Boasting in Weakness
The Work and Impact of David Brainerd
No North American missionary has been as famous as David Brainerd. What makes his example so remarkable is that he achieved such fame by a career on the mission field of only about five years, and that he died at the very young age of twenty-nine. Much of what we know about Brainerd is found in his diary, which was edited and expanded with biographical notes and comments by his father-in-law Jonathan Edwards. In it Brainerd bares his soul – the frustrations, the agony, the excitement, the impatience, and the hope of humble service to God. It is a humbling and inspiring read, and has an effect much like the Psalms in that the reader is drawn to empathize with Brainerd as he pours out his heart before God. In this way, Brainerd is a teacher of Christian spirituality, modeling openness and trust before a holy and faithful God.
Even from an early age, Brainerd seemed to have been inclined to think of matters of faith, and in his Diary he wrote of a fear of his own sinfulness beginning at the age of eight and his subsequent refuge in religious practice. Even so, after his mother’s death orphaned him at fourteen years old, he went through a time “without God in the world,” and during this period he admitted to some involvement in “frolicking” with “young company” with the result that, as he described it, when he “did go with such company, I never returned with so good a conscience as when I went.” Later on, as a student in Yale College, he found himself convicted of his hypocrisy and a crushing weight of guilt for his sinfulness. He gave himself more fully to practicing discipline, but to no avail, as he began to realize that even his strivings were actually designed to somehow “impress” the Almighty with his own worthiness for salvation.
Brainerd found himself raging against the Calvinistic doctrine of total depravity he had learned, realizing that it left him helpless to effect his own salvation. Yet he later credited this doctrine as being a great comfort to him as he realized that nothing he could do could convince or bribe God to save him, and that his fate depended totally on God’s grace; thus Brainerd swallowed his pride and found he could only ask for mercy. As a result, that summer he found himself with a new conception of God and a new appreciation for divine glory and mercy, trusting like a child in the righteousness of Christ to save him rather than his own, and his worries about his salvation slipped away.
Brainerd was filled with passion for God, one only stoked by the fires of revival. Yet Brainerd was soon found prone to the excesses that plagued the Awakening. He was overheard criticizing a college tutor for a public prayer, commenting that the man had “no more grace than this chair.” This comment eventually resulted in Brainerd’s expulsion from Yale, and he continued his preparation for ministry as an intern with a Congregational pastor named Jedediah Mills. In 1742, he was interviewed by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge for a mission among the Indians, and found himself sent to the field in 1743.
Initially discouraged by the paganism of the natives and by a lack of immediate response to his message, compounded by bouts of sickness, Brainerd soon found himself relying more heavily on God for ministry results rather than trusting his own efforts. His June 27, 1744 diary entry noted that his “soul seemed to rely wholly upon God for success, in the diligent and faithful use of means. Saw, with greatest certainty, that the arm of the Lord must be revealed for the help of these poor heathen…” Always a Calvinist, Brainerd became even more firmly convinced that God alone could turn hearts and that his role was not to look for results himself but rather to be faithful and persistent in his duty to preach the Gospel.
In June of 1745 Brainerd moved to Crossweeksung, New Jersey. Unlike before, the Indians there were immediately receptive to his message. Brainerd saw his interpreter converted and baptized, an incident that greatly aided his preaching as his interpreter now fully understood the message and the culture to which it was being preached. Six weeks later, after a short trip away, Brainerd returned to Crossweeksung and found the natives eagerly awaiting his preaching. By the end of October, a full spiritual revival was in progress. His diary entry of October 28 stated that “The Word of God at this time seemed to fall upon the assembly with a divine power and influence… [t]here was both a sweet melting and bitter mourning in the audience.” By November 4 he had baptized “in all forty-seven persons of the Indians,” from Crossweeksung and elsewhere. Brainerd noted with undisguised satisfaction that none of these had yet disgraced their Christian profession.
Less than a year after his arrival Brainerd was shepherding a flock of more than 130 Indians. However, by the fall of 1746 his tuberculosis had become so severe that he left to be cared for in New England by friends. After a brief visit back to Crossweeksung in March, Brainerd returned to New England and stayed with Jonathan Edwards’ family under the care of Edwards’ daughter Jerusha. Brainerd by this point was heavily depressed by his condition, but eventually as he came to accept the inevitable he even longed for death, awaiting “that glorious day” when he might finally, unencumbered by earthly burdens and sin, “serve God perfectly.” His presence and demeanour was a great encouragement to Edwards and his family, and Edwards marveled repeatedly in Brainerd’s diary about his courage and hope in the face of such suffering. Brainerd finally succumbed to his illness on October 9, 1747, and his nurse and wife Jerusha died four months later of the same illness.
Brainerd’s ministry was short, frustrating, painful, and, for far too long, seemingly fruitless. It was not until the year before his death that Brainerd finally saw the fruits of his labour. If one looks at the direct results of Brainerd’s work, it may seem difficult to see much of an enduring impact. After all, he did not convert thousands, nor did he organize or lead any great and enduring mission thrusts. Yet David Brainerd’s name is instantly recognizable to millions of Christians. Why?
Because of that diary he left and the impression he made on the great theologian Jonathan Edwards. The devotional impact alone of Brainerd’s Diaryhas been immense. Brainerd’s biography and diary continue to impact missionaries to the present day. No less a pioneer of foreign missions than William Carey repeatedly cites Brainerd’s selfless and sacrificial service, alongside John Eliot and the Moravians, as an example of the practicability of missions in his groundbreaking work, An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. Any assessment of Brainerd’s enduring impact must take into account the profound influence that his example and diary had in forming Carey’s views.
Besides the personal inspiration that Brainerd became to so many, his ministry itself offered many important practical lessons at a time when the world missions movement was in its infancy. The success of the SPCK in sponsoring Brainerd’s work certainly served as a model for Carey and others as they organized the Baptist Missionary Society. By demonstrating the practicability of overseas missions and the feasibility of support structures, Brainerd in his ministry thus played an important role in shaping the direction of modern missions.
When reading the story of David Brainerd, one cannot help thinking of the words of Paul as he describes his sufferings in the eleventh chapter of Second Corinthians. If anyone besides the apostle had reason to boast in the things that showed his weakness, it was David Brainerd. The incredible impact that such a short and frustrating ministry career has had on the course of world missions, and on the spiritual lives of thousands of believers through the centuries since, both testify to the providential direction of God in the task of world missions. God uses the humblest of men to move the mightiest mountains. Any believer can take hope, when reading Brainerd’s story, that no matter what the burdens and obstacles that may come along the Christian walk, God will use their service for His glory. The hope and faith of Brainerd throughout the sufferings he faced should serve as a model for all.
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