Living on the Brink of Eternity: The Life of David Brainerd

Brad Klassen | April 30, 2019

In his account of his dear friend, Jonathan Edwards introduces David Brainerd’s life in this way, “There are two ways of representing and recommending true religion and virtue to the world. The one is by doctrine and precept, the other is by instance and example. Such an instance we have in the excellent person whose life is published in the following pages.”

We are called to imitate the example of the lives of faithful saints who have gone before us. David Brainerd is a man who ministered in unimaginably difficult circumstances, who exhibited extraordinary humility and self-denial, and whose great love for the glory of God and the souls of sinners is nothing less than admirable.

He so spent himself toward those ends that by the age of 29, he died an early death, having lived only eight years as a believer. Some have considered David Brainerd to be a youthful, radical zealot, and critics have judged Brainerd for the recklessness with which he treated his own body. Certainly, there is some element of truth in these claims. Although he died having lived only a third of the years that many do, he accomplished far more.

We know David Brainerd today, primarily because he kept a diary. As was the case with many of the Puritans, the diary served as a thermometer for his soul. It was a way of keeping a watchful eye on the trajectory of his life for the sake of self-examination.

At the end of his life, he insisted that his diary and personal writings be destroyed. Thankfully, his friends prevailed upon him to preserve these writings and allow others to benefit from them. In due course, God used David Brainerd’s diary to fan the flames of what we know today as the Modern Missions Movement. It has been influential for so many over the years, including John Wesley, John Newton, William Carey, and Jim Elliot.

Overwhelmed by the surpassing majesty of Jesus

David Brainerd was born over 300 years ago on April the 20th, 1718 in Haddam, Connecticut. He grew up relatively unconcerned about his spiritual state. At the age of 20, still not saved, but certainly within the strict puritan tradition of his time, he decided to follow the example of his older brother and enter the ministry. It was on the basis of his own efforts, his love for study, and his affection for reading, that Brainerd began to devote himself to religious disciplines. Later, he would say of this time of his life that he was a very good Pharisee.

But in July of 1739, when Brainerd was 21 years old, he began to experience overwhelming conviction and emptiness. He saw the insufficiencies of this world to bring satisfaction and the inability of his efforts to produce anything that was truly good. He was completely overwhelmed by the surpassing majesty of Jesus Christ.

Oh how blessed it is to be habitually prepared for death

Serving alongside an experienced missionary

Now a believer, Brainerd continued in his pursuit of ministry. In November of 1742, a mission society in Scotland, the Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, learned about David Brainerd and proposed to him that he should serve among the American Indians.

They advised that he serve alongside an experienced missionary before traveling to more remote and dangerous regions of the frontier. Brainerd agreed and arrived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts early in the spring of 1743. Under the oversight of John Sargent, Brainerd could study the Algonquin language, minister, and learn.

His living conditions were trying, and he often struggled with feelings of doubt and inadequacy. But in his journal, there are repeated references to the fact that he felt unworthy even of these difficult circumstances. Moreover, as he reflected upon his hardships, his journal filled with repeated expressions of gratitude to the Lord. He saw that these experiences helped wean him from this world and cultivate a longing for heaven.

Later that summer, he left his hosts and decided to live among the nearby Indians. He moved into a wigwam in Count Amick, New York. This was not necessarily more ideal lodging, but it eliminated the need for daily travel. It also allowed him to live directly with the people that he sought to evangelize and to learn their language in context. But it also left him void of Christian fellowship.

Brainerd’s heavenly-mindedness

Difficult physical and social circumstances led Brainerd regularly to reflect on heaven. Over and over again he wrote journal entries like,

Towards night found a little time for particular studies. I thought if God should say, ‘Cease making any provision for this life for you shall be a few days and be an eternity,’ my soul would leap for joy, oh, that I may both desire to be dissolved to be with Christ, and likewise wait patiently all the days of my appointed time until my change would come.

Some criticize Brainerd for his desires to die. But these desires are not unlike those of the Apostle Paul. And despite this heavenward focus, Brainerd’s productivity in ministry was never hindered. To the contrary, his longing to be with Christ pressed him to work hard, to make the most of each moment, and to sacrifice the temporary things of this life that he might enter the next in a worthy manner. 

Ministry on the frontier

After spending almost a year in Count Amick, it was time for David to move to the frontier. He went to the forks of the Delaware River, Northeast of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Whereas ministry in Count Amick was under the general oversight of an older, more experienced missionary, he would now be on his own.

He needed to find a translator until he could learn the language, because the dialect of the region was entirely different than what he had studied. He soon found a translator, Moses Tatamy, who would eventually become the first convert of Brainerd’s ministry. Moses would grow over the next several years to be his dear friend.

Brainerd had contracted tuberculosis some time earlier, but the hardships of ministry on the frontier caused it to increasingly manifest itself. He began taking trips to the surrounding regions to seek new opportunities to spread the gospel. On these journeys, he was frequently exposed to the elements, which in turn would aggravate his tuberculosis and often leave him writhing in pain and even praying for death. Perhaps worst of all, Brainerd was left to suffer these pains in isolation, void of the comforts and encouragements of Christian fellowship.

But encouragement came when he began to witness the fruit of his labors. During one of his trips, Brainerd preached in an Indian village. Among the Indians who had gathered was a young, 20-year-old Native American, the daughter of a notable chief. Her family had been horribly mistreated by white settlers. Yet upon hearing Brainerd preach, the Spirit began to move, and she came to faith in Christ. Later she would recall to her children that Brainerd was the first white person she ever loved.

One of her grandchildren wrote this about her attitude toward the missionary,

She loved David Brainerd very much because he loved his Heavenly Father so much that he was willing to endure hardships, traveling over mountains, suffering hunger, lying on the ground, that he might do her people good.

The conversion of this woman marked a turning point in David’s ministry.

Within days, Brainerd observed a spiritual sensitivity among the Indians of that tribe. As he preached, he observed an overwhelming sense of conviction in response to his message. Soon there was a sort of great awakening among the Native Americans. Many came to Christ and were eager for spiritual growth. When David was not preaching, the villagers would line up for his spiritual counsel.

The final days of Brainerd

But in 1746, David’s health began to decline dramatically, with the rigors of his traveling ministry speeding the advance of his tuberculosis. Brainerd started to record growing anticipations for heaven in his diary as he realized the inevitable was approaching. On September the 21st, 1746, he writes, “Oh how blessed it is to be habitually prepared for death.” 

March 20th, 1747 was the last day David Brainerd would spend with his precious Indian believers—his illness forced him to leave the frontier. Brainerd headed east and stopped at Jonathan Edwards’ home in Northampton, Massachusetts. An experienced doctor visited Brainerd and gave him the news. There would be no recovery. Still, he mustered up the strength to travel yet another 100 miles to Boston to report on his work among the Native Americans.

After near death in Boston, David returned to the home of Jonathan Edwards for his final months of life. Edwards gathered his entire family at Brainerd’s bedside to reflect on the glory and goodness of God. He would later recount how Brainerd spoke about his dear congregation with such tenderness that his speech was interrupted with tears. Then, on Friday, October the 9th, 1747, Brainerd’s suffering ended. That great wish for which he had so longed was finally granted. Brainerd was in the presence of his Savior.

Jonathan Edwards was impacted by the life and ministry of this young man who had only been a believer for eight years prior to his death. He took Brainerd’s diary and other personal writings and added his own commentary that he gleaned from his friendship with Brainerd. An Account of the life of the late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd was published in 1749. According to Vance Christie, this is the first full-length missionary biography ever written, and it became the most popular of the works of Jonathan Edwards.

It is important for believers to reflect on the legacy of David Brainerd. May this be a reminder for us to increasingly abandon the pleasures of this world and keep the glory of God ever before us.


Brad Klassen avatar
Brad Klassen joined the seminary faculty in 2013. He serves as an associate professor of Bible exposition.

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