300 Years Later, Let Us Often Look at Brainerd

David Brainerd was born three hundred years ago today. While he lived a life too short by human standards, he left a legacy that has continued now for three centuries. What propelled this largely, is the publication of his diary and journal by his friend, Jonathan Edwards.

As Iain Murray explains, prior to 1747, Edwards and Brainerd had met only once. At the height of the Great Awakening, in 1743, Edwards preached at Yale and sometime after, Brainerd was expelled from Yale for his support of the New Lights and his criticism of his professors. This led to his serving as a missionary among Native Americans in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey with the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge.

Ill-health led to his confinement at bed at the home of Edwards where Edwards’s daughter, Jerusha, cared for him. Brainerd would die in 1747 just before his 29th birthday. He was buried in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Two years later Edwards would publish The Life of David Brainerd. The volume would gain a wide reading and remains one of Edwards’s most well-known works. As Murray notes, this was the first full missionary biography ever published and would do more than any other book to stir up concern for wider missionary involvement.

From Edwards’s assistant, Gideon Hawley, who carried only two books, the Bible and Brainerd’s Life, on horseback as he went out among the Native Americans, to martyr Jim Elliot, who was reading it shortly before his death in Ecuador in 1956, the life of David Brainerd left its mark on the advancement of global missions.

As Norman Pettit, editor of the definitive edition for The Works of Jonathan Edwards, chronicles, Brainerd’s life and diary influenced early Methodists John Wesley, Francis Asbury, and Thomas Coke; missionaries Henry Martyn, Samuel Marsden, Robert Morrison, Samuel Mills; nineteenth century figures Robert McCheyne, David Livingstone, John Wilson, Andrew Murray, and Sheldon Jackson.

Historian Joseph A. Conforti notes that Edwards’s work grew to “lofty status in evangelical hagiography” seen best in the “fact that when the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions established its first Indian post, among the Cherokees in 1817, the missionaries named it Brainerd.”

Perhaps, however, the greatest impact of The Life of David Brainerd for missionary advance came when it was read by Andrew Fuller and William Carey in London, and Adoniram Judson in Massachusetts.

As Fuller and Carey were put on the path of theological renovation through the reading of the Scripture and the works of Edwards, it was the Life of Brainerd that solidified their focus on those in other cultures without the Gospel.

When Carey and colleagues sought to draw a covenant for living together in India, they said, in part:

“Let ever have in remembrance the examples of those who have been most eminent in the work of God. Let us often look at Brainerd, in the woods of America, pouring out his very soul before God for the perishing heathen, without whose salvation nothing could make him happy.”

When the pioneer American missionary, Judson, was wrestling at Andover Seminary with whether to lead a life of service overseas, he thought of Brainerd and Carey. As one historian relates, “To get through Andover without reading Brainerd was virtually unthinkable.”  These two plowed the soil of Judson’s heart so that when he read a sermon months later reinforcing the need for missionaries, Judson responded and followed Brainerd and Carey to take the Gospel to those who had not heard.

On the 300th anniversary of David Brainerd’s birth, let us take a moment to look at Brainerd, and then look to where the life of Brainerd sent many.