|From the Summer 2011 issue of Knowing & Doing|
by David B. Calhoun, Ph.D.
David Brainerd died on October 9, 1747, in Jonathan Edwards’s home in Northampton, Massachusetts. In what Edwards saw as a singular act of God’s providence, Brainerd had been persuaded by friends not to destroy his diary. Instead, he had put it in Edwards’s hands to dispose of as “would be most for God’s glory and the interest of religion.”
David Brainerd was born on April 20, 1718, at Haddam, Connecticut. As a young man, he had, as he says, “a very good outside.” After a time of “distressed, bewildered, and tumultuous state of mind” and rebellion against God’s law and sovereignty, the twenty-year-old Brainerd was radically transformed by a new vision of God’s glory: “My soul was so captivated and delighted with the excellence, loveliness, greatness… of God that I had no thought… at first, about my own salvation, and scarce reflected that there was such a creature as myself.”
In September 1739, Brainerd entered Yale College to prepare for the ministry. During Brainerd’s second year at Yale, George Whitefield visited the college, and a few months later so did Gilbert Tennent. Because of the strong revival preaching of these ministers, Brainerd, writes Jonathan Edwards, experienced “much of God’s gracious presence, and of the lively actings of true grace” but also was influenced by that “intemperate, indiscreet zeal, which was at that time too prevalent.” When Brainerd criticized one of the college tutors and the rector for their opposition to the revival, he was expelled. Neither his own apology nor Jonathan Edwards’s appeal moved the college authorities to allow Brainerd to complete his studies and graduate.
In the spring of 1742, Brainerd was overwhelmed by a strong desire that God use him in the work of missions “to the heathen.” 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.”
David Brainerd was licensed as a preacher of the gospel on July 29, 1742, and called by a Scottish missionary society to become their missionary to the Mahican Indians at Kaunaumeek in western Massachusetts. After twelve grueling months of ministry in this “farther-most edge of civilized America,” Brainerd, at the instruction of the mission board, changed his field to serve the Indians at the Forks of the Delaware in Pennsylvania. There he struggled with the intricate dialects of the Indian language, physical weariness and illness, and deep distrust on the part of the Indians, who had so often suffered at the hands of white men. Few of the Indians responded to his Christian message. 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.”
In the summer of 1745, Brainerd moved to New Jersey to preach to the Delaware Indians at Crossweeksung near Freehold. A sudden and sovereign outpouring of God’s Spirit brought surprising success to Brainerd’s mission, leading to seventy-seven baptisms in less than a year.