Missionary Stories

David Brainerd: Pioneering a Legacy in Missions

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Written by McKenna Von Gunten

David Brainerd was one of the first American missionaries to carry the gospel message to the Native Americans in New Jersey in their own language.

David’s story is full of trials and suffering, yet no account of his is ever told without revealing his faith in God. While the call to ministry will look different for everyone, David’s fervor and passion for the Lord and for lost souls is contagious and convicting. His life has inspired countless missionaries and preachers for centuries and continues to motivate people today.

This blog is the first in the series of 10 Christian Missionaries Every Christian Should Know, where we are exploring how Christian pioneer missionaries have impacted culture, nations, and the history of missions.

The Life of David Brainerd

On April 20th, 1718, David Brainerd was born to devout Christian parents in Haddam, Connecticut. By the age of fourteen, he and his eight siblings had lost both of their parents to illnesses and were left as orphans.

In his early years, David was very careful and serious in following God. However, he once said, “I had a very good outside but my heart was exceedingly sinful.” He made a commitment to enter into the ministry even though he was not a believer. When he was nineteen, he moved to an inherited farm and read through the entire Bible twice in a year, and began to see that his religion was legalistic and based upon his own efforts. He wrestled with God’s sovereignty in his soul and battled deep depression. He strongly fought with the fact that there was nothing he could do in his own strength to commend himself to God.

This all changed one evening before sunset when he was radically transformed by a new vision of God’s glory. He found an unspeakable joy in letting Jesus be King over his life and the whole earth. That night, he determined to live wholly for God so that God’s glory could be known.

Two months later Brainerd enrolled at Yale and began to prepare himself for a career in ministry. His first year was rough as he dealt with multiple illnesses which caused him to go home. In the fall of 1740, he returned to find that the spiritual atmosphere among the students had drastically changed. Several pastor-evangelists from the Great Awakening had spoken to the student body and stirred up their passion and love for Christ. This, however, created tension between the conservative staff, as some of the faculty had been criticized by students in their enthusiasm for the gospel as being unconverted.

In 1741, Jonathan Edwards was invited to preach at Yale in the hopes that he would stand up for the faculty against the charismatic nature of the students. However, Edwards’ sermon completely disappointed the staff since he argued that the awakening among the student body was a real spiritual work in spite of their disfavorable views of the staff. This put into action a rule made by the college board that if anyone condemned a staff member as hypocrites or unconverted men, that the student would be expelled immediately.

David Brainerd was at the top of his class academically but was promptly expelled during his third year. He was overheard by one of the professors that his tutor “had no more grace than a chair”, and that he wondered why the Rector “did not drop down dead” for fining students for their evangelical zeal. David greatly regretted his mistake and apologized. He made several attempts to get back into the college but was still refused entry.

Discouraged, Brainerd had to rethink his plan of becoming a minister. There had been a recent law passed that no one could preach publically unless they had graduated from Harvard, Yale, or a European Univerity. David began to question his calling to ministry and came to the realization that God must be at work for the glory of His name even if his best intentions fail. He then accepted that God must have better plans for his life. At this point, the thought of becoming a missionary to Indians was nowhere in his mind.

Ministry to the Delaware Indians

In 1742, David Brainerd received his license to preach by Jonathan Dickinson, who later founded Princeton. Dickinson was also a Commissioner of Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, a Christian missionary sending organization. He tried to re-establish David in Yale, but with no breakthrough. After his unsuccessful attempt, he asked if David had considered becoming a missionary instead. After praying about it, Brainerd was overwhelmed by a strong desire that God wanted to use him in the work of missions to the lost souls of the Indians.

On November 25, 1742, Brainerd was examined for his fitness for the work and appointed as a missionary to the Native Americans along the Delaware River. His missionary commitment is expressed in his words:

“Here I am, Lord, send me; send me to the ends of the earth; send me to the rough, the savage pagans of the wilderness; send me from all that is called comfort on earth; send me even to death itself, if it be but in thy service, and to promote thy kingdom.””

In the spring of 1743, David spent a year of grueling work among the Housatonic Indians at Kaunaumeek, about twenty miles northwest of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. While he preached with a translator, he also started a school for Indian children and tried learning the language so that he could translate some of the Psalms. However, he saw very little spiritual transformation among the natives.

After one year, the mission board decided to move Brainerd to another tribe along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. There he fought with grasping the intricate dialects of the native’s language and suffered from physical weariness, illness, and deep mistrust from the Indians, who had experienced hurt from white traders. Within that same year, he also traveled to surrounding tribes, but the people were unresponsive to his message. Fighting tuberculosis, cold, lack of sleep, and hunger, Brainerd fought to continue in his ministry among the Indians. He wrote:

“To an eye of reason everything respecting the conversion of the heathen is as dark as midnight; yet I cannot but hope in God for the accomplishment of something glorious among them.”

The Awakening of Souls

In the summer of 1745, David Brainerd was relocated to Crossweeksung, New Jersey, to preach to the Indians. Within a year, there were 130 Indians that accepted Christ as their Savior and 77 people were baptized. David was amazed at this turn of events and even more amazed when he saw the fruit of their faith still in action weeks later.

Whenever David preached a sermon among the people, the entire tribe would fall down on their faces and weep for hours because they were concerned that they had never known about their great sin towards the Lord before. They discovered fierce longings in their souls for Christ, to save them from the misery they felt and feared. The Spirit of God was at work in awakening the native’s hearts and calling them out of their sin and shame while revealing His great love for them. David has several accounts in his journal where he tells the story of the Indian’s repentance and love for Christ.

“In the afternoon, they were returned to the place where I had usually preached amongst them, I again discoursed to them there. There were about fifty-five persons in all, about forty that were capable of attending divine service with understanding. I insisted upon 1 John 4:10, “Herein is love.” They seemed eager of hearing; but there appeared nothing very remarkable, except their attention, till near the close of my discourse; and then divine truths were attended with a surprising influence, and produced a great concern among them. There was scarce three in forty that could refrain from tears and bitter cries. They all, as one, seemed in an agony of soul to obtain an interest in Christ; and the more I discoursed of the love and compassion of God in sending his Son to suffer for the sins of men, and the more I invited them to come and partake of his love, the more their distress was aggravated, because they felt themselves unable to come. It was surprising to see how their hearts seemed to be pierced with the tender and melting invitations of the gospel when there was not a word of terror spoken to them.”

In the spring of 1746, David helped the entire Native American Christian community from Crossweeksung move to Cranberry to have their own land and village. He stayed with these Indians until he grew too sick with tuberculosis to preach. During autumn, he moved to Elizabethtown to recover at the house of Jonathan Dickinson, who had originally commissioned him to be a missionary.

March 20th, 1747, was the last visit David Brainerd made to his Indian friends. On March 18th he wrote:

“About ten o’clock, I called my people together; and after having explained and sung a psalm, I prayed with them. There was a considerable degree of affection among them; I doubt not, in some instances, that which was more than merely natural.”

He then rode to the house of Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he was cared for by Jonathan’s daughter, Jerusha. A couple of months later he died at the age of 29 from tuberculosis in Edwards’s house on October 9th, 1747. His last journal entry was written on October 2nd.

“My soul was this day, at turns, sweetly set on God: I longed to be with him, that I might behold his glory. I felt sweetly disposed to commit all to him, even my dearest friends, my dearest flock, my absent brother, and all my concerns for time and eternity. Oh that his kingdom might come in the world; that they might all love and glorify him, for what he is in himself; and that the blessed Redeemer might `see of the travail of his soul, and be satisfied!’ `Oh come, Lord Jesus, come quickly! Amen.'”

His Legacy

“As long as I see any thing to be done for God, life is worth having: but oh, how vain and unworthy it is, to live for any lower end!”

– David Brainerd

David Brainerd was a missionary for four years until the day of his death in 1747. He was sick with tuberculosis for the last eight years of his life and struggled with loneliness, depression, loving the Indians, finding beauty in nature, and staying true to his calling as a missionary instead of reverting back to being a pastor of a church throughout different seasons.

After Brainerd’s death, Jonathan Edwards published David’s diary as well as the story of his life. He wrote that:

“Brainerd’s life shows the right way to success in the work of the ministry,” and “his example of laboring, praying, denying himself, and enduring hardness, with unfainting resolution and patience, and his faithful, vigilant, and prudent conduct in many other respects may afford instruction to missionaries in particular.”

However, nothing could stop him from obeying the call that God had placed on his heart. While he was only a missionary for four years, the impact he made was of eternal value. Because of his prayers and persistence in seeking after God’s will in difficult seasons, God has used his story to encourage others in their ministry, such as William Carey, Jim Elliot, and Adoniram Judson, as well as those who deal with the same struggles as he did. They often looked at Brainerd’s life in the woods of America as a living example, pointing out that he poured out his very soul before God for the perishing heathen who could not be satisfied without the saving grace of the Lord’s salvation.

Despite Brainerd’s suspension from Yale, the University later named a building after him, Brainerd Hall at Yale Divinity School, which is the only building on the campus to be named after a student who was expelled. It is hard not to wonder that if Brainerd had gone back to college if the modern day missions movement would have had the same outcome. If he hadn’t been expelled from Yale, he may have pursued a teaching or pastoral ministry instead of becoming a missionary to the Indians, and the incalculable impact on the history of missions may have been exponentially different.

However, this event brought about the founding of both Princeton and Dartmouth College. Dartmouth College originated from a school founded by Eleazar Wheelock for Native Americans and colonists in 1748, which had been inspired by Brainerd’s example of Native American education. David also had made a great impact on both Jonathan Dickinson and Aaron Burr, the founders of Princeton, who were indignant by the refusal of him not being able to return to Yale.

These men were inspired by David’s ardent passion for God, his hunger for holiness, and his longing to see the lost souls of men be found. This urged several other missionaries, including David’s brother, John who worked among the Indians, to fan the spark of missions into a massive blaze.

David Brainerd’s life is an indisputable reminder that God can use even the weakest Christian upon his knees to shake the kingdom of darkness and use his faith for His glory and His kingdom. As a missionary, David believed in the power of prayer and was often seen on his knees, seeking the heart of God through prayer and fasting. One story tells that David went out in the dead of winter and knelt on the ground, praying for hours in fervent intercession for his Native American friends. When he had finished, there was a circle of melted snow from his body heat. David’s prayers reflect that he put no hope or confidence in the flesh but trusted that it was God alone who could work in men’s hearts.

In one of his journal entries on June 26 and the 27th, David reveals his heart for intercession:

“Though I was much discouraged with the extreme difficulty of that work, yet God supported me…In prayer my soul was enlarged; was enabled to cry to God for my poor Indians; and though the work of their conversion appeared impossible with man, yet with God I saw all things were possible…was enabled to be instant in prayer for them; and hoped that God would bow the heavens and come down for their salvation…I continued in a solemn frame, lifting up my heart to God for assistance and grace, that I might be more mortified to this present world, that my whole soul might be taken up continually in concern for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom: longed that God would purge me more, that I might be as a chosen vessel to bear his name among the heathens…While I was riding had a deep sense of the greatness and difficulty of my work; and my 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, if ever they were delivered from the bondage of the powers of darkness. Spent most of the time, while riding, in lifting up my heart for grace and assistance.”

The most impactful outcome of Brainerd’s ministry is that there are a few Indians–perhaps several hundred–who owe their everlasting life to the direct love and ministry of David Brainerd. Who can describe the value of one soul transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s dear Son? If we live 29 years or if we live 99 years, would not any hardships be worth the saving of one person from the eternal torments of hell for the everlasting enjoyment of the glory of God?

Read more about Christian pioneer missionaries who impacted the world and how God is raising up more pioneer missionaries who are being obedient to the call that the Lord has put on their life.

May our own hearts burn with fervor prayer for the love of God to be known by every individual on the earth.

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