Essay / On This Day

David Brainerd Went to the Indians (1743)

It was on April 1, 1743, that David Brainerd (1718-1747) went out into the American wilderness to be a missionary to the Native Americans.

Brainerd’s influence on world missions has been enormous, but it has all been through Jonathan Edwards’ posthumous publication of his notes and journals. As edited by Edwards, the Life of Brainerd is a classic of missionary literature. John Wesley pressed it on all his ministers, saying “Find preachers of David Brainerd’s spirit and nothing can stand before them… Let every preacher read carefully over the Life of David Brainerd. Let us be followers of him, as he was of Christ, in absolute self-devotion, in total deadness to the world, and in fervent love to God and man.” The most important figures in missions have agreed: William Carey, Andrew Fuller, John Ryland, and Henry Martyn all drew inspiration from the book. One scholar argues that the Life of Brainerd was Edwards’ best selling, most famous work until the 19th century.

But before he could be the dead man who was the subject of the influential best-seller, Brainerd had a hard life to live. Orphaned at 14, expelled from Yale as a junior for saying one of the tutors had “no more grace than a chair,” harried from town to town without permission to preach publicly, and often in pain from the illness that eventually killed him, Brainerd didn’t exactly look like a success story. And his work among the Native Americans showed signs of fruitfulness only in very limited ways, on very rare occasions. Most of his journal is a record of depression, uncertainty, and pain.

Consider the entry for that first day:

April 1, 1743. “I rode to Kaunaumeek, near twenty miles from Stockbridge, where the Indians live with whom I am concerned, and there lodged on a little heap of straw. I was greatly exercised with inward trials and distresses all day; and in the evening, my heart was sunk, and I seemed to have no God to go to. Oh that God would help me!”

His journals go on at some length about his mental dejection and spiritual dryness. Edwards edits out large portions of it and provides summary commentary:

The next five days, he was for the most part in a dejected, depressed state of mind, and sometimes extremely so. He speaks of God’s ” waves and billows rolling over his soul;” and of his being ready sometimes to say, ” Surely his mercy is clean gone forever, and he will be favourable no more; and says the anguish he endured, was nameless and inconceivable; but at the same time speaks thus concerning his distresses, ” What God designs by all my distresses, I know not; but this I know, I deserve them all, and thousands more.” He gives an account of the Indians kindly receiving him, and being seriously attentive to his instructions.

Andy by April 7, Edwards gives us Brainerd’s own words again:

April 7. ” Appeared to myself exceedingly ignorant, weak, helpless, unworthy, and altogether unequal to my work. It seemed to me, that I should never do any service, or have any success among the Indians. My soul was weary of my life; I longed for death, beyond measure. When I thought of any godly soul departed; my soul was ready to envy him his privilege, thinking, “O when will my turn come! must it be years first!” But I know these ardent desires, at this and other times, rose partly for want of resignation to God under all miseries; and so were but impatience. Towards night, I had the exercise of faith in prayer, and some assistance in writing. Oh that God would keep me near him!

Almost anywhere you open the Life of Brainerd, you find such things. Last summer I assigned Edwards’ Life of Brainerd to a group of students in a summer class on Christian biographies. They nearly mutinied, mostly because of the length of the work (in purist Great Books style, I assigned an unabridged edition). But most of the students warmed to Brainerd’s style. For my students, it went without saying that Brainerd suffered from some sort of chronic depression which would be clinically treated in our time. What was worth talking about was how God used him in spite of it, and how he lived his life before God, in faithful service, even in that great darkness that hovered over his heart for so long.

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