ‘much humbled by Brainerd — O what a disparity betwixt me and him; he always constant, I unconstant as the wind.’ A little humorously, he complains on one occasion that he could not pray in the woods like Brainerd ‘for fear of tygers’!

David Bogue and the LMS

In 1795, the London Missionary Society was founded. Its roots are complex and disparate, but at least two of those who contributed to its foundation urged people to look to Brainerd’s example.

In his 1794 Letters on Missions Melville Horne (1761-1841) declared that the ‘labours of a Brainerd and an Elliot [sic] deserve to be had in everlasting remembrance.’

David Bogue, addressing the LMS founding meeting, also invoked the spirit of Brainerd. Refuting the claim that it was not yet time for the conversion of the heathen, he pointed to what had ‘already been effected by the preaching of the gospel among the heathen’ by men such as ‘Brainard [sic], [Azariah] Horton [1716-1777] and others.’4 He went on to remind his audience that the Indians were ‘converted by the power of the gospel: and the same glorious truths confirmed by the holy lives of our missionaries, and accompanied by the energy of the Spirit, will, I trust, still produce the same effects.’

From 1793, with Andrew Fuller and others, Bogue sponsored the quarterly Evangelical Magazine. Part of every issue was set aside to document the ‘progress of the Gospel throughout the kingdom’ and the magazine soon became a voice for mission promoters. Bogue published a preliminary appeal for missions in the September 1794 issue, and there were frequent reports on the LMS.

The fourth volume, in 1796, featured an excerpted version of Brainerd’s life, totalling about 25 pages across three issues. The editors noted that ‘few lives are more interesting than that of Mr. Brainerd.’ They hoped readers would ‘perceive how easily God can provide instruments for his work’ and that his success, ‘in circumstances most discouraging,’ would provide ‘the clearest demonstration that those difficulties which, to us, appear insuperable, instantly vanish at the presence of the Almighty.’ The Anglican periodical Missionary Register did something similar in 1816.

When missionary training institutions began to spring up they most frequently turned for instructional inspiration to the writings of the Moravians and the Life of Brainerd. David Bogue’s academy at Gosport, which turned out 40% of all LMS missionaries in the period, included lectures that were mainly based on Bogue’s reflections on the lives of past missionaries such as Brainerd. Of only five books in the Gosport Library, one was the life of Brainerd.

The Church Missionary Society’s library was similar. Samuel Marsden (1765-1838) worked with the CMS in Australia and on the voyage from England he read  ‘of Mr Brainerd’s success among the Indians,’ and determined that the ‘same power can also effect a change upon those hardened ungodly sinners to whom I am about to carry the words of eternal life.’

Student-led mission societies at Scottish universities encouraged their members to read the Life of Brainerd (along with those of other missionaries) and even to present papers on their readings.

Brainerd was frequently cited and referred to by the mission boards. CMS candidates expected to be asked if they had read Brainerd’s Life, and, by the 1820s, the LMS Committee of Examination required candidates to read it along with several other biographies. William Crow was judged to be a good candidate after his initial examination and was subsequently given a copy of the Life and a month to read it and write an essay on his perspective on the ‘character, difficulties, and privations of a Christian Missionary.’ There are also frequent references to Brainerd in the writings of missionaries and mission candidates. Often, these men were challenged by Brainerd’s example of the ideal Christian.

Samuel Pearce

The men who ‘held the ropes’ for Carey — Ryland, John Sutcliff (1752-1814) and Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) were as enthusiastic for Brainerd as he. At the end of 1781 Sutcliff wrote to Fuller to know if he can borrow Edwards’ Life. Fuller has to disappoint him not having a copy. Sutcliff obviously did get to read it eventually as it became top of his recommended reading list when anyone asked about missionary work.

In May, 1780, at the annual meeting of their association, The Northamptonshire Association, it was agreed to recommend the book to all who ‘love evangelical, experimental, and practical religion, and especially to our younger brethren in the ministry’.

When Samuel Pearce (1766-1799) another godly man who died young, read part of the biography in 1793 he wrote that ‘the exalted devotion of that dear man almost made me question mine. Yet’ because ‘at some seasons he speaks of sinking as well as rising’ he felt that while lacking Brainerd’s ‘singular piety’ he too knew the same ‘feelings, prayers, desires, comforts, hopes, and sorrows’ and that could at least be followed. Carey’s son Samuel Pearce Carey, dubbed Pearce ‘The Baptist Brainerd’ when he wrote his biography. The official memoir was put together by Fuller. He too saw Pearce as another Brainerd and, according to Michael Haykin, ‘clearly modelled’ it on Edwards’ life of Brainerd. He wrote, like Edwards, ‘out of the conviction that telling the stories of the lives of remarkable Christians is a means of grace for the church.’ 5

Henry Martyn

Yet another missionary who died young was Henry Martyn (1781-1812). He too wrote warmly of Brainerd. On arriving in Calcutta in 1806 he wrote

most abundantly encouraged by reading D Brainerd’s account of the difficulties attending a mission to the heathen. Oh, blessed be the memory of that beloved saint! No uninspired writer ever did me so much good.

On another occasion he wrote, ‘thought of David Brainerd, and ardently desired his devotedness to God and holy breathings of soul.’

Shortly before his departure for India, he noted that a reading of Brainerd had led him to a time of prayer ‘for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom, and that I might be sent to the poor heathen.’

Aspiring missionaries either wanted to, or quickly learned that they were expected to, incorporate lessons from Brainerd in their applications. William Miller, in his written application to the LMS, declared that he desired the ‘ardent love and compassion which [Brainerd] manifested toward those who were ignorant and far from God,’ as well as Brainerd’s ‘exquisite tenderness of conscience and deep abhorrence of sin.’ Similarly, BMS missionary John Chamberlain declared, ‘I long to be like [Brainerd]. Surely, if ever I arrive at the heavenly world, I shall be eagerly desirous of seeing him.’

Jim Elliot

One final example of a missionary who died young who was inspired by Brainerd is the martyred Jim Elliot (1927-1956). In August 1949 he wrote of being in a

spiritual stir over reading David Brainerd’s diary. If I were honest, my writing would be more in anguish as his is. But how cold I have grown, and how careless about it all.

Some months later, he wrote that he desired that he might ‘receive the apostle’s passion, caught from vision of Thyself, Lord Jesus. David Brainerd’s diary stirs me on to such in prayer.’

The writing of the book

Edwards, John Thornbury tells us, was not the first to make use of Brainerd’s diaries.6 As well as his personal diary, Brainerd composed a journal in which he chronicled the story of his ministry among the Indians. In this he explained in detail Indian customs and manners, what he preached to them and the difficulties and successes he knew. He prepared the Journal for the leaders of the missionary society from whom he received financial help. In 1746 William Bradford (1663-1752) in Philadelphia published these portions for The Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge in the Highlands of Scotland and in popish and infidel parts of the world. The extracts deal with his work at Crossweeksung June 19-November 4, 1745; November 24, 1745-June 19, 1746. The account of great revival became an important instrument in stirring up interest elsewhere in missionary work among native Americans. Both in America and in Britain many eagerly read it.

It was the private diary, however, that formed the basis of Edwards’ Life. His edition became the standard one, although over the years it has been published many times with various editorial notes and alterations.

A complete edition appeared in 1765 in Edinburgh and an abridged American edition was published in 1793. In 1822, Edwards’ great grandson Sereno Edwards Dwight (1796-1850) edited and published the life and diary entire, with letters and other writings. In 1843 the Presbyterian Board of Publications printed an abridgement entitled The Missionary in the Wilderness or Grace displayed among the heathen. John Wesley (1703-1781) included the Life in abridged form in Volume 12 of his collected works (Bristol, 1771-1774). The abridgement was partly to remove the Calvinism. A complete edition was printed in London in 1851 in the Christian’s Fireside Library series. The diary continues to be in print in various forms. In 1884 a more thorough revision was prepared by James Manning Sherwood (1814-1890) in New York. It is the 1902 edition of this that was reprinted by The Banner of Truth in 2007.7

By 1749 Edwards was already a well-known writer. His first publication in 1731 was God Glorified in Man’s Dependence on 1 Corinthians 1:29-31. Others followed, such as A Narrative of Surprising Conversions (1736) dealing with the Great Awakening, his famous Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1742) and Religious Affections (1746). Edwards was about to set to work on his treatise Freedom of the Will when these materials came to hand. (Freedom of the Will did not appear until 1754). It seems the Brainerd project took priority because Edwards saw it as providing an excellent example of the sort of qualities extolled in his previous book The Religious Affections (1746). Perhaps no book by Edwards was to be more significant than his one on Brainerd.

Edwards rewrote parts of Brainerd’s testimony and diary, which can be tedious in its repetitions. He also omitted phrases he deemed unsuitable for the Christian public. The book contains a preface (10 pages); Brainerd’s edited papers interspersed with Edwards’ narrative in eight parts (378 pages); further ‘remains’, mostly letters (33 pages); reflections and observations (42 pages); the funeral sermon (12 pages).8

It has been said that Brainerd is the phantom in the background of other works by Edwards. The Life gave a flesh and bones example of the sort of thing that Edwards was commending. In the Yale edition Professor Norman Pettit has written that

If it is true that his treatises were too abstruse to make an impact on the spiritual life of the ordinary person, then his Life of Brainerd represents an effort to reach a larger audience and to teach by example.

He draws attention to similarities between Brainerd’s conversion and that of Edwards’ wife Sarah, described anonymously in Some thoughts concerning the revival of religion in New England (1742). He also points out that though the text of Edwards’ biography is largely Brainerd’s ‘the volume as Edwards conceived it belongs to him’. Brainerd’s journal provided not only his own example but that of other conversions, all judged according to the criteria laid down in Edwards’ Distinguishing Marks of 1741. Brainerd in turn undoubtedly influenced Edwards, who spent most of his last seven years working among Native Americans in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

The Book’s Impact

It is perhaps no surprise that the life of Brainerd, one that exemplifies spiritual intensity and zeal for the salvation of souls, had such a profound impact on all who read about this brief but powerful ministry. The historian William Warren Street (1818-1959) remarked

Indeed, David Brainerd dead was a more potent influence for Indian missions and the missionary cause in general than was David Brainerd alive.

Iain Murray in his life of Edwards goes as far as to say that ‘No book did more to create concern for wider missionary endeavour than Edwards’ Life of Brainerd.’ He mentions Gideon Hawley (1727-1807), Edwards’ assistant at Stockbridge, as the first in a long line of Calvinist missionaries to benefit from the book. He carried it in his saddle-bag as he pioneered among the Iroquois.9

The Welsh revival leader Howell Harris (1714-1773), we know, was one who was reading an edition of Brainerd’s life in 1761. In England Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) had read Edwards’ work much earlier and was among the first in England to do so. ‘I have been reading the life of excellent Mr. Brainerd,’ he writes, ‘and it has greatly humbled and quickened me.’ He recommended it widely and went on to publish parts of the diary.

John Wesley once said, ‘Find preachers of David Brainerd’s spirit, and nothing can stand before them, but without this what will silver or gold do?’

He also asked ‘What can be done to revive the work of God where it is decayed?’ His answer? ‘Let every preacher read carefully over the life of David Brainerd’. Methodist preachers in those days were all required to carefully read Edwards’ Life. Later, at Princeton Seminary too, the Life was often commended, but without Wesley’s cautions about Brainerd’s failure to understand Christian perfection.

When Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813–1843) read the Life of Brainerd, he wrote that he could not ‘express what I think when I think of [Brainerd]. Tonight, more set upon missionary enterprise than ever.’

M’Cheyne’s friend Horatius Bonar (1808-1889) wrote a preface commending the work in 1851. He warns there against supposing Brainerd’s life a perfect example and points out some few defects. He goes on to commend him, however, as a protest ‘against the easy-minded religion of our day.’ His hope was that the book would quicken consciences and urge people forward in the ‘same path of high attainment’ leading to ‘unspeakable blessing.’ The example of Brainerd’s ‘life of marvellous nearness to. . . God, which he lived during his brief day on earth,’ continues to inspire Christians, says Bonar. ‘His life was not a great life, as men use the word,’ but ‘a life of one plan, expending itself in the fulfilment of one great aim, and in the doing of one great deed — serving God.’

When in 1881 Horatius’s brother Andrew Bonar (1810-1892) visited America at the invitation of D. L. Moody (1837-1899) one of things he made certain to do was to visit Brainerd’s grave. Though an admirer, Bonar felt that Brainerd should have looked more to Christ and less to himself.

One could go on. Two more statements to close. In 1924 the preacher Frank W. Boreham (1871-1959) wrote, ‘Have a good look at him. He is a man in a million; he did more than any other to usher in the world’s new day.’

More recently the American preacher John Piper has written

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.

We worship God not men but here is a reminder of how one life, and more specifically one book on that life, can have a profound effect in the providence of Almighty God.


  1. John A Grigg The Lives of David Brainerd: The Making of an American Evangelical Icon (Religion in America Series) (New York; Oxford, 2009)
  2. A. F. Walls ‘The Evangelical Revival, the Missionary Movement, and Africa’ eds Noll, Bebbington and Rawlyk Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles, and Beyond, 1700–1990, Religion in America Series, (New York; Oxford, 1994)
  3. John Elliot (1604-1690) was a pioneer missionary to native Americans.
  4. Horton was another pioneer missionary to Native Americans.
  5. Michael Haykin in Andrew Fuller Complete Works Volume 4, Memoirs of Rev Samuel Pearce (Berlin; Boston, 2017)
  6. John Thornbury David Brainerd: Pioneer Missionary to the American Indians (Darlington, 1996)
  7. ‘His story,’ wrote Sherwood of Brainerd ‘has done more to develop and mould the spirit of modern missions, and to fire the heart of the Christian Church, than that of any man since the apostolic age.’
  8. Page numbers refer to the Yale Edition which reinserts missing entries.
  9. Iain H. Murray Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Edinburgh; Banner of Truth, 1987)

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    David Brainerd was an 18th Century American missionary of Reformed beliefs. We say American but Brainerd lived before the Declaration of Independence and so, like his contemporaries, thought of himself chiefly as an Englishman. The struggle between the colonial powers of England, France, and Spain raged throughout his lifetime. In his short life, he travelled […]

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