In volume 2 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, BOT 1974, pages 313-458, there is recorded, (double columned), the spiritual journey of David Brainerd, (Edwards' son in law). We witness Brainerd's struggles with faith, his discouragements as well as his awareness of God's comfort and guidance. He was much concerned for the souls of the American Indians at a time when such concern was unpopular among white men. Riding horse back to Indian villages, he travelled alone through the wilderness of eighteenth century New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, braving harsh weather, ‘hideous’ mountains, and many dangers.
At first, the results of Brainerd's efforts were not very rewarding. He had to overcome the language barrier and the mistrust of the Indians. Many times Brainerd records that he preached, “yet there appeared nothing of the power of God among them”. Though much of his disappointment is recorded, he makes more of the goodness and mercy of God. As he worked among the Indians, there were many joyful moments when they responded to his preaching in repentance and faith towards God in Christ.
Brainerd's life was brief, (he died at the age of twenty nine), but it was given to God with an intensity and wholeheartedness that few experience. As we consider just a fragment of his ministry may we be inspired to greater service in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
David Brainerd was born in America, April 20th. 1718, of godly parents. Awakened by the Spirit of God, he was born again at the age of twenty. He attended for the next three years Yale College, and began to preach when he was twenty four and continued to do so among the Indians from 1743 to 1747. It was most fitting that his life story should be written and his journal published. Men like William Carey were influenced by it. He urged his fellow labourers in India to “think of David Brainerd wrestling in prayer among the solitudes of the backwoods of America”. Henry Martyn, brilliant scholar of Cambridge University was also influenced by Brainerd, “I longed to be a flame of fire continually glowing in the divine service, and building up Christ's kingdom to my last and dying breath...now to burn out for God!”
Among his other graces, David Brainerd had a supreme desire for God's glory, a deep longing after holiness, and a daily practice of intercessory prayer. “O that I could spend every moment of my life to God's glory!” he once said. “Here I am, Lord, send me to the rough, savage pagans of the wilderness; send me from all that is called comfort even to death itself, if it be Thy service and to promote Thy kingdom. For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain”. On other occasion he burst out, “Oh that my soul was holy as He is holy! Oh that it were pure even as He is pure!” One cannot but believe that if he had applied more to the all cleansing blood of Christ of which so little is said in his diary, we should not have had those bitter upbraidings and bemoaning of corruption, nor those awful melancholy complaints which at length he came to regard as “sinful dejection”, and which hindered his usefulness.
On April 1st. 1742, at the age of twenty four, he writes, “I seem to be declining with respect to my warmth in divine things. Oh that God would humble me deeply in the dust before Him”. During the night of October 19th. of that same year, he records, “I felt a sweet longing in my soul after holiness”. These intense longings after sanctification are soon followed by confessions of failure and defeat that might seem discouraging to us who read these things in the experience of a man of God. In the following November, he records, “Had still a sense of my great vileness.... Oh, what a nothing, what dust and ashes am I”.
However, on a Sabbath in December there was a gleam of brightness on his dejected soul, “I preached with some sweetness on Matthew 6:33. This has been a sweet Sabbath to me”. This temporary relief was soon after succeeded by such fresh gloom and darkness of soul that, in unworthiness he shrank from ever going to the heathen with the gospel. Jonathan Edwards says that “his mind was overwhelmed with an exceeding gloominess and melancholy”.
On April 1st. 1743 Brainerd arrived among the Indians of Kaunaumeek and writes this, “ was greatly exercised with inward trials and distresses all day, and seemed to have no God to go to. However, preached to the Indians both forenoon and afternoon”. He was only twenty five, and records these words, “Enjoyed not much sweetness this morning, was very weak in body throughout the day; and thought that this frail body would soon drop in the dust, and had some very realising apprehensions of a speedy entrance into another world”.
On a Sabbath in that same year Brainerd mentions this, “Was much perplexed with some very irreligious Dutchmen. All their discourse turned upon the things of this world. O what a hell it would be to spend an eternity with such men! Well might David say, “I beheld the transgressors, and was much grieved”, Psalm 119:158. Soon after he writes, “I spent this whole day alone in prayer and fasting, being very dull and lifeless, melancholy and discouraged, but having read 2 Kings 19, my soul was moved and affected. I saw there was no other way for the afflicted people of God to take, but to go to God with all their sorrows as Hezekiah did, in his great distress, went and spread his complaint before the Lord”.
Another entry in his diary records this, “studying the Indian language, need to be alone in the back woods to do this, where I can also spend much time in prayer”. His father in law, Jonathan Edwards comments, “this study of the Indian language necessitated his frequent riding twenty four miles backward and forward through uninhabited woods, and exposed him often to extreme hardship especially in the winter”.
On the Sabbath of February 24th. 1745, Brainerd discovered this vital truth: “My discourse was well suited to my own case, for of late I have found a great want of apprehension of divine grace, and have often been greatly distressed in my soul, because I did not suitably apprehend this fountain opened to purge away sin; and so have been too much labouring for spiritual life, and peace of conscience, and progressive holiness in my own strength. But now God has shown me in some measure the arm of all strength and the fountain of all grace”. Edwards comments, “This is the secret of holiness that even earnest souls often miss. They magnify law rather than grace, they see the exceeding sinfulness of sin and forget the omnipotent Saviour, they deplore their guilt and stain, but do not extol the precious blood of Jesus”.
Next we find Brainerd in the lovely Susquehannah valley, to preach to another tribe of Indians, but even there he finds himself disconsolate, weak and exhausted. He writes, “I feel what Job must have felt, in 9:16, “If I had called, and He had answered me, yet would I not believe that He had hearkened to my voice”. But from that moment were there were conversions among the Indians, which brought such joy to his heart, he wrote, “God was pleased to assist me in prayer and give me souls for my hire”.
At this time we read of Brainerd's increasing weakness, and the alarming symptoms preceding his home call. Once, this weakness was so great that he almost fell off his horse when riding through the woods. He spent his last months in the home of Jonathan Edwards who notes Brainerd`s last words, “O why is His chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the wheels? I am very willing to part with all to be for ever with the Lord. I am almost in eternity. I long to be there. My work is done. All the world is nothing to me. I long to be in Heaven praising the Lord with the holy angels. All my desire is to glorify God. My parting prayer is for gospel ministers, that they may be filled with the Spirit.
Let us, as we watch David Brainerd's heavenward translation, pray like Elisha. “Oh that I might receive a double portion of his spirit” – his love for the heathen, and his longing for the kingdom of God to come.