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The Diary and Journal of David Brainerd – A Review by K D Macleod

Category Book Reviews
Date September 17, 2010

This famous book has been reprinted in hardback by the Banner of Truth Trust. It is 784 pages in length.

David Brainerd gave himself wholeheartedly to missionary endeavour among groups of American Indians in what is now north-eastern USA. He was spared to this work for only a few years, dying of tuberculosis in 1747 at the age of only 29. But these were years packed with self-sacrificing labour consecrated to the glory of God and the good of souls, and he has left us a remarkable example of devoted godliness.

The book principally consists of two distinct parts. First, there is Brainerd’s Diary, which was written for no eyes but his own; there he ingenuously records his spiritual experiences. Second, there is his Journal, which was produced as a series of reports to the correspondents in America who managed his mission on behalf of the Scottish society which was supporting him. While clearly the documents overlap, one does not have the feeling that they are covering the same ground. Both the Diary and the Journal were edited for publication by Jonathan Edwards, in whose home Brainerd was devotedly cared for in his final illness.

At times, in spite of failing health, Brainerd was remarkably bright spiritually. On 19 February 1746, he wrote, ‘My heart was comforted and refreshed, and filled with longings for the conversion of the Indians here’. And two days later:

My spirits were much supported, though my bodily strength was much wasted. O that God would be gracious to the souls of these poor Indians! He has been very gracious to me this week, in enabling me to preach every day; and has given me some assistance and encouraging prospects of success in almost every sermon. Blessed be his name. Divers of the white people have been awakened this week, and several of the Indians much cured of the prejudices and jealousies they had conceived against Christianity, and some seemed to be really awakened.

From an earlier stage in his life comes this wonderful example of submission to God’s will: ‘Felt exceeding happy in secret prayer tonight, and desired nothing so ardently as that God should do with me just as he pleased’.

But, as Edwards notes in his Preface, Brainerd was prone to depression, which was no doubt aggravated by repeated bouts of debilitating illness. Yet, even when his spirits were low, he knew where to go for support. On the last day of August 1746 he noted:

Found a weight upon my spirits and could not but cry to God with concern and engagement of soul . . . Near night, was a little refreshed in mind with some views relating to my great work. O how heavy is my work when faith cannot take hold of an almighty arm for the performance of it! Many times have I been ready to sink in this case. Blessed be God, that I may repair to a full fountain.

Throughout his life Brainerd gave himself much to earnest prayer.

And the almighty arm of God did bless his conscientious and prayerful labours. In his journal entry of 19 June 1746 he noted that, during the previous 11 months, he had baptized 38 adults and 39 children, and all the adults ‘appeared to have a work of special grace wrought in their hearts’.

A feature of this edition, which has been omitted from many others, is Edwards’ ‘Reflections and Observations’ on what Brainerd had written. For instance, he points out that Brainerd’s ‘first faith did not consist in believing that Christ loved him, and died for him in particular’; rather it was the result of

a manifestation of God’s glory, and the beauty of his nature as supremely excellent in itself, powerfully drawing and sweetly captivating his heart . . . and also a new sense of the infinite wisdom, suitableness and excellency of the way of salvation by Christ, powerfully engaging his whole soul to embrace this way of salvation and to delight in it.

A further point about Brainerd which Edwards makes in his Preface is repeatedly illustrated in the book:

As he had a great insight into human nature . . . he excelled in his judgement . . . especially in things pertaining to inward experimental religion, most accurately distinguishing between real and solid piety and enthusiasm [extravagant emotion].

Accordingly, there is much to be learned about spiritual experience from this book, though one must bear in mind that there are variations between the experience of one believer and another and that the experience of some is more vivid than is the case with the others. And anyone who is in the least spiritually-minded should be stirred up by reading this book to pray for the extension of Christ’s kingdom in all parts of the world and, in particular, that God would send out ministers of David Brainerd’s spiritual calibre.

The Introduction is carried over from the 1902 edition, from which this reprint is taken, and is not of the same spiritual quality as the rest of the volume. In particular the reference to a novel strikes a very different note from Brainerd’s religion. But The Diary and Journal of David Brainerd should be very widely read. Those who neglect it are passing by a valuable resource from which they might derive much spiritual benefit. Robert Murray M’Cheyne described this pioneer missionary as a ‘most wonderful man’, and exclaimed: ‘O to have Brainerd’s heart for perfect holiness!’ Perfect holiness is now his. That is what he was longing for near end of his life: ‘O the glorious time is now coming! I have longed to serve God perfectly; now God will gratify those desires.’


Taken with permission from The Free Presbyterian Magazine, August 2010. Kenneth D. Macleod is a Pastor in Leverburgh, Isle of Harris.

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