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Friday, 28 March 2014

Not a Waste: the Short Life of David Brainerd

   David Brainerd (1718-1747) lived in New England for all of his twenty-nine years.  From the time of his conversion at 21 years of age to his death from “consumption” or tuberculosis, Brainerd dedicated himself to the service of God.  This included mission work to Native Americans living in the region of present-day New York and New Jersey.  As he preached and taught among them, he saw revival taking place.  
   The most direct information we have about David Brainerd comes through his missionary journal that was published by the Honourable Society (Scotland) for Propagating Christian Knowledge (1746) and his personal journals that were edited and published by Rev. Jonathan Edwards as The Life of David Brainerd (1749).  I took it upon myself to read as much as possible of the latter publication in preparation for this post.  When reading the journal edited by Edwards I was struck by a number of things:
  • When David Brainerd wrote these entries he never intended for them to be published.  Although he gave reluctant consent on his deathbed, Brainerd was surprised that they would be of any benefit to other Christian believers.  As a result some of the content made me feel like an intruder to private thoughts and struggles.
  • I’m quite sure Brainerd suffered from a significant mood disorder.  At the time, “melancholy” was used to define the dark periods of a person’s life.  At least a couple of days per week he tells of a debilitating sense of unworthiness.  One example: “Saw myself so vile and unworthy that I could not look my people in the face when I came to preach” [1]
  • His single-mindedness was reminiscent of St. Paul: “I thought I wanted not the favor of man to lean upon; for I knew Christ’s favor was infinitely better, and that it was no matter when, nor where, nor how Christ should send me, nor what trials he would still exercise me with, if I might be prepared for his work and will.”[2]
  • He is a man torn at times between assisting the Native people who come to him “under deep concern for their souls” and the exhaustion that comes of their “incessant application to me for help.” [3] This missionary needed an assistant! 
  • He refers to other Europeans whose nominal Christianity and harsh treatment of the Natives made it difficult to share the gospel.

   Dr. John A. Dreisbach said, “This book by Jonathan Edwards was the first biography written in America that achieved wide notice abroad as well as at home.”[4]  It influenced some of the biggest names in mission work in the coming centuries, including Adoniram Judson (Burma), William Carey (India), Henry Martyn (India), John Wesley (founder of Methodism in England and USA), J. Hudson Taylor (China) and David Livingstone (various locations along the Zambezi River in Africa).
   Although David Brainerd’s lifespan was considerably short and fraught with suffering, his devotion to the Lord urges us to seize each day for God’s glory.

[1] The Life of David Brainerd by Jonathan Edwards, Yale University Press, 1985 edition, January 1, 1744 entry, p.232.
[2] The Life, April 12, 1742 entry, p. 160.
[3] The Life, January 13, 1746 entry, p. 354.

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