David Brainerd (1718—1747) was a pioneering missionary who worked with Native Americans during the First Great Awakening in North America. He is remembered most for the extraordinary account of his life published by Jonathan Edwards, a famous Puritan theologian and revivalist. The book, which includes Brainerd’s private diary, profoundly influenced future missionaries such as Thomas Coke, William Carey, David Livingstone, and Jim Elliot.
David Brainerd was born in Haddam, Connecticut, a farming community on the Connecticut River. His parents, Hezekiah and Dorothy, raised David and his eight siblings in the Scriptures; however, both father and mother died before his fourteenth birthday. David spent the rest of his childhood in his sister’s home, pursuing an education and preparing for Christian ministry. Brainerd’s true conversion did not come until July 12, 1739, when David trusted Jesus Christ as Sovereign Lord and Savior at age twenty-one.
Two months later, David entered Yale University. In his first years at college, he showed early signs of tuberculosis, the disease that would eventually end Brainerd’s life at age twenty-nine. During college, David also experienced a spiritual awakening while attending revival meetings led by George Whitefield, James Davenport, and Gilbert Tennent. Although he was at the top of his class academically, the faculty at Yale disapproved of Brainerd’s zeal for the Great Awakening movement. When David offhandedly told a college tutor that he “had no more grace than a chair,” the remark resulted in Brainerd’s expulsion from Yale.
With his formal education cut short, Brainerd immediately sought an alternative for completing his ministry training. Studying under Congregational pastor Joseph Bellamy, Brainerd received a license to preach. In 1742, he was accepted by the Presbyterian Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge and commissioned to work among the Native Americans starting in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Later, he labored among the Indians in New York, in Pennsylvania, at the Forks of the Delaware River, and finally at Crossweeksung, New Jersey. In June of 1744, David Brainerd was ordained by the Presbytery of New York.
Due to his early losses, David Brainerd was often plagued with severe depression and self-doubt. His work was lonely, taking him more than 3,000 miles, often alone, on horseback. In his five years of ministry to native peoples, he encountered many disappointments, struggled with frequent illness, and saw relatively few converts. But he was deeply committed to obeying God’s call on his life. Brainerd’s greatest successes were achieved in his final two years of life while ministering among a receptive group of Delaware Indians at Crossweeksung. After sharing the gospel for several weeks, Brainerd saw a response, and a thriving congregation of more than one hundred new believers was established. Brainerd poured his last bit of energy into securing the community’s material and spiritual needs.
In the spring of 1747, Brainerd’s ever-worsening tuberculosis forced him to leave his mission field. Intending to recuperate, he went to live in the home of Jonathan Edwards. David was engaged to be married to Edwards’ daughter, Jerusah, who nursed him until his death in October 1747.
Two years later, Jonathan Edwards published The Life and Diary of the Rev. David Brainerd, telling the story from his friend’s private missionary journal. The book reveals what God can do when “fragile clay jars” (see 2 Corinthians 4:1–18) are willing to be used as vessels of mercy in God’s hands. The title became one of Edwards’ most famous works and a groundbreaking Christian missionary classic. David Brainerd’s life was short, his ministry brief, but his legacy lived long through those he inspired.
Here are some quotes from The Life and Diary of the Rev. David Brainerd:
“My soul longs to feel itself more of a pilgrim and stranger here below; that nothing may divert me from pressing through the lonely desert, till I arrive at my Father’s house.”
“Oh, if ever I get to heaven, it will be because God will, and nothing else; for I never did anything of myself, but get away from God!”
“I have received my all from God; Oh that I could return my all to God! Surely God is worthy of my highest affection, and most devout adoration; he is infinitely worthy, that I should make him my last end, and live forever to him.”
“It is good for me to be afflicted that I may die wholly to this world and all that is in it.”
“Oh, a barn, or stable, hedge, or any other place is desirable, if God is there.”