David Brainerd was the sixth of ten children born to Hezekiah and Dorothy Brainerd. He was born in 1718 in the colony of Connecticut. His father was a Puritan legislator of Haddam Connecticut. David was nine years old when his father Hezekiah died. Dorothy Brainerd was the daughter of Reverend Jeremiah Hobart. David was raised in a strict home of members of the Congregational church. Bible reading, prayer, Sabbath observance, and reading Christian classics such as Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and Baxter's A Call to the Unconverted were the order of the day.
He was thirteen years old when his mother Dorothy departed from this world. Consequently, he did not have a carefree childhood. David’s older brother Hezekiah Jr. became the head of the household. David was welcome to stay on the family homestead with Hezekiah and his wife. A year later David’s sister Jerusha married a farmer from East Haddam; so he chose to live with them.
He inherited a farm ten miles from Haddam from his father Hezekiah and decided to attempt farming when he reached the age of nineteen. Consequently, David discovered he wasn’t suited to become a successful farmer but made a pledge to God to become a minister.
His older brother Nehemiah became a minister after graduating from Yale. He admired his older brother hoping to follow in his footsteps. Although he desired to become a minister, he disagreed with certain doctrines found in the Holy Scriptures. He found it difficult to be submissive to a sovereign God and rebelled against the doctrine of original sin. He saw Divine law as something which too strict and disagreed with the doctrine of justification by faith. He found it difficult to believe there was nothing one could in one’s own strength to commend a person to God.
He worked unsuccessfully for a year on the farm and return to Haddam where he lived and studied with Pastor Phineas Fiske. David wasn’t a member of the church nor could become one until he experienced assurance of salvation.
David walked through the forest on a morning in July of 1739. He came to the realization that he was lost and in need of a savior. He saw that all of his religious endeavors did not obligate God to be gracious and merciful to him. Two days later, on July 12, 1739, David Brainerd reached a turning point in his life.
“When I was again walking in the same solitary place…unspeakable glory seemed to open to the view and apprehension of my soul. I do not mean any external brightness, for I saw no such thing…It was a new inward apprehension or view that I had of God, such as I never had before; nor anything which had the least resemblance of it...”
“I felt myself in a new world…At this time the way of salvation opened to me with such infinite wisdom, suitableness, and excellency, that I wondered I should ever think of any other way of salvation; was amazed that I had not dropped my own contrivances, and complied with this lovely, blessed, and excellent way before. If I could have been saved by own duties, or any other way that I had formerly contrived, my soul would now have refused it. I wondered that all the world did not see and comply with this way of salvation, entirely by the righteousness of Christ."
When Jonathan Edwards edited Brainerd’s diary after his death; Edward's wrote at the top of the page:
“Lord’s day, July 12th 1739 forever to be remembered by D.B.”
Two months later, David Brainerd entered Yale to eventually become a missionary to the Indians of Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. His years at Yale were difficult. Yale was created as an alternative to Harvard which had become very liberal departing from the authority and truths declared in the Scriptures. Although there were many religious activities at Yale, they had little effect upon the students enrolled at the institution. Diversions in which students participated were harassing the townspeople, gambling, and drinking parties.
His tutor noticed that David was spitting up blood in August of 1740. These were the first signs that David contracted tuberculosis. Consequently, his tutor suggested that he return home to rest, get well, and recuperate.
David was in his second year at Yale when George Whitefield preached before the student body.
The twenty-five year old Anglican evangelist George Whitefield preached at Yale but David was recuperating at home. When David returned in February, the fruit of Whitefield’s preaching became manifest throughout the student body. Tensions arose between the members of the student body who were touched by the Spirit of God during the awakening and the members of the faculty who resisted the revivalists.
The Irish American evangelist Gilbert Tennent of the Log College preached at Yale in March. His ministry had a profound impact upon the student body at Yale.
Thomas Clap, rector and president of Yale and the trustees of the college stood against the Revivalists. By September of 1741, they condemned the students who were in support of the movement of the Holy Spirit which became known as the Great Awakening. Consequently, the passed a resolution that declared:
“…that if any student of this college shall indirectly state that the rector…the trustees or tutors are hypocrites, carnal, or unconverted men, he shall for his first offense make a public confession in the Hall, and for the second offense be expelled.”
In 1741, Jonathan Edwards was invited to preach at the commencement at Yale. The faculty hoped that he would dampen the student’s enthusiasm for revival. Consequently, his message was not what the trustees and faculty wanted to hear. Edwards didn’t dampen the student’s enthusiasm but encouraged them affirming that the Great Awakening was a genuine manifestation of the work of the Holy Spirit.
The very morning of the day Edwards spoke to the students of Yale; the trustees voted that a student could be expelled for making accusations that a faculty member was unconverted.
In the afternoon Edwards declared in his message:
“It is no evidence that a work is not a work of God, if many that are subjects of it…are guilty of [so] great forwardness to censure others as unconverted.”
This was the first time that David Brainerd and Jonathan Edwards met. Realizing they had much in common Brainerd and Edwards saw each other often.
In his junior year, Brainerd spent several hours discussing spiritual matters with his fellow classmates. A discussion turned to the subject of a particular tutor Chauncy Whittelsey and David was asked by his friends to share his thoughts on the matter.
A freshman overheard David’s remark “He has no more grace than this chair.” Consequently, President Clap was informed and Brainerd was summoned to appear before him. David admitted that he had made the comment and was instructed to make a public apology before the student body.
David believed that his comment was a private remark and a public confession was inappropriate so he refused to comply with the president’s expectations. David was immediately expelled for President Clap saw this as a flagrant act of rebellion. Although David was first in his class; he was summarily expelled from Yale.
One may wonder whether Jonathan Edward may have felt a measure of responsibility for David Brainerd’s expulsion from Yale.
A law passed in the colony of Connecticut declared that only ministers who were graduates of Harvard, Yale, or a European University could be installed within a church. Hence, David Brainerd was cut off from his calling to become an ordained minister in Connecticut.
David wrote a letter to President Clap and the trustees of Yale confessing his sin in handling the situation. Although he offered to make a sincere apology before the student body, President Clap rejected his appeal.
Jonathan Dickinson and Aaron Burr Sr. were graduates of Yale and Presbyterian ministers. They appealed to the trustees and president of Yale on Brainerd’s behalf but were rejected. They became disillusioned by the refusal of their efforts to have Brainerd readmitted to Yale.
The expulsion of David Brainerd and the refusal to readmit him brought to a head the dissatisfaction Presbyterians had with Yale. Hence, they resolved to charter a college of their own which was the College of New Jersey and eventually became Princeton University.
Fortunately, a group of ministers who supported the Holy Spirit’s sovereign movement of the awakening chose to license him to preach. David was appointed as a missionary to the American Indians.
In May of 1747 the College of New Jersey met in Dickinson’s home where David Brainerd was recovering before moving to Jonathan Edwards home. Hence, David Brainerd became known as the College of New Jersey’s first student. Dartmouth College was founded for Native Americans and colonists in 1748 by Eleazar Wheelock who was inspired by Brainerd's example of Native American education.
Brainerd's missionary work among the Indians was supported by the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge. The Society approved Brainerd for this work on November 25, 1742.
Brainerd actually began working as a missionary to the Indians on April 1, 1743 after serving at a church on Long Island for a brief period. He continued to minister to the Indians until 1746 when his illness prevented him for continuing the work. David also suffered on at least twenty-two occasions from bouts of depression which immobilized him. Furthermore, he suffered from difficulties such as loneliness and poor nutrition.
He first worked as a missionary in Kaunameek which is a Housatonic Indian settlement near the contemporary location of Nassau, New York. Brainerd took several trips to Northampton, Massachusetts where Edwards was a pastor. During those visits he became acquainted with Edward's second daughter Jerusha. David and Jerusha continued a correspondence while he ministered among the Indians. This site was approximately thirty miles northwest from John Sergeant who was a missionary working in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Jonathan Edwards served for a time at Stockbridge as a missionary.
He worked in Kaunameek for a year and started a school for Native American children where he began to teach them the Psalms.
He was reassigned to minister to the Delaware Indians – the Lenni Lenape living along the Delaware River, The region was known as the Forks of the Delaware in the vicinity north of Easton. A small marker can be found on a side road indicating the site of his cabin located near Marshall's Creek, Pennsylvania. He remained in this area for another year while he was being ordained by the Newark Presbytery. David ministered to Indians at the “Forks of the Delaware” which is near Portland, Pennsylvania a few miles north of Easton. He traveled by horseback as far as Sunbury, Pennsylvania which is along the Susquehanna River north of Harrisburg.
David moved to Crossweeksung, New Jersey where he was blessed with a fruitful ministry. Within a year, he had a congregation of 130 members at the Crossweeksung Indian church. In 1746, the church moved to Cranbury, New Jersey where they established a Christian community.
On November 3, 1745 he baptized fourteen people who experienced conversion. He called this “a remarkable work of grace.” God was blessing his work among the Indians of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Although David was given the opportunity to become a minister and leave the mission field he refused to several offers. Among the offers was an invitation to minister at a church in east Hampton on Long Island, New York. David chose to continue to minister to the Native Americans despite the difficulties he encountered.
“[I] could have no freedom in the thought of any other circumstances or business in life: All my desire was the conversion of the heathen, and all my hope was in God: God does not suffer me to please or comfort myself with hopes of seeing friends, returning to my dear acquaintance, and enjoying worldly comforts'.”
Brainerd saw 130 Indians come to know Jesus Christ at Crossweeksung. At twenty-eight, David had been a missionary to the Indians for four years. He was ministering to the Delaware Indians at Crossweeksung, New Jersey.
Here is a selection of his Diary recording the events of March 23, 1746.
“There being about fifteen strangers, adult persons, come among us in the week past – divers of whom had never been in any religious meeting till now – I thought it proper to discourse this day in a manner peculiarly suited to their circumstances and capacities; and accordingly attempted it from Hosea 13:9, “O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself…” In the forenoon, I opened in the plainest manner I could man’s apostasy and ruined state, after having spoken some things respecting the being and perfections of God, and His creation of man in a state of uprightness and happiness. In the afternoon, endeavored to open the glorious provision God has made for the redemption of apostate creatures, by giving His own dear Son to suffer for them and satisfy divine justice on their behalf. There was not that affection and concern in the assembly that has been common among us, although there was a desirable attention appearing in general, and even in most of the strangers.”
“Near sunset I felt an uncommon concern upon my mind, especially for the poor strangers, that God had no much withheld His presence, and the powerful influence of His Spirit, from the assembly in the exercises of the day; and thereby denied them that degree of conviction which I hoped they might have had. In this frame I visited sundry houses and discoursed with some concern and affection to divers persons particularly, but without much appearance of success, till I came to a house where divers of the strangers were. There the solemn truths I discoursed of appeared to take effect, first upon some children, then upon divers adult persons that had been somewhat awakened before, and afterwards upon several of the pagan strangers.”
“I continued my discourse, with some fervency, till almost every one in the house was melted into tears; and divers wept aloud and appeared earnestly concerned to obtain an interest in Christ. Upon this, numbers soon gathered from all the houses round about and so thronged the place that we were obliged to remove to the house where we usually meet for public worship. The congregation gathered immediately, and many appeared remarkably affected. I discoursed some time from Luke 19:10. “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.”...
“There was much visible concern and affection in the assembly, and I doubt not but that a divine influence accompanied what was spoken to the hearts of many. There were five or six of the strangers, men and women, who appeared to be considerably awakened. And in particular one very rugged young man, who seemed as if nothing would move him, was now brought to…weep a long time.”
David Brainerd died of tuberculosis a year and a half after making this entry in his diary.
In November of 1746 he became too ill to minister to his Indian congregation. He lived with Jonathan Dickinson at his home in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. He traveled to Northampton, Massachusetts to live with Jonathan Edwards within a few months of his stay at Dickinson's home. David visited Boston in the summer of 1746 but remained returned to Edward's home where he stayed until his death till his death.
In May of 1747 he was no longer able to minister and was invited to stay at Jonathan Edwards home. His beloved Jerusha became his attentive nurse. He was diagnosed with incurable consumption in May of 1747 and suffered very much during the final months of his life.
On September 24, 1747, he made the following entry in his diary.
'In the greatest distress that ever I endured having an uncommon kind of hiccough; which either strangled me or threw me into a straining to vomit'.
Brainerd wrote: “It is a little piece of heaven to be in her presence.”
In the morning of Sunday, October 4, 1747, David Brainerd was aware that he was dying. He spoke to Jerusha as she entered his room:
“Dear Jerusha, are you willing to part with me? I am willing to part with you; I am willing to part with all my friends; I am willing to part with my dear brother John…I’ve committed him and all my friends to God and can leave them with God. Though, if I had thought I should not see you and be happy with you in another world, I could not bear to part with you. But we shall spend a happy eternity together.”
David Brainerd died five days later at the age of twenty nine in the home of Jonathan Edwards. Jerusha contracted tuberculosis as well and died on the following Valentine’s Day at the age of eighteen. Her family chose to bury her next to David.
Edwards edited and published Brainerd’s journal and diary which he titled An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd.
David Brainerd’s diary and journal became a devotional which inspired and encouraged hundreds of Christians to become missionaries. It has continuously been in print throughout the years since Edward’s edited the work. John Wesley, Henry Martyn, William Carey, Robert Morrison, Robert Murray McCheyne, David Livingston, Andrew Murray, Adsoniram Judson, and Jim Elliot are among the many Christians who have been influenced by this young man’s devotion to God.
William Carey is known as the “Father of Modern Missions.” His three beloved heroes were the Apostle Paul, John Elliot, and David Brainerd. One of the rules of his groups of missionaries in India was to read David Brainerd's diary three times a year. Carey has often been quoted as declaring: “Attempt great things for God, Expect great things from God.”
William Carey's oft quoted statement is an echo of Brainerd who declared:
“Nothing seems too hard for God to perform, nothing too great for me to hope from Him.”
Henry Martyn, a brilliant scholar at Cambridge, intended to pursue a career in law but after reading Brainerd's diary decided to enter the mission field.
“I long to be like him, Let me forget the world and be swallowed up in the desire to glorify God.”
Martyn declared: “Let me burn out for God.” He may have been inspired by Brainerd when David recorded in his diary:
“Oh, with what reluctancy did I feel myself obligated to consume time in sleep. I long to be a flame of fire, continually glowing in the divine service in building Christ’s Kingdom to my last and dying moment.”
John Wesley urged Christians: 'Let every preacher read carefully over the Life of David Brainerd'.
Clyde Kilby summarized Brainerd's influence as being based on the fact that:
'in our timidity and our shoddy opportunism we are always stirred when a man appears on the horizon willing to stake his all on a conviction'.
Gideon Hawley wrote in the midst of struggles:
'I need, greatly need, something more than humane [human or natural] to support me. I read my Bible and Mr. Brainerd's Life, the only books I brought with me, and from them have a little support'
Inscribed on David Brainerd's gravestone is this text:
Sacred to the memory of the Rev. David Brainerd. A faithful and laborious missionary to the Stockbridge, Delaware and Sasquehanna TRIBES OF INDIANS WHO died in this town. October 10, 1747 AE 32.