David Brainerd & Perseverance in Ministry
Jonathan Edwards sat in his study poring over a tiny, yellow manuscript with lettering so small that it strained his forty-four-year-old eyes. His feelings as he read this hand-written document were those of admiration, sadness, and not a little astonishment because it told in graphic detail the amazing experiences of a young man who lay deathly ill in a room of his house. What he was reading was the diary of David Brainerd, a man who had just concluded a brief but amazingly successful ministry to the Indians of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. As he laid the diary down, he pondered this record and made a firm decision: this must be published. Because of that decision the story of Christian missions has been forever altered.
The time was the summer of 1747; the place was Northampton, Massachusetts, where Edwards served as pastor of the Congregational Church. Several things about Brainerd’s account of his missionary labors impressed Edwards. Foremost was the theological depth of the writings in this diary, but also he was moved by the transparent passion he exhibited to win people to faith in Christ. Brainerd had faced many difficulties in his twenty-eight years. Orphaned at the age of fourteen, Brainerd had been a promising student at Yale, but had been expelled because of an intemperate remark regarding a teacher. (Because of this tragedy his thoughts had turned to missions.) He had gone out alone in the wilderness to evangelize the Indians, but now tuberculosis, contracted in his many difficult travels, was slowly conquering his feeble body. He had come to Edwards’ home for recuperation, where he was cared for by his host’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Jerusha.
At first the Indians did not listen to Brainerd. Sometimes they ridiculed his evangelical message because some of his own “English people” had taught them to cheat and drink rum. But he pressed on. Eventually on a hot June day in 1745 at a New Jersey Indian settlement known as Crossweeksung, the Spirit of God was poured out in great power on the Indians. As a result of this revival over one hundred were converted, and an Indian church was formed. Brainerd became their pastor, a position which carried with it highly diversified responsibilities. He taught them the English language, helped them clear their lands, instructed them in useful employments, and even defended them from white people who tried to encroach on their property. He loved his Indian church and they adored him.
Brainerd’s ministry was marked not only by passion to win souls and intense love for Jesus Christ, but also patience and perseverance. The overwhelming odds he faced: the idolatry of the Indians, the flawed interpreters (sometimes they were drunk), the long rides in difficult terrain and terrible weather, as well as his own frail health wore him down at times. Often he suffered from extreme depression, a problem he candidly shared in his narrative.
Known as one of the “Pioneer Missionaries” Brainerd’s life and diary have inspired untold thousands to a life of self-sacrificing service to God and their fellow man. Later missionaries such as Henry Martyn (1781-1812) and Jim Elliot (1927-1956) were deeply moved by the study of Brainerd. William Carey (1761-1834), who has been called “The Apostle to India,” had a standing rule among those associated with him that they were to read repeatedly the life of Brainerd. John Wesley held him in the highest esteem and recommended his life story to all his followers.
The pastor today lives in a world much different than when the godly missionary preached to the Native Americans. But people in the twenty-first century are no less ignorant and hostile to the gospel of Christ. They have merely updated pagan rituals and reasons to dislike Christianity. The contemporary pastor needs the power of God to attend his labors just as much as did Brainerd. The same gospel that changed their hearts can change hearers today, when these hearts are opened by the power of God’s Spirit.1
For more on the details of Brainerd’s life, see John Thornbury, David Brainerd: Pioneer Missionary to the American Indians (Durham, Great Britain: Evangelical Press, 1996).