David Brainerd: “A Review of His Life And Diary”
David Brainerd was a Puritan of Puritans. Schooled in Calvinist theology, every word thought and deed was all for the glory and majesty of God.
Brainerd was a missionary sent to the Red Indians (Native Americans) in Pennsylvania, USA during the 18th century.
His following book, which is 384 pages long, wasn’t an easy one to read through. It took me a month to do so, not only due to other commitments and projects but due to the fact that writings from this era can be rather “challenging” to wade through and offer a fair and balanced autopsy.
My initial feelings towards David are those of commendation. Although he was a Calvinist, I truly believe he was a man of God; totally dedicated to his calling and winning many Indians to faith in Christ.
Throughout his diary, which he was compelled to keep for his missionary board in Scotland, he not only battled against the old Adamic nature (something all Christians do) but more regrettably for him, was how he never had mature Christian company to help him reach the vast numbers of Indians, in numerous regions on the East coast, even though he travelled for five weeks (several hundred miles) searching for assistance and fellowship to replace his solitary existence, which he experienced for two long years.
(Throughout his brief life as a missionary he travelled three thousand miles on horseback).
He also regretted the fact that the gift of tongues (always a known language in the NT) wasn’t given to him, for he would have to pay (even though he had little money) an interpreter to assist him, who later, along with his wife, got baptised by him.
(On page 170, Brainerd writes about translating prayers into Indian; perhaps he picked up some of their dialects later in years?)
In his day, when a missionary was sent overseas, one thing they knew for sure: they weren’t ever going to return home alive.
They, like William Carey, would die on the mission field.
This personal diary, which was never intended for publication and distribution, is loaded with his numerous “ups” and “downs.”
At times he even appears suicidal!
He loves God and His word one moment and the next has little or no interest. One minute he is enjoying robust health and helps in building houses for his Indian families, the next moment he is too sick to get out of bed and needs carrying into the church to conduct services.
It is my view that David was very much a modern-day “Job” character, for he was too often under “attack” to just be written off as being simply one of those natural things for people of his day.
The main theme of this book is Brainerd’s constant examination of his practical standing with God.
Positionally, I am sure he understood himself to be saved and at peace with God, but practically he was very hard on himself. I am told that this was quite the norm in Puritan times and maybe such oversensitive response to sin is something the church has lost sight of today.
The following, and there are many in this book, captures David’s views of himself:
“I feel very heartless and dull, and though I long for the presence of God and seem constantly to reach towards God in desire, yet I cannot feel that divine and heavenly sweetness that I used to enjoy. No poor creature stands in need of divine grace more than I, and none abuse it more than I have done, and still do” (p. 78).
I can tell you this is one of the most honest statements uttered by a SAVED man. Why? Because the truth of the matter is, EVERYBODY who names the name of Christ can agree with David, including yours truly.
I would also add that for those of us in front-line ministries, whenever we have success in witnessing and leading souls to Christ, no sooner are we rejoicing in this, than all of a sudden, we can go into a deep depression. This is something I also recall an American acquaintance of ours acknowledging, for he too after enjoying a successful period of preaching, dipped in his spirit for several days.
Brainerd was no exception either.
Throughout David’s early diary days, his ministry among the Indians is practically non-existent. He tries exhaustively to reach them for the Gospel but to no avail. This continues for what must have felt like a lifetime and on at least one occasion he seriously considered resigning from the mission field and returning back home to Northampton, USA.
Several pages later and once again Brainerd is very philosophical and upbeat, even while his ministry and its lack of fruit are all too evident for him to see:
“How often God caused His goodness to pass before me! And how poorly have I answered the vows I made this time twelvemonth to be wholly the Lord’s, to be forever devoted to His Service! The Lord help me to live more to His glory for the time to come” (p. 81).
Day after day and he yearns to be fulfilled and not to be a time waster, something he felt he was much of the time.
One of David’s many depressions returns with a vengeance:
“I saw myself so vile that I was ready to say, ‘”I shall now perish by the hand of Saul'” (p. 90).
He continues on with his hatred of sin and self:
“I could not bear to think of Christians showing me any respect” (p. 90).
Again these words are so true to any sanctified saint and I would challenge any self-righteous believer to say otherwise.
Time and time again, David writes about having refuge only in God: he feels totally deserted, resigned and being most vile.
As I think about David and his loathing of himself, I am reminded of that wonderful verse in the book of Daniel, when the Angel Gabriel finally makes it to a besieged Daniel, with the following wonderful words, which appear three times in this book, and oh, how David could have adopted as his own too: “for thou art greatly beloved” (Dan. 9.23).
Much of Brainerd’s work meant travelling on horseback to numerous places. He speaks about a literal bodily trembling, something he was said to have done often, before giving services to the church.
(I believe the late Jack Hunter of the Brethren Assembly often experienced this too).
As David plods along, he reaches one of the lowest ebbs in his ministry, when he offers the following words:
“I was deprived of all sense of God, even of the being of a God; and that was my misery” (p. 112).
What we have just read is very common and affects many of the brethren. When a Christian goes through long periods of time, when God seems far, far away, one can be forgiven for even doubting His existence. Again, Satan’s job is to do whatever he can do to annihilate a ministry, especially a real rock solid, Bible-based one, and causing Christians to doubt His existence is top of his methods, I am convinced!
During this intense period of grief for David, he once again turns on his old sinful nature, again something that most Christians totally fail to grasp; and we have him speaking of his “own badness, inward impurity, and unspeakable corruption” (p. 112).
To feel this way is quite right and as someone once said: “When was the last time YOU wept over your sins”?
David did all the time and I hope we do too!
By page 119 and still no real progress in Mr. Brainerd’s ministry, he once again is in despair and if I wasn’t a Bible-believing Christian, I would have to diagnose David as suffering from schizophrenia, something Barry Smith’s daughter tragically had, which in the end destroyed her, when she committed suicide in 2000.
But I am a saved man and one which lived in this wicked world for years before I got saved, therefore I clearly recognise his symptoms as being Biblical and quite normal.
But David once again offloads his feelings while taking pen to paper:
“In the evening, my heart was sunk and I seemed to have no God to go to. Oh, that God would help me.”
(The late Leonard Ravenhill first introduced me to David Brainerd, when I stumbled across one of his many excellent teaching videos online, some years ago. I recall him speaking very fondly about how David would often pray for hours in the woods alone, during the middle of winter, and when he had concluded, all the snow around him had melted; so intense were his prayers. Ravenhill also would himself speak about doing likewise, in the Forest of Dean, if memory serves me right).
During these power-prayer sessions, I believe both men reached rare highs with God, sadly only to be brought back down to earth with a thud, as David would echo:
“Sometimes I was assaulted with damping doubts and fears whether it was possible for such a wreath as I to be in a state of grace.”
It was only a matter of time before we found him questioning his salvation. Something all too common and normal, especially when one’s ministry seems to have stalled.
Page 124, and Brainerd lists his many grievances for his mission board back home, and please remember, he was not looking for pity, but trying to be honest in his written journals:
“…I have no comfort of any kind but what I have in God. I live in the most lonesome wilderness; have but one single person to converse with, that can speak English…I have no fellow Christian to whom I might unbosom myself or lay open my spiritual sorrows…I live poorly with regard to the comforts of life. I lodge on a bundle of straw, my labor is hard and extremely difficult, and I have little appearance of success to comfort me…The Indians have no land to live on but what the Dutch people lay claim to; and these threaten to drive them off. They have no regard to the souls of the poor Indians; and, by what I can learn, they hate me because I come to preach to them. But that which makes all my difficulties grievous to be borne is that God hides His face from me. Spent most of this day in close studies, but was sometimes so distressed that I could think of nothing but my spiritual blindness, ignorance, pride and misery. Oh, I have reason to make that prayer, ‘”Lord, forgive my sins of youth, and former trespasses.'”
Just as one thought his condition couldn’t deteriorate any more, he offers to his board back in Scotland more heartfelt honesty, in which he writes about lack of food and even near starvation, sometimes searching for fifteen miles, and when he did locate food, it’s mouldy and inedible.
Throughout this book, the Calvinist, Jonathan Edwards, a close friend and associate of Brainerd, offers his own commentary to some of David’s diary notes. It must be said that Mr. Brainerd not only died at Edward’s home but sadly soon afterwards, one of Edwards’ daughters, Jerusha, who was only eighteen years old herself, also died. Both had been very close, with Jerusha nursing him in his last days right up to his death. Edwards so graciously takes her sudden death all in his stride, leaning entirely and correctly on God’s holy and wonderful sovereignty.
Page 140 and he is still struggling to keep a clear mind and upbeat mindset, for he now wonders if God will ever use him in any way at all.
Again it is my belief and experience that such feelings as these are quite normal and understandable.
Time and time again, David finds himself lamenting his twin-nature, something few today understand. Some people incorrectly believe that when a person gets saved, they are totally transformed into perfect people.
While it is true that 2 Cor. 5:17 speaks about saved people being new creations in Christ, what I believe this means is how a person is positionally perfect (meaning totally forgiven by God the moment they believed) but not practically perfect with God. In other words, one is saved, but day by day still lives and battles with sin in one’s life, something that Romans 7 echoes.
Therefore when he speaks about not being able to live a Christian life, meditating or spending serious time in devotion, he too fails to understand how powerful the old man is; that is why Paul often called himself “o wretched man,” and more importantly, why Jesus Christ lived the perfect life that you and I couldn’t.
(Donald Barnhouse once used an analogy of an Olympic swimmer wanting to encourage amateurs to swim just like him. But after a while, the amateurs understood they simply couldn’t. This is what many Christians think; somehow if they “live as Jesus lived” they will be saved. Barnhouse, correctly explains using the same analogy, that if the Olympic swimmer carries the amateur along with him then both will arrive at the finishing line, thanks not to the amateur but to the Olympian – Jesus Christ).
Brainerd was honest, as always, when he cries that he cannot devote himself to God without sinning (p. 152).
Throughout his vast travelling, he often has occasion to preach to other people, like the Irish and Dutch, with some of them coming under deep conviction of sin (some publicly weeping) and finding forgiveness from God.
Page 172 and again he is calling himself “the vilest, meanest creature upon the earth” and how he could “scarcely live with myself.”
No doubt this is deep repentance and a real loathing for his sinful nature, even though it is uncomfortable to read.
Some days would pass before he found himself compelled to peaceably break up a pagan Indian feast to one of their deities, and this he did successfully for God’s glory.
(I recall falling out with a member of my family, a life-long agnostic when we were corresponding about the fictitious character, Rev. Hale from the filmHawaii. I told him how I knew of a real missionary couple who, like Brainerd, had intervened in Communist Romania and paid a huge price in doing so. Shortly afterwards, he closed the door on me. I haven’t heard from him since.)
By this stage of Brainerd’s ministry, he has started to turn the corner and Satan too is turning up the pressure on him – plaguing him with more doubts of God’s existence and how inferior the Bible and its message is to the Indians ancient civilisation and pagan worship.
By this stage the reader sees very clearly a young dedicated and most Godly man, however, when a fellow preacher, by the name of Brother Byram comes to visit him, Brainerd sees an even more spiritual and sanctified man of God, than himself – this leaves him more paranoid and self-conscious of his sinful nature and shortcomings.
(With friends like this, who needs enemies!)
Moving on and we join David once again going through, what the written and Bible teacher, Warren Wiersbe, calls “his dry periods.” For many times Mr. Wiersbe is unable to even preach to his church, due to his prolonged periods of barrenness. David knew this feeling well and confesses to this on page 180 when he states how uninterested he is about preaching the Gospel to some Indians, but at the 11th hour, on this occasion at least, God gave him words to speak to them.
I can concur with Brainerd and Wiersbe, for sometimes the spirit of a saved man can be so cast down, that no matter what one does, they just can’t shake that feeling until they rest and wait for God to recharge their spiritual batteries.
Another interesting thing about David is how he speaks in code, trying to camouflage certain sins that he battles with:
“I have found myself exercised sorely with some particular things that I thought myself most of all freed from. And thus I have ever found it, when I have thought the battle was over and the conquest gained and so let down my watch, the enemy has risen up and done me the greatest injury” (p. 180).
Some saved people have committed sins they would not have committed before they were saved.
One of Brainerd’s biggest challenges, and again all Christians struggle with this, is the sin of pride! On page 185, he admits to wanting his name to live on after him, something that did happen but he correctly sees this as being wrong, and adds this to his many other sins to battle and try and get victory over.
By the time we get to page 203, David Brainerd’s ministry is finally on the up and from this point on, we find little of the melancholy Brainerd, and more of the content and well placed Brainerd.
Interestingly he rarely mentions spiritual forces, that is directly trying to interfere with him and his ministry, but one can see how many of them were against him, from the moment he arrived there to the moment God called him home.
By this stage of his ministry, he is winning respect from people and therefore others are coming forward to hear his message and get baptised. Certain Indians were under such conviction of sin that on one occasion a lady lay flat on her back for many hours, crying out:
“Have mercy on me, and help me to give You my heart” (p. 219).
By page 243, he has baptised 47 adults and 24 children. Not clear if these were infants or not.
Not missing on Brainerd during this time, was the fact that when he least had hope that God would ever open an effectual door for him, the Lord does just that and it was music to his long-awaited ears.
But before he was able to rejoice and enjoy the moment, he once again finds himself lamenting at what he calls, “my mind was exceedingly depressed with a view of the unsuccessfulness of my labors” (p. 243).
By page 286, he had numbered those that have been baptised under his ministry, to be a hundred and thirty.
Also intriguing to read how he writes about these people having “no consciousness of sin and guilt,” even though Romans 1 says all know of God and suppress Him.
(Victor Pearce in his book on Evolution and Science tells of missionaries reporting how pagan converts in the Himalayas later confessed to their Christians elders how they had had knowledge of sin, right and wrong, but never really understood why until they heard the gospel preached. It might be these Indians were so superstitious and wicked, that they had seared their consciences with hot irons).
Along with baptizing everyday people, he would also have the honour of baptising a murderer who had slain a young Indian.
And he was successful in persuading an Indian to leave his common-law wife and return to his martial wife; a sermon on adultery had caused this old man to repent and turn from his immorality.
Page 325, his health is fast deteriorating; he complains of coughing and spitting out blood and quickly loses interest in food, which no doubt results in dramatic weight loss, which for a man already underweight, is a recipe for disaster.
However he is minded to preach for the many requests he gets, but simply cannot due to bodily infirmities and prolonged loss of blood.
Fevers come and go and on one occasion he writes about being delirious on his sickbed, as he drifted in and out of consciousness (p. 333).
During this period, his friends periodically write him off with great tears, only to witness his revival and stubborn spirit, return to live on for the glory and service of God.
Jonathan Edwards, on page 344 reports how a Mr. Dickinson and his fiance were married by David, during his brief remission, only to sadly die several months later.
On the following page, we read from Edwards how one of Brainerd’s associates, a Mr. Smith, also passed away, very soon after David’s death.
Soon after Brainerd’s twenty-ninth birthday, he was finally diagnosed by a Dr. Mather, Jonathan Edwards’ physician, of having incurable consumption. He took the news very well and according to Edwards, this made no “manner of alteration as to the cheerfulness and serenity of his mind” (p. 350).
Around this time his brother Israel visits him to break the tragic news of their beloved sister, Spencer’s, premature death.
For the rest of his days, Israel becomes his scribe, as David was too sick to sit up in bed, let alone put pen to paper.
Sadly on 6th January 1748, three months after David’s death, Israel would die of a nervous fever.
The next few pages, we have multiple prayers, praise and worship of God, from the dying David Brainerd, a truly remarkable and brilliant man of God!
The following praise, which I believe is worth quoting in full, should be cited in memory of him and may it be a lesson worth learning as how every Christian should die:
“I am almost in eternity. I long to be there. My work is done; I have done with all my friends; all the world is nothing to me. I long to be in heaven, praising and glorifying God with the holy angels. All my desire is to glorify God” (p. 370.)
Mr. Brainerd died on 9th October 1747; he was twenty-nine years old.
Jonathan Edwards considered David Brainerd to be “an eminent servant of Jesus Christ” and regularly praised and commended his faithful friend and fellow soldier of the Lord.
His funeral took place the following Monday: Along with friends present, eight neighbouring ministers, seventeen liberal (lay clergy) gentlemen and a great multitude of people, were also in attendance.
His other brother John was instructed to carry on his ministry to the Indians and this he did to great fruition.
20th May 2007
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